Paul Cooley Jr. was born on Aug. 7, 1925, in Arab to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Cooley Sr. His parents did not give him a middle name, but people in Pisgah and Scottsboro would say that if he had one, it ought to be, “Mr. Basketball!”
Paul grew up during the Great Depression and once said, “I never played basketball in Arab. I never played any sports. I wasn’t good enough.”
This proved to be an unlikely beginning for one of the most successful and highly respected coaches in the history of Alabama high school basketball.
In 1943, America was in the midst of World War II. Like many other young men of that day, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Navy prior to high school graduation. During the war, he made a total of 20 trips across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on U.S. Navy ships.
Following discharge, this member of “The Greatest Generation” completed high school by earning a GED. He then enrolled at Snead State Junior College, where he played basketball and baseball for one year. He transferred to Jacksonville State Teacher’s College, now JSU, and in 1951 earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Education.
His first job was teaching at Henagar Junior High in DeKalb County, where he was asked to also coach basketball. Coach Cooley’s teams had a combined record of 35 wins and 15 loses.
He then became the principal at Henagar, but stayed in that job for only one year.
In 1954, Paul was offered a job as the head basketball coach at Pisgah High School in Jackson County. It was at this small school on Sand Mountain that coach Cooley began to build a program that would become a dynasty known and feared throughout Alabama.
Over the next 17 years, Cooley’s Eagles won 410 games with 103 loses, playing most years as a 2A team when AHSAA sports were divided into only two classifications, A and 2A. During his tenure, Pisgah made a total of five trips to Tuscaloosa for the AHSAA State Basketball Tournament, winning three.
Cooley’s Eagles finished the 1959 season with a victory over Hartselle in the Region 8 Tournament, then won their first 2A Basketball State Championship with a victory over Selma, 50-48.
That team featured George Davis and Billy Tinker, with both making First Team All-State Tournament. The trophy was presented in Foster Auditorium by Alabama head football coach Paul William Bryant.
Coach Cooley’s teams would continue to be a force in Alabama high school basketball after the AHSAA went to four classifications. His 1964 team beat Sylvania to win the Region 7 Championship and another trip to Tuscaloosa. The Eagles defeated Greenville 78-72 in the 3A finals with Gerald Brookshire, John Deerman and Wallace Tinker making First Team All-Tournament.
In 1966, Pisgah won the Region 7 Tournament by beating Boaz. Coach Cooley won his third state championship by beating Alexandria 65-60 in the 3A finals. Dale Stone and Frank Starkey were selected First Team All-Tournament. Coach Cooley was selected to coach the North Alabama High School All-Star team twice. The 1959 North Team beat the team from South Alabama 61-57.
In 1971, after 17 years as the Eagles’ head coach, Cooley decided it was time to hang up his whistle and teach for the remainder of his career in education. Four years later, Jackson County rival Scottsboro came calling after the retirement of legendary coach “Dusty” Carter.
Cooley responded to the call and took his coaching skills to Scottsboro, where he coached the basketball team for six seasons before retiring again in 1981. During that time, the Wildcats had a 126-47 record and three area championships. The 1977 Wildcats beat Oxford to win the Region 6 Tournament and a trip to the AHSAA State Tournament.
Coach Cooley retired in 1981 with 571 wins and six appearances in the Alabama State Basketball Tournament, winning three. His teams also won the Sand Mountain and Jackson County Tournaments seven times each.
Cooley had 35 players who went on to play in college. He received numerous Coach of the Year awards, including two as Tri-State Basketball Coach-of-the-Year, and coached the AHSAA North All-Star Team twice.
Cooley has been inducted into the Jackson County Sports Hall of Fame, The Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame and the Jacksonville State Gamecock Hall of Fame.
In addition to his career as an educator, Paul Cooley served his country and community in many ways. He was a World War II veteran, taught Sunday School in his church, and was a member of the Gideon’s, the Civitan Club and a 20-year member of the Jackson County Board of Education.
Paul married the love of his life, Elizabeth Gilbreath Cooley, when they were students at JSU. She retired after teaching 30 years, mostly at Pisgah. They have a son, Michael, and a grandson, Caleb, whom the Cooleys reared from the age of 5.
Caleb and Kellie Cooley have a daughter, Shelby, who proudly carries on her great-grandfather’s name and tradition as an outstanding student and athlete. She has won six championships showing horses and is an excellent golfer.
Coach Cooley passed away on March 13, 2000, at age 74. His funeral was held in the Paul Cooley Gymnasium and was presided over by one of his former players, Tommy Turner.
Paul Cooley will always be remembered for the positive impact he had on his students, athletes, church, community and family.