Tolleson spent 15 years as a head coach and led Bremen for the past 13 years after being hired in 2000. The coach retires with an overall record of 126-53, going 108-48 with five state quarterfinal appearances coming in 1998, 2004, 2005, 2008 and in 2011.
When the time came, Tolleson went out his way, telling the people that really mattered in person at this year's banquet on Thursday night.
"I officially stepped down as head football coach and assistant athletic director at Bremen. I got to do a couple things I was very proud to get to do. I got to tell my team eyeball to eyeball, and I also got to tell our faculty. I also got to tell our parents. They all heard it from me. They didn't hear it from anybody else. I was proud to do it that way. That's kind of our way, and I'm very thankful for that," Tolleson said.
As the conversation for retirement began, it took the tone Tolleson lives his life by — family first. It was a conversation he had with his family and he had their full support in whatever decision he ended up making.
"There's never a good time to do what we did, as far as retirement. But 35 years went by so fast," Tolleson said. "Being a part of Bremen was just a true blessing. Not only to me, but to my family. The traditions that school and the school system has, words can't describe, as well as being a part of a lot of great school systems and great programs. Bremen would be called home for us. There's not many Bremens left in our state or anywhere in the country. Just a special place with special traditions. We feel blessed to have been a part of that, because a lot of people in our profession don't get that opportunity.
"We talked it over as a family first. My wife, being No. 1. In our profession, I think I have the best wife when it comes to terms of having a coach's wife. She's paid the price and you can count on one hand the number of games she's missed that I coached in and carried our kids all the way from preschool to graduation, and that's tough. I owe all of our time, success, the good times and the bad times to her. We talked it over as a family — my wife, my son, my daughter, their husbands and wives. Just felt like it was time. It was really hard for me to let it go because it's something we've done for 35 years, but we just felt like it was time. Felt like it was time to check out that second part of spending more time with family. I've got two grandkids, and I'm sure that will grow in the future. We felt like it was time."
Then Tolleson turned to his coaching staff, some of which have been with him from the beginning, and the Bremen administration. Again, having the full support of all involved.
"I was telling our fans and parents and players at our banquet, you just don't hear everyday — I've got an assistant that's been here 15, one that's been here 14 with me, one that's been here 13. That's loyalty and really believing in what we're doing to stay together that long. That's special. Two of them were at Villa Rica with me and came back to Bremen with me," Tolleson said. "Our administration, too. They played a big part, too. There was surely no pressure to do what we did. They had to confide in me that we could continue coaching there as long as we wanted to and I really believe that. What they said they meant and I know that and that means a lot to me. That's why it was important they let me do the things I wanted to do and get the closure of stepping down on Thursday."
Along with his head coaching career, Tolleson was an assistant for 20 years before taking over at VR in 1998. Tolleson spent time as an assistant at Central, Haralson County and Bremen — winning a pair of state titles under coach Ronnie Burchfield at Central.
Tolleson said that each coach had a little bit of a different style that he tried to incorporate into his coaching and teaching when his opportunity came.
"That's a lot of Star Spangled Banners, I'm telling you. I was fortunate. I feel like being an assistant coach for the number of years I was, 20 years of being an assistant, I think I worked with some really good people. I got an opportunity to work with my high school coach [Bobby Swafford at Haralson County], and opportunity to work with coach Burchfield, coach [Larry] Weathington and seeing what they did and how they did things. First and foremost, was the kids. In our total program, I was a head baseball coach for 14 years and head track coach for three years and a head football coach for 15 years," Tolleson said.
"I put all those values into work and really believe in a strong, total athletic program. I felt like we had a great one when I was in high school, I felt like we had a great one when I was coaching — especially when Burchfield was at Central. I've always wanted to be a part of that and we did that for a short time at Villa Rica and then came to Bremen and kept that tradition where everything was important."
While winning might not have been the most important thing for Tolleson, he certainly did a lot of it. Football was just the best place he could find to teach young men to be the best they could be and the value of hard work and dedication.
"I think the scoreboard never came into account for the reason that we put together a staff or our competitive natures. We never tried to steer around our kids being first-class human beings. I'm just really blessed to have that battle ground to do it with and that was athletics in general. Football being the biggest teaching tool. I always said, 'If you can participate in that sport, it lays the foundation for all the other sports.' I was so blessed to have such a strong coaching staff that believed and took what I said and believed the same way. We put out that product, being our student-athletes, and they turned out what we as a staff thought they ought to be ... Just a lot of hard work and a lot of common sense."
