Friday, July 8, 2016

There once was a Wobegon headline

     How does that headline sound to you?
     Like the start of a naughty limerick?
     Or the unedited demise of a once-trendy newspaper?
     Or don't you recognize Garrison Keillor, the unmistakeable voice of ... Minnesota? 
     Not Wisconsin, for heaven's sake.
     That's the woe-begotten headline that USA TODAY published last week for a story on Keillor's retirement after 40 years as the host of the public-radio institution, A Prairie Home Companion.
     I wish I could give the newspaper credit for attempting a limerick, because Keillor would have appreciated that. In fact, he wrote several limericks specifically for Wisconsin when he performed in the beer town of Milwaukee.
There was a young man who loved Pabst
He drank it until he collapsed
He gave up beer
For Lent every year
And on Easter morning, relapsed.
     On his farewell broadcast this past Saturday night, Keillor recited or referenced several limericks, including bawdy verses about men from from Pocatello, Antietam, and Nantucket. This one even had an autobiographical first line:
There is an old man of St. Paul.
Put his desk in a toilet stall.
It was quiet, conducive,
And one had the use of
The plumbing with no wait at all.
     Even at age 73, Keillor still has a boyish love for limericks. "I intended to be a serious poet," he confessed in his final Lake Wobegon monologue. "Instead, I was fascinated by the limerick."
     I felt much the same way about my old mediumnewspapers. And after I heard Keillor's farewell show and saw that headline, it got my my words pumping:
Back in the newspapers' heydey,
One called itself USA TODAY.
The going got tough,
Proofreaders laid off.
Wisconsin looks like Minnesotay.
     I feel entitled to pick on USA TODAY because I was associated with the McPaper from its revolutionary beginnings in 1982. They gave me one of most obscure jobs in journalismcontributing the daily sports item from South Carolina for the old Around the USA page. I earned $5 per item, and as I recall, those words were edited and cross-checked relentlessly. That's what newspapers did in the days of yore, when folks up and down the street were willing to pay for home delivery—twice a day, mind you—and newspapers found value in employing copy editors and proofreaders.
     Those were the good old days. In the 1980s (about the same time that Keillor made the cover of TIME magazine) The Greenville News was so ambitious we thought we could take over the state of South Carolina. If we could gain a few thousand readers and establish a semblance of a statewide audience, maybe we could pry the lucrative legal advertisements away from the Columbia paper.
     As part of this campaign, I was given a wonderful opportunity—not to mention a bottomless budget
to expand our high school football coverage statewide and cultivate a border-to-border audience. We catered barbecue for thousands of coaches every year and published special editions that were over a hundred pages. On the eighth Friday night of the 1984 season, we succeeded in getting every score of every game in the entire state in our first edition, which we felt certain had never been accomplished before. And for the next eight years, we never went to press without every score. We had radio ads bragging about it.
     If a coach didn't call in his game—and why wouldn't he, since we offered him $10 to dial us toll-free?—then we would make the midnight call to his house or the firehouse or the Waffle House to hunt down the score.

There once was a coach in St. Matthews.
He'd rip out the phone if his boys lose.
So we'd call the town cop
Or the local truck stop
Where the quarterback gets his tattoos.
     In a different era and a different state, Keillor might have been the one calling in the game for us. One of the revelations I discovered in all the tributes published last week was that he, like me, began his career as an junior-high sportswriter. When a San Francisco reporter asked him about the happiest memory from his youth, he said: 
"The happiest was when I went out for football in the eighth grade and I took a physical, and the doctor told me I couldn’t play because I had a click in the valve of my heart. I was shocked, but I took this experience as a cue that I have to do something else that was brave, and I went to the local paper and asked if they needed someone to write up sports, knowing they didn’t have anybody. So they let me do it. So instead of sitting on the bench, I sat at the top of stands in the press box with men from the local radio station who were broadcasting the game. I sat with a tablet and a pencil and felt like royalty up there. I was a writer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

