Former NAU football coach Max Spilsbury died of a heart attack last Wednesday [November 21, 2001]. He was 76.
Spilsbury, the winningest coach in school history, guided the Lumberjack program from 1956-64, posting a .688 winning percentage (58-25-5) during his tenure in Flagstaff. He was inducted into the NAU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983.
The funeral is today in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, a town where the Spilsbury family runs an apple orchard.
When the university was still known as Arizona State Teachers College, Spilsbury began coaching the Lumberjacks. He led them to five straight Frontier Conference titles from 1956-60. The Jacks played at Skidmore Stadium in 1956 before moving into Lumberjack Stadium.
Spilsbury’s squad, affectionately known as Maxer’s Axers, made history in 1958 by becoming the first school in state history to appear in a nationally televised bowl game. The Jacks played in the 1958 Holiday Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. — the game was that year’s NAIA national championship. The Jacks were defeated 19-13 by Northeastern Oklahoma.
Former NAU quarterback Charles Pilon, who played for Spilsbury in 1955 and 1956 and now serves as NAU’s lobbyist in the Legislature, recalls his ex-coach as a bona fide winner.
“Winning,” Pilon said is his fondest memory of Spilsbury. “You didn’t lose many with him.
“He was tough — the toughest coach I ever played for. He demanded perfection…The old-school type of coaching.”
Pilon added that he developed a closer friendship with Spilsbury in the years that followed his days at NAU.
“I know that Max thought a great deal of anybody that ever played for him,” Pilon said.
Spilsbury also had a knack of making people feel comfortable around him.
“He didn’t care if it was one minute or four years. He always made you feel super important to him and made you feel like a friend wherever you met him. His players are very loyal to him,” Pilon said, adding that 15-20 ex-Lumberjacks will attend the funeral.
Spilsbury served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. He then attended the University of Arizona and played on the football team from 1946-49. He was also a UA boxing champion in the now-defunct Border Conference. He later coached at Bisbee High School and was a UA assistant before being hired to coach the Lumberjacks.
In Spilsbury’s honor, NAU maintains the Max Spilsbury Scholarship for football players. Donations may be sent to: Northern Arizona University Foundation, P.O. Box 4094, Flagstaff, Ariz., 86011-4094