‘Big Mel’ Chandler remembered as fierce competitor on the gridiron, consummate gentleman and devoted father
Considered by sports broadcasting legend Cawood Ledford as “the most fierce player ever to wear a Kentucky uniform,” college and high school football standout, educator and contractor Mel Chandler, of Corbin, died last Friday at the age of 76.
According to family, Chandler passed away from complications resulting from his ongoing battle with pulmonary fibrosis.
Chandler is perhaps best known for his exploits on the football field. He graduated from Corbin High School in 1958 where he was an All-American lineman who also played linebacker and defensive end. He went on to play at the University of Kentucky from 1958 until he graduated in 1962 for legendary coach Blanton Collier.
Former News Journal sports columnist Bill Crook, a long-time friend of Chandler’s, said Chandler was a nearly unstoppable force on the football field.
“The very last game he played at UK, they tied Tennessee 10-10 in Knoxville,” Crook said. “At that time, and maybe still today, it was traditional for the winning team to get the game football.
After the game, the Tennessee players were all running off the field and then, all of a sudden, you see this one blue jersey plow into all the orange shirts. Melvin came out of all that with the football. That’s just the kind of person he was. He was a total competitor. He never gave up.”
Friends and family say Chandler was a soft-spoken, gentle giant of a man who was plain spoken and honest off the football field … unless antagonized.
“I always saw Mel as a consummate gentleman,” said David Myers, a former Whitley County Magistrate and owner of Central Automotive Supply in Corbin. He said he did business with Chandler often over the years and had nothing but good interactions.
“It’s true, he was a very low-key guy, but he was not the kind of guy you wanted to start any trouble with … because he’d finish it for you.”
Crook said Chandler was a natural leader that people just seemed to instantly respect when they met him.
“He had a huge personality and when he was in a room, everyone just seemed to gravitate toward him,” Crook said. “He just had a presence about him that’s really hard to put into words. You just knew he was somebody you were supposed to respect.”
Chandler’s son, Mel Chandler Jr., said despite his father’s success on the gridiron, he never really pushed sports on his children.
“I think football was his way of succeeding and getting into college and making opportunities for himself, but as father and son, that wasn’t what brought us together,” Chandler Jr. said. “There were always people that knew him as a football player and they all had stories about ‘Big Mel,’ and I think people always assumed maybe there was pressure on me to play too, but there wasn’t. He almost seemed disinterested in sports. I think to him, really there were other things that were just more important.”
Mel Chandler Jr. played football at CHS and later at Morehead State University. When he got injured, he said his dad is the one who talked him out of continuing for fear that he might suffer permanent physical harm.
The two later went into business together when Chandler moved his family back to Corbin in 1975 and he formed Ken-Tenn Coating Company Inc., a rooming maintenance company, and later Mel Chandler Contracting Inc.
As an athlete, Chandler focused almost exclusively on football, but his son said he did box with a club out of Louisville while he was in college.
Chandler graduated from UK in 1962 with degrees in Biology and Education in 1962. He later earned his Master in Education at Eastern Kentucky University and his Rank 1.
After graduating, Chandler launched a respectable career in education, and continued his love for the game of football through several coaching stints. He was a teacher at Corbin and Middlesboro High Schools, and also served as assistant football coach at both schools. He later accepted a position as head coach of the varsity football team at Williamsburg High School before moving to Richmond Madison High School as a Title 1 Coordinator and head football coach. The school later became consolidated into Madison Central High School.
He went to the administrative side of education in the early to mid-1970s when he accepted a position as principal at Shelbyville High School, and later Assistant Superintendent with the Shelby County Board of Education.
After returning to Corbin, Chandler focused on his contracting businesses, but he also got involved in one of the greatest passions of his life when he became a founding member of the Redhound Varsity Club in 1982.
Terry Joe Martin, a Varsity Club member and former president, said Chandler was “very dedicated” to the club and its mission.
“He loved the Varsity club, without question,” Martin said. “He was very dedicated to keeping it going in those early years. He was always a Redhound and the club meant a lot to him.”
The Varsity Club was started to help support varsity athletes at Corbin High School, particularly in sports that do not generate enough revenue to pay expenses without assistance. Chandler was instrumental the land procurement and construction of the Hoover-Terrell Track Complex and football practice field next to Corbin High School.
“He took that on as a personal project and as I remember it pretty much oversaw that to make sure it happened,” Martin said. “I think he knew the value of having a good track program. If you’ve got a good track program you are going to have a better football team and basketball team. He knew that.”
Chandler’s son said his father’s passion for construction of the track also stems from his innate desire to help those who perhaps weren’t quite so fortunate as their peers.
“He and Bill Ed Cannon spent a lot of time working on that on their own time and out of their own pocket. It was sort of their pet project,” Chandler Jr. said. “I think the sports that could not stand on their own, he just wanted to help them. He was that way with people too … A lot of people would come to him with different issues, like employees or whatever. He was a fighter, but in a very positive way. He was a good leader.”
“He was definitely the kind of friend you wanted on your side if you were in a bind and you needed to find someone to help you fight your way out of it.”
A memorial service will be held for Chandler Saturday at 2:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Corbin. Visitation will be from noon until 2:00 p.m.