Just over a decade ago, Indianola Academy head football coach Tommy Nester was assembling a coaching staff that would become one of the longest tenured and most successful in the school’s storied history.
Ray Bridges was not originally part of the ensemble Nester picked to lead the Colonels program, but his presence and poise on the IA sideline over the past 10 years has been instrumental in the program’s success.
Bridges had recently retired as Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance & Gameday Operations at his alma mater, Delta State University, when he approached Nester and his coaching staff, literally out of the blue one day.
Nester would soon learn that Bridges was so much more than a retired coach and assistant athletic director.
Bridges was a coach, yes, but he was also a pastor, having graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a doctorate just a couple of years after leaving Delta State, where he lettered in multiple sports and broke one of the university’s pole-vaulting records.
He was a musician, a magician, a mentor and a friend to most everyone who ever knew him.
Bridges passed away at South Sunflower County Hospital this past week, and his death has been felt in the halls of Indianola Academy, on the campus at Delta State and at Moorhead Baptist Church, where he began serving as pastor in 2007.
“Ray was loved by all our Delta State family,” DSU Athletic Director Mike Kinnison, who coached baseball during Bridges’ tenure at the university, told The E-T this week. “He demonstrated a concern and respect for others that was evident in his warm, caring, Christian spirit. Our support, sympathy and prayers are extended at this time to his entire family.”
A native of Hazlehurst, Bridges attended Delta State on athletics scholarships. He graduated in 1971 and would coach in New Orleans and at Holmes Community College, where he received the school’s Coaching Staff of the Year award in 1981.
Forever a Statesman, however, he returned to Cleveland and served in many capacities until 2009, earning the Gulf South Conference Coach of the Year award one year, and in 1996, was named the Most Influential Coach in the state of Mississippi when he received the Dave “Boo” Ferris Influence Award.
From Statesman to Colonel
By 2010, Bridges was retired and was already established as the pastor at Moorhead Baptist Church.
But there was something missing.
Retired or not, he was a coach at heart, and he was determined to scratch the itch to return to the field.
IA’s Nester said he and his coaches were at the practice field one day when Bridges pulled up in an old purple and white sports car.
“He just drove up over there and said he was retired from Delta State,” Nester told The E-T in an interview this week.
It didn’t take long before Nester knew Bridges was the final piece of the puzzle when it came down to his coaching staff.
“A lightbulb went off in our heads, and we said, ‘We need to get this man,’” Nester said. “Not only was he an outstanding football coach, he was an outstanding preacher. He loved young people. We got him, and man, I tell you what, what a blessing that was for Indianola Academy and all the football coaches and players.”
Bridges, who was a punter under the legendary Horace McCool at Delta State in the late 60s, would eventually take on the role of defensive backs coach at IA.
And of course, he began teaching a Bible class during the day as well.
He wasn’t the typical football coach on the sidelines. He said very little during regulation, making subtle adjustments during the game.
“He was very quiet,” Nester said. “He did all his coaching throughout the week, and he believed on Friday night, let the players play. He was quiet, but he was paying attention, and he would make adjustments at halftime and do whatever he needed to do. He was always in the ballgame and always represented the school to the best of his ability.”
He let the players play on Friday, but he got loud on Monday morning, said Woods Van Cleve, who played under Bridges at IA.
“He was always in charge of our sprints at the end of practice, and every Monday he would call it ‘getting the beer out of us,’” Van Cleve said. “He was also known for yelling “Woahhhh what day is it?” at the beginning of every Wednesday practice, and the whole team would yell in response, ‘Huuuump Daaaaay!’”
Like so many others before him, Bridges left a lasting impression on Van Cleve.
“Coach Bridges was one of the nicest, most good-humored men I’ve ever known,” he said. “Whether at school or at the football field, he never failed to put a smile on anyone’s face. Most importantly, he was an avid man of Christ. Indianola Academy has lost a good one. He will be dearly missed by all.”
Will Lang, who played under Bridges at IA and went on to become a collegiate punter, like Bridges had, was influenced by his coaching and his faith.
“I’ve played a lot of football and this was by far one of my all-time favorite coaches,” Lang said in a social media post this week. “Coach Bridges had a great defensive mind and was strong in his faith. He coached great defense and also the word of Christ! He will be missed by many!”
Bridges was certainly influential in one of the program’s longest stretches of success, but some of his biggest accomplishments at IA, perhaps, were off the field, where he served as a mentor and friend to his fellow coaches.
“I would say he influenced every coach here at Indianola Academy, just by spending time talking to them about the Lord, talking to them about life and talking to them about football,” Nester said. “I don’t know anybody who can say anything bad about Coach Bridges. He was just a man who was loved. The good news is that we know he is rejoicing in heaven.”