We're all the butt of a blond joke

     A new poll says that voters prefer Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a margin of 54-41.
     Or to put it in terms my fellow denizens of the AP stylebook will understand: The blonde is leading the blond.
     I'm paraphrasing Jesus' warning about the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14) because I think He appreciated puns and I trust that He forgives mine. And I don't want to see my country wind up in the ditch.
     For what it's worth, we the people evidently prefer a white-haired President. The poll indicates that Americans favor Bernie Sanders 56-40 over Trump, 57-39 over Ted Cruz, and 50-46 over John Kasich. Let's make America gray again.
     In the most inexplicable and implausible matchup, Americans prefer the cowlicked Kasich 51-41 over the blond* Clintondespite the fact that on Tuesday night, he got less than five percent of the votes cast in Indiana. (The CNN/ORC poll was completed May 1, before Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the campaign.)
     * AP style, which is the abiding conscience of newsrooms nationwide, is as perplexed as the rest of America when it comes to blonde vs. blond. Here's how the stylebook guides us:

     In other words, Hillary is a blonde with blond hair.
     Is America ready for a blond(e) president? I looked it up, and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were blond before they were bald. Straight-talking Harry is looking pretty good right now, just as he did in the Nixon era when the band Chicago recorded this ditty: America needs you, Harry Truman (click to listen). It ends with this plea:
     "Harry, is there something we can do to save the land we love?"

EQUAL TIME: Thomas Jefferson has been the only redhead in the White House. (By the way, redhead is now acceptable AP style, though it wasn't in the bygone days when Red Parker coached at Clemson.)

And if you are inclined to vote brunette, remember that Melania Trump has birther issues.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Fuller, Fullest, and the Fantastic 4

Old football proverb: The name on the front of your jersey is more important than the name on the back. (New York Times photo)
    At the end of the Orange Bowl, Clemson needed to run a six-second play to exhaust the clock and keep from giving the football back to Oklahoma. So instead of taking a knee, Deshaun Watson took a shotgun snap, waited a couple of ticks, cocked his golden right arm, and launched a 60-yard pass into the Clemson fan section on the other end of the stadium.
     The way this perfect-ending season has gone, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Watson's game-ending pass was caught by none other than Steve Fuller.
     Almost everything Watson has done this season has brought honor to Fuller, who was—listen, children! the quarterback who put Clemson football on the map.
WON NOT DONE (Miami Herald photo)
     By the time Watson reached the podium on New Year's Eve to accept the award as the most valuable offensive player in the Orange Bowl, he had shed his game jersey, the one with the patch on the right shoulder honoring Fuller. Instead, he was wearing a T-shirt saying WON NOT DONE, immediately changing the focus to the Jan. 11 national championship game against Alabama. 
     I know there are some who thought it cheapened Fuller's memory to unretire his number and use it to entice Watson to come to Clemson. Some of my friends say it would be better to keep Fuller's No. 4 under glass, like Howard's Rock.
     Why not have it both ways? The New York Times had the story this week of how Clemson has balanced its history against its future:

