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Wake Forest's greatest football coach was a “con artist”
Peahead Walker led the Demon Deacons to arguably their greatest seasons ever. He also smoke, drank, cussed, paid his players, and lied about everything he could get away with.
Wake Forest and Elon are playing each other tonight to kick off their football seasons, and there is one man—one singular man—who has coached both teams. His name was Douglas “Peahead” Walker, and, folks, you’re gonna need to sit down for a minute, because Peahead was a LOT.
First off, he was objectively the most successful football coach in Wake Forest history. He won 77 games during his 13-year tenure. Sure, that’s exactly as many as Jim Grobe won with the Demon Deacons, but Peahead only lost 51 games (and tied 6), whereas Grobe lost 82 and actually left Wake with a losing record.
Before Wake Forest hired him in 1937, Peahead had led the Elon Fightin’ Christians (fantastic nickname!) to four straight conference championships, making him on of the greatest football coaches in that school’s history as well. Of note: He did this while simultaneously coaching Elon’s baseball and basketball teams.
So how, exactly, did Peahead get top notch players to come play for tiny little Wake Forest? He lied. A lot.
I mean, that wasn’t the only thing. In an era long before NIL, boosters, and bagmen, Peahead paid his players. Sometimes he outright bribed them. According to his biographer Tucker Mitchell, Peahead had to find cash after his players voted 30-1 to skip the inaugural Gator Bowl in 1946:
The players didn’t want to go. They’ve got three or four weeks to go home (over winter break) and get a job and make some pocket money. So Peahead asks his assistant coach, Murray Greason, “How much are we talking about.” And the assistant says 80 bucks. So Peahead said, “Give them a 100 bucks and let’s go.” Nobody knew where the money came from. He always had a big roll of bills in his pocket. A player might come to him and say I need a tooth fixed. Or I’ve got a date tonight; he might say here’s $10, have fun.
The Demon Deacons won that game 26-14 over South Carolina, by the way.
On top of that, Peahead was a “known smoker, drinker and cusser who was also rumored to enjoy the company of women who were not his lawfully wedded wife,” according to Mitchell (whose book, entitled Peahead!, is worth reading in full). That put him at odds with the Baptists who ran Wake Forest at the time. Injuries didn’t register as important to him. For example: When he was a high school coach, one of his players was knocked unconscious during a game.
“He ain't breathin',” the doctor told Peahead.
“You're the doctor,” said Peahead, “make him breathe.”
He was hard on his players, giving them nicknames like butterfingers, hogjaw, and amoeba brain. Practices were brutal. Many of his players feared him, but later came to respect him. It helped that Peahead was an engaging speaker. “Most of you will go off to war soon,” Peahead said before a game against Duke in 1942. “Some of you will get shot. I can't imagine that any of you want to get shot without being able to say, ‘We beat Duke.’”
Sure, Peahead was a talented tactician as a coach. But tactics don’t matter if your players are terrible. Hence, Peahead made himself into a crafty recruiter, because Wake Forest (which was still in the actual town of Wake Forest) didn’t stack up well against the other colleges nearby. The most famous story, which Peahead vowed was true, was about a guy who went on to be an NFL Hall-of-Famer. Bill George was an outstanding high school wrestler and football player from Pennsylvania, who had offers from a lot of big schools. In 1947, Peahead bought George a train ticket to Durham, picked him up, and drove him around a beautiful campus in his Cadillac. He showed him the football stadium. “Some day, you will play here,” he told George. George was sold.
There was one problem. Peahead showed him Duke’s campus and stadium, not Wake Forest’s. Peahead hadn’t lied, he said later. He just never specified what campus he was on.
When George arrived, he was mad. “This isn't where you took me last spring,” he said.
“That's right,” Peahead told him. “I showed you the West campus. This is the East campus. The freshmen stay here.”
He also, technically, didn’t lie about the stadium. George did play there, whenever the Deacons had an away game at Duke.
There was more to the story. Peahead had also told George that Wake Forest was the only school where George could be on the wrestling and football teams. During the visit, Peahead talked about how good the Deacons’ wrestling team was. George met several of his future teammates.
Again, it was a con. There was no wrestling team. Peahead paid students to pretend to be wrestlers. “By the time his freshman season was over — freshmen were eligible for varsity competition that year — we had Bill locked into Wake Forest,” Peahead said later. “We never had a wrestling team except for Bill George. He was our one-man wrestling team. He was the Southern Conference’s heavyweight wrestling champion.”
George became the first All-American football player in Wake Forest history, then went on to have a legendary career for the Chicago Bears, where he basically invented the position of middle linebacker. George, who died in a car crash in 1982, said he enjoyed his time at Wake Forest, but he never gave an interview where he confirmed that the story was true. At least, not one that I could find.
The Bill George story could be, you know, another lie from a known liar. But others weighed in to say that wasn’t the first time Peahead had done something like this. According to Wake Forest’s basketball coach at the time, Peahead often brought recruits into Raleigh by train late at night, put them up at a motel near Duke, then showed them “all the pretty girls on the East campus,” then put them back on the train. If they signed with him, they got off at the Wake Forest station in the fall and had the same realization that George did. Wake’s basketball coach supposedly started to use the same tactic for his recruits. He’d take them by Reynolds Coliseum at NC State and tell them that they’d play there someday. Which, again, was technically true: Wake Forest played at NC State at least every other year.
In another case, a recruiter from NC State named Herman Hickman was visiting Peahead’s house, and bragged about bringing blue-chip recruit Pat Preston in as a member of the Wolfpack. “Shush, Hickman” said Peahead. “Speak softly when you mention Preston. That lil' ol' boy you been talkin' about is sleepin' upstairs. He lives with me and I've been like a father to him. If he ever heared what you been sayin', he'd git hisself a swelled head. Be quiet, Herman.”
Hickman didn’t know if that was true, but he backed off. Peahead got Preston to Wake Forest, where he also became an All-American and later became a member of the Chicago Bears.
Peahead did fail at recruiting at least once. He tried to get Arnold Palmer to go out for the football team during his time at Wake Forest. Palmer stuck to golf.
At some point, though, Wake Forest had had enough of Peahead. In March 1951, the college made him what he thought was a low-ball offer. Peahead threatened to leave to become an assistant at Yale. Wake Forest called his bluff, and Peahead left to go work for Herman Hickman, who now thought of Peahead as a friend. Peahead went on to coach the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL and finished his career as a scout for the New York Giants. He also became a popular speaker, and regularly won the “liars championship” in the storytelling tournament of the Atlanta Touchdown Club.
Peahead’s success at Wake Forest left a legacy. “Had he not been coach, it’s likely Wake Forest would not be in the ACC today,” his biographer Mitchell said in an interview in 2016. “Peahead lifted Wake to a place where they were absolutely competitive with Duke, North Carolina, [and] Clemson. As the Southern Conference broke up in 1953, there was no doubt that Wake belonged with those schools and not VMI, the Citadel, Furman or Wofford.”
Peahead himself died in 1970 at age 71, and a New York Times column afterward referred to him as one of the last of a dying breed, “one of those colorful characters whose numbers keep shrinking.” Newspapers around the country ran the story. The headline in the Birmingham News-Herald, the city where Peahead was born, summed up his life with this headline: “Ol’ Peahead was Real Con Artist.”