Tolleson's first task as a head football coach was to continue success at Villa Rica, and he did just that. In his first season, the Wildcats went 12-1 and made it to the Class AA state quarterfinals, setting up an illustrious career.
"It was very exciting. That first year we put together an outstanding group and went undefeated during the regular season. I really felt like we had a chance to maybe take it to the end. I think it taught me a lot about people. We went in there and [Villa Rica] had a very successful program there under coach [Frank] Vohun. And at that time, there was no place to go so I got to talk to them. I just found out a lot about people. They're the same everywhere, you just have to talk to them," Tolleson said. "Those were two very good years and my intentions were to stay there a long, long time."
But it was also in that season Tolleson knew his tenure might not be as long at VR as he expected. Coming home from a 9-7 win against the eventual state champion Carrollton on the third game of the year, he got a little push from an unexpected source.
"My son was my ball boy and one night we were coming back after a real big victory. As a matter of fact, it was versus Carrollton. We were having a conversation and he was 9 or 10 and he looked at me with those big eyes and said, 'That was one of the most exciting games I have ever been around.' We had a lot of close first down deals where they really had to put the credit card down between the sticks, just a really close game and we were able to pull it out and win it right there at the end.
"But he looked at me and said, 'Daddy, I'm going to go to school at Bremen. That's where my friends are, that's where I've went to school and those are the guys I want to play with and my sister attends that school.' That just kind of came out of nowhere and was an indicator that if the opportunity ever came about, Bremen would be my home. I'm just blessed. I was there as an assistant for four years, went to Villa Rica for those two years and then the opportunity came about," Tolleson said.
Tolleson would end up coaching his son, Ret, at Bremen where he would become an all-state quarterback and go on to play at the University of North Alabama. Tolleson also got to coach his daughter, Leah, during his time as head track coach at Bremen. All the while his wife, Sheila, was right there with him as a teacher.
"That's a blessing. In that time I did get to coach my daughter, I coached her in track and field and she was a good track athlete for us and that was fun. I left her senior year. She's never let me forget it when I went to Villa Rica her senior year. It's truly a blessing to have spent that time with her. Then the time with my son, coaching him not as a dad at home, but coaching him on that level and spending that time. I told a lot of coaches that have come through, college coaches and other coaches that have come through, that was the best time of my life, as far as coaching," Tolleson said. "Not only that, but I had my soulmate and my best friend, that was my wife, right there."
Not only does Tolleson have his actual family, but more than 35 years of coaching has amassed quite a few surrogate families that he feels is also very close to — even after they graduate.
"I've got a pretty big family. The most special was my innermost family. We're all on the same page, we're all together and hopefully we'll have many years to be together. In those 35 years, I've got a lot of sons and daughters out there I hope I've touched," Tolleson said.
When it all had to end, it ended where Tolleson felt most at home — even before he was hired as an assistant or head football coach.
"I told the superintendent and board of education when they hired me, I'm an Alabama boy and had never been to Bremen, but we came over with Haralson County as an assistant coach when we came to Bremen to play them. I'll never forget reading about all the tradition that Bremen had and I told my wife at that time, 'One day, Bremen would be the place I hope to educate our kids and finish up our career.' I don't know if you could add the years up how long it took for that to happen, but it happened. Bremen was the place, there's no ifs ands or buts. I don't think it could have turned out any better than Bremen being our final home. I think we'll be the biggest followers of the Blue Devils that have ever been. I promise you, my kids, my wife, myself and our grandkids, we bleed blue. And it's special," Tolleson said. "That's home."
Tolleson won't have a personal hand in who replaces him as the new leader of the Bremen football program, but he did put together his staff and has faith and trust in the administration's choice when they make it.
In the end, Ricky Tolleson has been a part of a lot in the area, has had his success and led a lot of young people to being better adults. He has his family and he left on his terms — and that's what matters most.
"To be a part of something done the way it's supposed to be. I feel a little bit like Frank Sinatra and Elvis said, 'We did it our way.' I don't think words can describe just what it's meant to myself and my family," Tolleson said.