A Clemson Juggernaut Is Led by a Star Wearing No. 4. That Figures.
By Tim Rohan
   Inside the Clemson locker room at Memorial Stadium, about 10 feet from quarterback Deshaun Watson’s locker, is a shrine to the jersey number he wears. There, set up neatly in another locker, is a throwback helmet, a pair of uniform pants and a hanging No. 4 jersey. It is all encased in glass, like a museum exhibit recalling the glory days of Clemson football.
   In reality, it is a tribute to Steve Fuller, the quarterback of the famed 1978 Clemson team. His number, 4, was the first one retired by Clemson’s football program.
Fuller made an exception two years ago and allowed Watson to wear the number. That has created an awkward situation: In leading Clemson to a 13-0 record and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Watson has perhaps surpassed Fuller as the greatest player in Tigers history.
   When Watson was coming out of high school in Gainesville, Ga., Clemson’s ability to offer him No. 4 was another advantage in his recruitment as the university competed with the likes of Alabama and Florida State. When Watson was still a high school junior, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney slyly mentioned to Fuller, while the two of them were paired at a golf tournament, that some universities honored their past by allowing current players to wear retired numbers.
   The next year, at the same tournament, Swinney got more specific, explaining to Fuller who Watson was — a five-star recruit ranked among the top players in the nation — and what it would mean if Fuller would consent to Watson’s wearing his No. 4.
   “I gave him my blessing with the understanding that this was an unusual kid, and it would be a nice thing for the program,” Fuller said in a phone interview this week as he prepared to travel to the Orange Bowl. “If Coach said it was a good idea, I was going to go along with it.”
   It would have been hard for Swinney to blame Fuller if he had said no. When Fuller arrived at Clemson in 1975, the Tigers had not made a bowl game in the previous 15 seasons. When he took his first snap in his first start as a freshman, his feet were in the end zone in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — a metaphor for the state of the program.
   Fuller never put up the flashy statistics Watson has produced, but his role was different. Even though the Tigers had Dwight Clark and Jerry Butler, a future first-round draft pick, they ran a gritty option offense, and Fuller was its maestro. At one point, he started 27 consecutive games. In his senior year, the Tigers went 11-1, averaged 31 points a game, and beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl in Buckeyes Coach Woody Hayes' final game.
   At the time, Fuller was the most decorated player in Clemson history. He was twice named the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior, becoming the first Tiger to finish in the top 10. Clemson retired his No. 4 before he left campus, during the 1979 spring game.
   “I just happened to be the guy that was the quarterback on a team that, as we look at it, the team that turned the program in the right direction, gave it a little bit of a renaissance,” Fuller said. “We got it to the point where it was not a big national power, but a program that people started recognizing and kids in high school started noticing. It was more that, than me as an individual. I was the guy taking the snaps.”
    Three years after Fuller graduated, Clemson won its only national championship. Now, with Watson, they have their best shot at a second title.
   When Watson first got to campus, Swinney frequently gave Fuller updates on Watson’s progress, on the field and in the classroom, as if Watson were Fuller’s son. But Fuller mostly watched Watson from afar, from the same seats that his father had sat in when he played.
    Injuries, most notably a torn anterior cruciate ligament, cut short Watson’s freshman season, but he impressed his coaches with his maturity, decision-making and athleticism. Fuller noticed his poise under duress.
    In early October, Fuller watched from the stands with his college teammate Jeff Bostic as Watson accounted for all three Clemson touchdowns in a close win over Notre Dame, in what was perhaps Clemson’s most important game of the regular season. Bostic leaned over and asked Fuller if Clemson could retire No. 4 twice. He chuckled to make clear that he was joking.
   But perhaps Bostic had a point. “He would certainly be deserving of it when he’s done,” Fuller said of Watson. “Knock on wood. Hopefully we’ve got a lot of good things left to come.”
     Schools differ in how they honor the numbers of their football heroes. Alabama has never retired a number. Florida State retires jerseys but allows the numbers to be reused. 
     Of the schools who recruited Watson, only Clemson had retired No. 4, so once Fuller gave his blessings, it essentially leveled the playing field. Wherever he went, Watson could keep the number he wore for the Gainesville High Red Elephants.
     I don't know if No. 4 was even a factor in Watson's college decision, but it was a nice trump card for Clemson to be able to play. And of all the inducements a hotshot recruit may be offered, a special jersey number is pretty honorable.
     But the question remains: By bringing No. 4 out of retirement, has Clemson taken anything away from Fuller? Not as long as kids see the patch on Watson's shoulder and ask Granddaddy, "Who's Fuller?"
Steve Fuller against Notre Dame in 1977

     Oh, little Tiger, let me tell you about Steve Fuller. His team was the first from Clemson to beat Georgia "between the hedges," which were planted way back in 1929. Beat uppitty Georgia Tech in Atlanta back when they almost never came up to Clemson. Nearly beat Joe Montana and Notre Dame's 1977 national championship team. Beat Woody Hayes in the Gator Bowl. Fuller didn't do it by himself, of course, but he was the face of the program when Clemson decided to double-deck Death Valley and recruited many of the players who won the 1981 national championship.
     Little Tiger, don't you ever forget Steve Fuller.