A Great Statesman
Long before Ray Bridges arrived at Indianola Academy, he was a Statesman.
And he was the true definition of that.
He served Delta State and its athletics department for over three decades in various capacities.
He coached tennis, cross country and served as an assistant football coach.
His tennis teams captured seven Gulf South Conference Western Division titles from 1993-2000, according to Delta State Athletics, and the men’s tennis team took home the 1994 GSC title. The same year, he was named GSC Coach of the Year.
“When you work in small college athletics, you do everything,” said Matt Jones, who rose through the ranks to eventually lead DSU’s sports information department and is now Senior Associate AD at Samford University. “Ray’s resume probably should have had 500 bullet points on it, from running concessions to doing whatever was needed to be done to make the student-athlete experience better.”
Like many who crossed paths with Bridges, their friendship went beyond being colleagues.
Bridges became a mentor to Jones and would even officiate Jones’ wedding.
“The first thing I can say about Ray Bridges is that he was a man who was willing to serve others in any capacity that he could,” Jones said. “He lived a service-first mindset, rooted in his faith, and he was always willing to share that faith with anyone, at any time.”
He was always ready to share a laugh too, Jones said.
“When I think of Coach Bridges, I think of someone who was very jovial most of the time, he always had a smile on his face,” Jones said. “He always had a crazy Mississippi story of some kind. He would come into the office and say, ‘Hey, have you ever heard about It, Mississippi? There’s a place called It, Mississippi.’ He’d tell all these funny things.”
Bridges also knew everything there was to know about Delta State athletics, Jones said, but long talks about sports history would inevitably turn to talks about life and faith.
“As a lot of pastors and ministers are, he was almost an empath and could feel when people needed to be talked to or if somebody needed a word of encouragement,” Jones said. “Ray was that for me and many others.”
Bridges also provided a great support system for all the university’s head coaches.
“He was a great guy,” said Baylor Defensive Coordinator Ron Roberts, who served as DSU’s head football coach from 2007-11. “Great personality. He had a zest for life, athletics, young people and Jesus. He was a great person. I really enjoyed my time being around him when I was there.”
Roberts said Bridges was always ready to help in any way he could, whether it be through encouragement or by actually going to the sidelines and coaching.
“When I took over the head job at Delta, he actually came out a couple of years and helped coach on the field,” Roberts said. “He had incredible insight into managing people and players. He had a big heart.”
Even though Bridges was long retired from DSU, current Head Football Coach Todd Cooley said he offered the same level of support to him when he arrived.
“Coach Bridges has been great to me ever since I’ve been here,” Cooley told The E-T. “When I think of Delta State family, he’s a big part of it, no doubt about it. He’s always been there as a guy I could call on for advice.”
Cooley said Bridges could always bring a smile to any situation.
“I was at the Mississippi Delta (Community College) and East Mississippi game that they had the brawl that kind of made national news,” Cooley said. “I remember sitting there watching it, and I looked over to my right, and Coach Bridges was at the game, and he said, ‘Man, there’s nothing like coming to a Mississippi junior college game is it?’ He was a down to earth, funny guy. He’s going to be sorely missed by a lot of people.”
Everyone knew Ray Bridges loved football, but they also knew that he loved Jesus even more.
Over the course of the last 48 years, he pastored many churches, including Dockery Baptist Church when he was at Delta State and Moorhead Baptist Church, where he served the last 13 years.
To his players, he was Coach Bridges. To his congregates, he was Brother Ray.
“He fit our congregation so well,” said Alice Williams, a member of Moorhead Baptist. “It was like we were one big happy family. We’re an older congregation, and he just fit us very well.”
Williams was always particularly impressed with Bridges’ deep Biblical knowledge.
“He was one of the most dedicated scholars I have ever known,” she said. “He preached strictly from the Bible, and every sermon he gave was backed up with it. He was very knowledgeable about the Bible...He was truly a man of God and God’s Word. He believed it, he preached it and he lived it.”
Jerry Nobile, another member of the church, said he and Bridges connected on another level, through music.
“He was a guitar player too,” Nobile said. “Me and him played a little guitar together. He was a real player though. He played the bass guitar. As a matter of fact, he gave me his bass guitar.”
When he wasn’t coaching kids at IA, he was teaching Bible class, and would even use magic tricks to teach Bible lessons.
“He could relate to people,” Nobile said. He could relate to everybody. He didn’t judge anybody at all.”
As IA’s Nester is quick to point out, whether Bridges was coaching or preaching, he had the attention of all in the room or on the field.
“He didn’t force himself on you, but he made you believe in what he was saying, and he didn’t say it unless he believed it,” Nester said. “You knew to listen when he talked to you.”