By DR. DAVID DAVIS
When it comes to putting in perspective what Tony Heath has meant to the Pearland Oilers football program and the overall impact he has had at Pearland High School and the Pearland community, the adjectives and emotions are difficult to put into words.
It is hard to imagine that the 2017 high school football season will begin without Tony Heath at the helm of the Oilers, but that time has sadly come, but not after reflecting that the Pearland football story is one of the greatest stories in Texas football folklore.
Looking at the numbers is what really puts things into a proper perspective.
The numbers for Heath are spectacular as he closes out a 20-year coaching career with a 195-53 marks that includes one state championship, one state finals appearance, four state semifinals, four regional titles, and eight shared or outright district championships.
Plus, over 130 players signed letters-of-intent to continue their education and playing careers under Heath’s guidance as a reward for their success on the field and in the classroom.
“I can remember making our goal in 1997 to win just one game,” Heath said. “Not that we didn’t want to win every game, but at that time, the goal was to teach the kids how to win.”
Heath inherited a program that had a 19-game losing streak and the Oilers hadn’t won a district game in three years. They were coming off a 0-10 season in 1996 so Heath didn’t promise a winning season, a district championship, or a trip to the playoffs. The goal was to win one game and develop a win one game at a time mentality. Pearland lost the first six games to run the losing streak to 25 games before the Oilers beat Pasadena 24-13 on October 17, 1997 for Heath’s first win as the Oilers’ head coach.
“We taught win one game at a time from the very beginning and it is still true to this day,” Heath said.
Since 20 years is now in the books, it is important to take a look a Pearland football where it was 20 years prior to the arrival of Heath.
From 1977 to 1996, Pearland compiled an anemic 43-156-1 mark while making the playoffs only once in 1986. In fact, the Oilers only made the playoffs once each decade starting in 1950 when Pearland was 11-1. The Oilers finished with a perfect 10-0 season, won their first playoff game, and then lost the following week.
The Oilers made the post-season again in 1962 finishing the season at 10-1. That Pearland team posted the last perfect 10-0 season before the Oilers next perfect season happened in 2001 when Pearland went 13-0 before falling to San Antonio Taft in the Astrodome in the 5A state-semifinals to close out at 13-1 which set a new school record.
The 2000 Pearland team, led by All-State running back Anthony Evans (UH), advanced to the playoffs and beat Deer Park 35-14 giving the Oilers their first playoff win in 50 years.
In the 20 years prior to Heath, the Oilers also had seven 0-10 seasons and three 1-9 seasons leaving them with a 3-97 record for 10 of the 20 years.
The Oilers made the playoffs in 1950, 1962, 1973, 1986, and 1997, Heath’s first season. That team won the right district games to advance to the post-season with a 2-8 record before falling to Ball High in the opening round to close with a 2-9 mark.
Pearland missed the post-season in 1998 (5-5) and 1999 (8-2) with the Oilers losing the second-place tie breaker to Clear Lake and Clear Brook who advanced with district champion Ball High.
But from 2000 to 2016, Pearland never missed the playoffs again under a Tony Heath coached team and as they say, “the rest is history.”
Since 1999, Pearland is the 10th winningest football team in the state of any class with a 188-38 record. The Oilers have averaged 10.58 wins per season since 2000.
Pearland is also the only school to have ever had three running backs among the Top 10 All-Time leading rushers in Class 5A Texas football history including No. 4 Anthony Evans (UH) with 6,192 yards, No. 6 Fozzy Whittaker (UT – Carolina Panthers) with 5,717 yards, and No. 10 Brandon Roberson (Northwestern) with 5,235 yards.
Pearland’s 2010 state title came at the expense of two storied football teams in the state. The Oilers beat the Katy Tigers 38-35 before 41,367 at Rice Stadium for the 5A Region III Div. I title and then knocked off No. 1 nationally-ranked Euless-Trinity, who was the 2009 5A Div. I state champion, 28-24 before an unofficial crowd of over 60,000 at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Three years later in 2013, Pearland returned to the state finals to face defending state champion Allen. The Oilers gave it a battle, but were unable to knock off the powerful Eagles. But the Oilers still won the 5A Region III Div. I crown and won their 5A Div. I state semifinal contest to advance as a state finalists.
Despite that loss, it was one of the most memorable as Heath and his son, Connor, who was the quarterback, got to share in a never-forget accomplishment together as father and son.
