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Montgomery Debate Coach Jay Rye Changing Lives One Championship at a Time

Jay Rye (top center) with Montgomery Academy students from previous years on the speech & debate team.

Jay Rye may not have set out to change lives, but the effect he’s had on countless students at The Montgomery Academy is immeasurable. Mr. Rye is the coach of the school’s speech & debate team that has won a dynasty-like 16 Alabama State Championships—more than any school in history since the state tournament began in in 1956.

As if that weren’t enough, Jay has coached 156 students to the National Speech & Debate Tournament over the past 24 years. In that quarter-century, his team has returned to Alabama with loads of hardware, including a 4th place national finish in Prose Interpretation in 2015 and a National Championship in Dramatic Interpretation in 2006.  In addition to his service at The Montgomery Academy, Jay has served as Chair of the Deep South Speech & Debate District since 1999, and in 2014, he became the first coach from Alabama to be elected to the National Speech & Debate Association’s Board of Directors.

As impressive as his team’s achievements are, it isn’t Jay’s resume that sets him apart—it’s the hundreds of lives he’s touched and the students he’s inspired over two-and-a-half decades—convincing kids of the intrinsic value they possess—that makes his story so compelling.

One such student is John Koo, The Montgomery Academy’s senior class president of 2017. Yellowhammer asked John to describe his experience on the debate team, he shared a moving account of how Jay Rye helped shape him as a young man and as a scholar.

Montgomery Academy senior class president John Koo (right) with 1st place award from Congressional Debate in the Varsity Senate and Semifinalist award from Lincoln-Douglas debate. James Torbert (left) with 1st place award in Congressional Debate and third place in International Extemporaneous Speaking.

To be completely honest things didn’t go very well my freshman year on the speech and debate team. After a pretty dismal year personally, I was seriously considering not returning to the team my sophomore year, but I had a conversation with Mr. Rye that changed that. He told me that part of the challenge with the program’s success is that, if we let it, it would create undue pressure and he wanted to make sure that I didn’t carry that weight. He said he only wanted me to have fun and better myself. He stressed that I wasn’t going to be treated differently whether I placed dead last or first. Mr. Rye was so encouraging in that meeting that I decided to return my sophomore year. Over the next three years, I was very fortunate to twice qualify for the national team and to win an individual state championship, and I was honored to serve as one of this year’s senior team captains. In addition to my role on the speech and debate team, I was elected senior class president last year and that would’ve likely never happened if not for Mr. Rye helping me develop as a speaker. He gave me the confidence to give speeches I’d never imagined myself giving as a shy 9th grader. In fact, just before graduation, as I was about to give a speech at our convocation, I texted Mr. Rye and just told him how thankful I was for the role he’s played in my life. He’s helped me tremendously, and he’s also helped the state of Alabama. When people at national tournaments realize he’s a four-diamond coach and when they see we’re third in the nation in state debate championships, you can see it began to change their impression of Alabama…it really gives us a sense of pride in our home state. As I head to Auburn this fall, I will carry those things into my future, knowing Mr. Rye had a huge impact on my life over these past four years.

2017 senior Ellen Park, bound for UCLA in the fall, co-captain of the team with John Koo, echoed his sentiments as she spoke of Jay Rye.

When I was a freshman, I was terribly shy. In middle school, my stage fright was so bad I’d get super nervous if I had to stand up and give a report in front of 10 to 12 classmates. Being part of the speech and debate team for four years changed me in many ways. My junior year, I won the Lincoln-Douglas debate at the University of Alabama and I was a semifinalist at the state tournament. This Friday I’m participating in Congressional Debate at the national tournament, which I qualified for in April. As great as those achievements have been, the best part about being on a team coached by Mr. Rye is the way he believes in us and helps us believe in ourselves. These tournaments can be a little nerve-racking and he’s always ready with a joke or something funny to say that lightens the mood and reminds us it’s all about about enjoying the experience so we don’t get too caught up in it all. Also, he’s just one of those people who is great at encouraging others and inspiring confidence in you at a moment when you may not have find in yourself. I think he’s someone I can always call on for encouragement or advice and I know his feedback will be invaluable.

In addition to all of the students Jay has touched over the years, another huge part of his story is that, for the third year in a row, Birmingham will host the National Speech & Debate Association’s National tournaments this month. As noted above, Jay was elected to the organization’s board in 2014, and there’s little doubt that his notable achievements have played no small part in bringing the event to Alabama for what is now the third time. 7,000 people will converge in Birmingham for the June 18-23rd event—the largest tournament in the organization’s history—with visitors from all fifty states and a host of foreign countries that will collectively pour $30 million into the local economy.

When asked about this event, Jay reflected the credit to the attraction of Birmingham, expressing great pride in the fact that the tournament is expanding to Birmingham city schools this year as well.

In addition to the events that will be held at my alma mater, Mountain Brook High, this year’s events are expanding to A.H. Parker, Woodlawn, Huffman, P.D. Jackson-Olin, and George Washington Carver high schools. These are all beautiful city schools that represent Birmingham and will show people from all over the country and the world how much Alabama has changed and the great education kids are receiving in our state.

With sincere humility, Rye was just as quick to give his students all the credit for his meaningful career, which has earned him a spot in the Alabama Speech and Debate Association’s Hall of Fame. “It’s just an honor to be able to pour into my students to help them discover a talent they may not have recognized or to help them improve gifts they’ve already discovered. That’s my passion as an educator—helping my students grow and becoming the best version of themselves they can be. The success they achieve is truly all about them.”

Montgomery Academy’s mantra is The Pursuit of Excellence and if ever a teacher and coach has helped students do so, it’s certainly Jay Rye.

One of Rye’s former teams from Montgomery Academy displaying their numerous awards

About the Author: Larry Huff is Yellowhammer’s Executive Editor and you can follow him on Twitter at @LHYellowhammer

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