     Retired numbers can be quickly forgotten. To prove my point, here's a pop quiz: See how many of these players you can name by their retired numbers:
Clemson: 4, 28, 66 (Hint: 66 is not William Perry).
Auburn: 7, 34, 88.
Florida State: 2, 16, 17, 25, 28, 34, 50 (Hint: 28 also had a profound impact on Watson's life).
Georgia: 21, 34, 40, 62.
South Carolina: 2, 37, 38, 56.
     Can you even pick out the seven Heisman Trophy winners on that list? (Answers below)

An Orange Bowl reminder of Fuller's first juggernaut
Before he was No. 4, Steve Fuller wore 11 at Spartanburg High
      I was away at Missouri or busy at the office during Fuller's career at Clemson, and the only time I remember seeing him play in person was in 1974, when he was quarterback of the Spartanburg High School team that regularly put 70 on the scoreboard and set a state record for points in a season. 
     And when I saw Watson and defensive MVP Ben Boulware on the podium after the Orange Bowl, it brought back a special memory. Boulware is a graduate of my high school, T.L. Hannathe team that stopped Fuller's Spartanburg juggernaut.
     Thanks for the memories, Ben and Deshaun.
     Congratulations, Steve. This one's for you.
T.L. Hanna graduate Ben Boulware (Miami Herald photo)

Clemson: 4-Steve Fuller, 28-C.J. Spiller, 66-Banks McFadden.
Auburn: 7-Pat Sullivan, 34-Bo Jackson, 88-Terry Beasley.
Florida State: 2-Deion Sanders, 16-Chris Weinke, 17-Charlie Ward, 25-Fred Biletnikoff, 28-Warrick Dunn, 34-Ron Sellers, 50-Ron Simmons.
Georgia: 21-Frank Sinkwich, 34-Herschel Walker, 40-Theron Sapp, 62-Charlie Trippi.
South Carolina: 2-Sterling Sharpe, 37-Steve Wadiak, 38-George Rogers, 50-Mike Johnson.

Heisman Trophy winners are underlined. Conspicuously absent from that list are the 2010 and 2014 Heisman winners, Auburn's Cam Newton and FSU's Jameis Winston.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Offsides? ACC had $6M riding on Clemson

The moment of truth: Who in blue is offsides?
     I have never been one to second-guess referees, umpires, and others who enforce the rules of our games. Almost without exception, the officials I have known are hard-working, decent men dedicated to doing a difficult job with sharp-eyed excellence and blind justice. 
     So I don't doubt the integrity or judgment of the linesman who made the critical call in Saturday night's ACC championship gamea phantom offsides call on an onside kick that essentially robbed North Carolina of a chance to beat Clemson.
     But I do question the awkward spot his bosses put him in. Because if I read the rules right, the Atlantic Coast Conference essentially had a $6 million bet riding on Clemson. 
     That's what the ACC earns for having a team in the College Football Playoff. If 10th-ranked North Carolina had won the ACC championship game, it probably would not have qualified for the four-team playoff. But No. 1-ranked Clemson was a cinch to make it. Therefore, it was in the ACC's financial interest for Clemson to win.
     If North Carolina had won, the ACC's $6 million slice of the pie probably would have gone to the PAC-12 or Big Ten.
     That's about $400,000* per school, which is not a lot in terms of the millions that flow through college football nowadays.
     But it is unseemly for the ACC to have a financial interest in which team wins its championship.
     In fact, it has been in the ACC's interest to protect Clemson throughout November, ever since the Tigers beat Florida State and asserted themselves as the nation's No. 1 team. The same thing was true last year for the Seminoles. And the ACC is not alone in this. It is equally true in other conferences. The SEC needed Alabama to beat Florida. The PAC-12 needed Stanford to beat Southern Cal.
     Clemson fans and the ABC crowd (Anybody But Carolina) will see further irony in this. Many of them believe the ACC protects UNC. The Tar Heels play in a division where they rarely have to face Clemson or Florida State. Chapel Hill has hardly been punished for decades of academic scandal.
     If that's your perspective, then Saturday night was your justice.
     Was justice done? I have to believe the linesman honestly thought he saw an infraction on North Carolina's last-minute onside kick even though it was not evident on TV replays. I can't believe anyone from the ACC would have dictated that call go in Clemson's favor. (Lest we forget, the official threw his flag at the start of the play, before he knew if the penalty would help Clemson.) I look forward to hearing from a reporter who actually seeks out that official so we can hear his side of the story.
     I'll bet $6 million that's he's more impartial than you or me.