“The biggest moment for me – and it’s unfortunate we didn’t get the win – was getting to share the state championship game with my son, Connor,” Heath said. “That was the top for me.
“We weren’t expected to do anything that year, and for Connor (the team’s quarterback) to have that playoff drive he had was special. He finished the last 4 ? games for us, and we weren’t expected to win any of those.
“That was special, plus getting to raise my kids from first grade through 12th in the same school district is up there, also. Of course, winning the state championship is on the list and seeing how it changed the community and football team.
The honors have certainly come Heath’s way over 20 years and deservedly so, though the humble Heath never hesitated redirecting any attention on himself to his coaching staff, players, and administration.
In 2001, Heath was named “Coach of the Year” by the Houston Chronicle joining Evans who was named “Player of the Year.”
Coach Heath was named District 24-5A “Coach of the Year” in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2010. He was District 22-5A “Coach of the Year” in 2008.
Heath was a Touchdown Club of Houston “Coach of the Year” finalist in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010 before he finally won the award in 2010 after Pearland won the state title.
Known for having a sense of humor, fellow coaches joked with Heath about being Houston’s area “Susan Lucci” of All My Children who was nominated 18 times for a Daytime Emmy Award before finally winning on her 19th nomination.
Heath could have easily won several years earlier, but he deservedly was selected in 2010. He shared the award ceremony with Pearland running back Dustin Garrison who was named “Offensive Player of the Year.”
Garrison was also named the Offensive MVP of the state championship game and went on to star at West Virginia.
The veteran coach also was named as the “National Coach of the Year” by Vype Magazine, MaxPreps, and the American Football Magazine.
The Oilers were named Class 5A Team of the Year by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Magazine which is the bible for Texas football.
At the present time, Pearland has two players currently playing in the National Football League that Heath coached.
Punter Thomas Morstead (SMU) plays for the New Orleans Saints and won a Super Bowl in 2009 while Fozzy Whittaker (UT) plays for the Carolina Panthers and played in the Super Bowl in Houston in 2016.
Heath also developed his own coaching tree just as he was a branch off the tree of former La Marque head coach Allen Waddell.
At present, there are six former assistant coaches that are now at the helm of their own high school football programs and each would give credit to the influence that Heath has in their own lives.
Those coaches are: Eric Wells (Dawson), Mike Norman (Dobie), Mike Allison (Clear Brook), Mark Kanipes (Santa Fe), Jason Glen (Klein Oak), and Jared Sloan (Hardin-Jefferson).
It is difficult to put into words the coaching career of Tony Heath as Pearland developed a following that expected the Oilers to win each time they took the field and fans were shocked when they didn’t.
In the beginning, Heath was told that people will come to watch the game, expect Pearland to get pounded in the first half, anticipate a great halftime show by the band, and then three-fourths of the crowd will leave following the halftime show leaving some of Pearland’s old faithful with the coach’s wives in the stands to watch the remainder of the slaughter.
That happened in the early games in 1997, but not any more. The winning culture was developed and now the fans flock to the games wearing their Pearland gear, not only at the game, but all around town throughout the year.
Heath’s leadership saw the team move from an outdated 1950’s stadium (Prensner Stadium) that would seat 5,500 to a new stadium (The Rig) in 2001 that accommodates almost 10,000 fans. On more than one occasion it has been filled to capacity and above.
Tony Heath developed a Pearland Proud community and that winning tradition will continue thanks to the foundation that he has laid for the Oilers over a 20-year coaching career.
Heath’s new venture starts Aug. 1 when he begins his role as business development manager in the Houston area for Hellas Construction. Until then, Heath will serve on the Pearland ISD staff until July 31.
“I was looking for opportunities beyond football, but I didn’t know what I wanted,” Heath said. “I was hoping for an opportunity to still continue to work in the sports market…to work with administrators and coaches that I’ve been associated with the last 31 years.
“I was very picky, and Hellas has a great reputation as far as performance and product. They’ve installed turf for the Baylor Bears and Dallas Cowboys. I definitely wanted to attach my name to a strong company, and Houston is a great market.”
Heath is easily the winningest coach in Pearland history and his influence, integrity, and love for Pearland will continue as he supports the team and school he loves.
Once an Oiler – always an Oiler! Right coach?