Joe Sellers can still remember former Lima Senior football coach Leonard Rush bringing those big hands of his together whenever he said the words “smash-mouth football” and the sound it made.
It was unforgettable. And it was inspiring.
“He would literally smack his hands together and it would just get the entire team fired up and ready to run through a wall. You could just see the fire and passion coming out of Coach Rush whenever he said smash-mouth football,” said Sellers, a defensive back on Lima Senior’s 1996 state championship team who went on to play at Ohio University.
The memories of Rush came back in waves, one after another, for players who played for him, coaches who coached with him and fans who watched his Lima Senior teams — some of the most successful teams the Spartans have ever had — after he died at 73 on Wednesday.
Rush was Lima Senior’s head football coach from 1984 to 2000. The pinnacle of his career was winning the 1996 Division I state championship, but he also had five other teams reach the playoffs and Lima Senior won 109 games during his 17 seasons.
Before that, he was a head coach for 10 seasons at three other schools. He was at Hamilton Ross for six years, at Hamilton Garfield for three years and at South Dearborn, Ind., for one year.
Rush graduated from Hamilton Garfield High School and the University of Kentucky, where he was a lineman on the Wildcats’ football team.
“Coach Rush was a great man who touched the lives of countless people. He was a man of principle who always did the right thing and stood up for what was right. If Coach Rush said it, he meant it,” Sellers said.
Carlton Thomas, a running back on Rush’s first three Lima Senior teams who went on to play at the University of Cincinnati, said he was heartbroken when he heard the news.
“My father died when I was one year old. He was a father figure to the fatherless. We called him Daddy Rush. We didn’t say it to him, but when we talked to each other we said Daddy Rush,” Thomas said.
“He made sure everything was OK with me going to college. Coach Rush was a step up guy. I could go down to his room anytime and talk about anything that might have been going on in my life. I always gave him 110 percent because I knew he was going to give me 120 percent,” he said.
Kevin Ingram, a tight end from 1985-1987 who went on to play for Ole Miss in the SEC, said Rush was the first person to tell him just how good a football player he was and how big the opportunities were that were available to him.
But he said something else Rush told him was the greatest gift he got from him.
“He was one of the first coaches who told us publicly or in front of a bunch of guys that he loved us. That was mind boggling,” Ingram said. “A lot of guys needed that. And he proved it. He and his staff went out of their way to show us they loved us.
“If you wanted to play college football he found a way to get you somewhere. It was up to you when you got there, but he found a way to get you into college,” he said.
Ingram didn’t put a percentage on his appreciation for Rush, but expressed it another way.
“I always told guys, if he told me to run through a wall, I would say, ‘Do you want me to run through the wall, knock the wall down, kick it down or eat it because the wall is going down. How do you want it, coach?’ He was just awesome.”
Rush could be stern and his practices were tough and demanding but profanity was not part of his motivational package.
“He didn’t cuss. He said, ‘Gosh, Almighty,’ ” Thomas said. “Whenever something bad happened, he said, ‘Gosh, Almighty.’”
Rick Vaughn, the defensive coordinator on the 1996 team, confirmed both that Rush’s practices were tough and that there wasn’t any need for a cuss jar on his desk.
“The games we played were not as tough as the practices we had. Our practices were probably more intense than our games. We were always prepared,” Vaughn said.
The Spartans knew if things didn’t go right in practice they might be on the practice field until they did.
“One practice we were doing third-and-one and third-and-two drills and our defense just kept shutting down the offense. And we just kept going, he wasn’t going to stop,” Vaughn said. “So I told the guys on defense in the huddle, ‘Let’s all do a grass drill and let them get the first down.’ I thought it was funny, but it wasn’t funny because Coach Vaughn got to hear all about it afterward.”
Jimmy Morris, the starting quarterback from 1994-1996 who went on to play college baseball at Wright State, said, “The first thing that comes to my mind is how fair and consistent he was, but also at the same time being tough. He had an ability to kind of mix all those things together. He was a perfect fit for the job. He had a passion for football, he had a passion for mentoring young boys into men. He wasn’t scared to give kids second chances, third chances to help them out.
“He had an ability to get his point across and motivate us in a way that wasn’t demeaning. He respected the players and the players respected him back. Players didn’t back talk him. They did that because they knew he respected them and was just trying to get the best out of them,” he said.
And while Rush loved smash-mouth football, he wasn’t afraid to move slightly away from it when he thought he needed to do that. And that decision helped deliver a state championship.
Vaughn said Rush told him halfway through the 1996 regular season he wanted to have Morris start throwing the ball more.
“He said, ‘Coach Vaughn, for us to win, we’ve got to throw more. I’m too conservative, I have to pass more.’ It was a wild conversation hearing Coach Rush say he wanted to throw the football,” Vaughn said.
Lima Senior (13-1) won its state championship by defeating Cleveland St. Ignatius, which had won the last five Division I state championships.
“There weren’t many people who gave us a chance in that one. But we were confident,” Morris said about the Spartans’ 38-30 come-from-behind win. “We knew we could play with them.”
That championship game is what was remembered on the signs at the Lima city limits. But the guys who played for Rush remember much more.