* Always follow the money

     Speaking of $400,000, that's the going price that North Carolina paid little Delaware and littler N.C. A&T to come to Chapel Hill for games back in Septemberworthless victories and wasted weekends that ruined the Tar Heels' playoff resume.
     If the Tar Heels had just been willing to play Appalachian State (like Clemson did), and if they had beaten South Carolina (like Clemson did), and if they had played anybody better than Miami (like Clemson did), they might have been taken seriously as a playoff contender. In that casehad UNC been awarded possession of the onside kick, tied the game, and gone on to beat Clemson in overtimeimagine the orange outcry we'd be hearing today.
     Speaking of Appalachian, "we" joined Florida State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina as 10-win teams on Clemson's schedule. If you're keeping score, the Apps had more rushing yardage against Clemson than any of those Top 10 teams. When Mark Richt and Miami come to Boone next September, they better "bring their A game," if not their ACC officials.

Friday, October 30, 2015

My hat's off to the Trite Trophy

     You hear it all the time in football coaches' post-game interviews: "My hat's off to my guys."
     Almost invariably, the coach who says it keeps his cap on.
     Nobody actually tips his hat anymore. Etiquette died out about the same time that Bear Bryant hung up his houndstooth fedora. Steve Spurrier (the last coach to beat the North Carolina, by the way) may have been the last to routinely doff his visor.
     But my ears perked up Thursday night on ESPN when I heard those words from the UNC football coach wearing his baby-blue visor as he talked about beating Pitt. Of all people, he ought to be a master of the chapeau cliché. After all, his name is Fedora.
     Obviously, His Head Wasn't In the Game, no matter how well his guys Put a Hat on a Hat.
     Fedora's faux pas was all the more notable because he said it in Pittsburgh, which as some of us old sportswriters know, is the home of the Trite Trophy.
     The Trite Trophy is the Brainchild of Gene Collier, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For over 30 years, he has presented the cliché of the year in an after-Christmas column, boldfacing them in context like I'm doing here. I suppose he wrote the first one so he could take a day off during the holidays. Now, it's become ... A Tradition Unlike Any Other.
     The Trite Trophy is an annual treat for ink-stained scribes and anyone else who feels the urge to edit (or strangle) TV sports commentators and interviewees as they try to Fill the Gaps in dead air.

     In Collier's words:
The purpose of the annual Trite Trophy column is to expose lazy language to mockery's blistering lamp, whatever that means, in the hope that we can create A Hostile Environment for the folks who traffic in such nonsense. A quick look around, however, reveals that not only have the members of the Trite Committee (me) Lost Their Swagger, but Face Long Odds of ever Getting Their Swagger Back. More pointedly, 27 years of cliché slinging To No Avail pretty much guarantees they've Fallen On Their Faces.
     Go read the 2015 edition, when the winner was (drum roll) Miss Colombia ... excuse me: Next Man Up.
     Just for Old Times' Sake, I've posted a list of the annual champion clichés, with links to several. After you read a few of these columns, you'll find that the Post-Gazette has Set the Edge and put you on a quota. You can come back next month, but You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist to figure out how to Turn the Corner and read more.
     Of course, one honest way would be to actually pay a few pennies to read the newspaper. But that's so Old School.
     2014: Shy of the First Down
     2013: Going Forward
     2012: Take a Shot Down the Field
     2011: Are You Kidding Me?
     2010: At the End of the Day
     2009: Dial Up a Blitz
     2008: Manage the Game
     2007: They're Very Physical
     2006: It Is What It Is (the Archie Griffin of the Trite Trophy--the only two-time winner)
     2005: It Is What It Is
     2004: Shutdown Corner
     2003: Cover 2
     2002: Running Downhill
     2001: Put Points on the Scoreboard (first runnerup was Put a Hat on a Hat)
     2000: Walk-off Homer
     1999: Somebody's Gotta Step Up
     1998: Eight Men in the Box
     1997: Show Me the Money
     1996: Been There, Done That
     1995: West Coast Offense
     1994: Red Zone (the greatest living cliche--a phrase that became a stat, a deodorant, a TV channel, and even a movie)
     1993: It Hasn't Sunk In Yet
     1992: Mentality of a Linebacker
     1991: You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist
     1990: Smashmouth Football
     1989: He Coughs It Up
     1988: They Went to the Well Once Too Often
     1987: Gutcheck
     1986: Crunch Time
     1985: Throwback
     1984: Play 'Em One Game at a Time

Monday, August 17, 2015

Newspaper went down, but the soul was saved

     My newspaper colleagues will enjoy the following story, which I discovered in the April 26, 1865 issue of the Southern Watchman, published in Athens, Ga., the week before Stoneman’s Yankee cavalry invaded the Classic City and commandeered the press.

     Google finds more than a dozen versions of this story in various newspaper archives. The earliest I've found was in the Baltimore Patriot, which printed it in 1857 and folded in 1859. Of course, you can trace the roots of the story all the way back to the Garden of Eden
     I know of at least one Civil War newspaperman who prospered by selling his journalistic soul to the godforsaken Yankees. William Brownlow was a former Methodist preacher who was paid by the Federal government to publish a pro-Union paper in Tennessee. Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator propelled "the Fighting Parson" to election in 1865 as the post-war governor of Tennessee.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Long live King John of Summerville

ESPN's 2012 portrait of John McKissick
with the ring for his 600th victory

     John McKissick won his first state championship the year I was born.
     And another one the year I graduated from college.
     And another one the year I retired from sportswriting.
     I figured he might win one more the year I died.
     Of course, it was inevitable that he would have to stop someday, but I always figured John had one more season in him—maybe even one more championship. So did he. If you ever asked him about retirement, he always insisted that coaching football kept him young. Even this past winter, at age 88, he sounded optimistic about one more year.
     However, after leading his team through spring practice in the Charleston heat, he confessed, "I think my age is catching up with me." On Tuesday, after 63 years on the job, McKissick announced his retirement as football coach at Summerville High School.
     Think about it63 years in a profession where one bad year could be terminal. King John has been serving as long as Queen Elizabeth (and he has been crowned more often, too.)
     Public school teachers can retire after thirty years, but McKissick doubled that and still kept on working. His daddy taught him not to pay somebody else for work he was able to do himself, and he never did.
     McKissick became so iconic that Pat Conroy cast him as the standard of excellence in his 1986 novel, The Prince of Tides, where a fictional coach named Tom Wingo lamented:
"Never once did I defeat one of those awesomely disciplined teams of the great John McKissick of Summerville. He was a maker of dynasties."
     Conroy recited that passage when he wrote the foreword for McKissick's 1993 autobiography:
"That was my act of homage to John McKissick, and it expressed my utter admiration with how he has chosen to spend his life. A great coach teaches a boy or girl that the body is the temple of something sublime and wonderful. Coach McKissick has done this surprisingly well. I wish, in my heart, that John McKissick could have coached me in football when I was a boy. Quite possibly, he could not have made me a better athlete, but I think he could have made me a better man."
     Numbers are not the full measure of the man, but let's consider McKissick's accomplishments: 621 victories in 63 seasons, which is far more than any other football coach in history. 
     Now that McKissick has retired, he has established a distant target for John Curtis Jr., who ranks second nationally with 550 victories in 47 years at John Curtis High School, a private school in suburban New Orleans that was founded by the coach's father. The younger Curtis, age 68, had an 8-3 record in 2015. If he averages 10 wins a year, he will be 76 before he catches McKissick.
     The winningest coach in college football history is John Gagliardi, five weeks younger than McKissick, who retired from St. John's of Minnesota in 2012 with 489 victories. Penn State's Joe Paterno, who was three months younger than McKissick, holds the major-college record of 409 after the NCAA restored his victories earlier this year. Dabo Swinney pointed out that McKissick won nearly twice as many games as Bear Bryant.
     The NFL record is 328 by Don Shula, who is four years younger than McKissick and has been retired for 20 years.
     Among all those giants, ESPN The Magazine called McKissick "Coach of the Century" in a 2012 story that I highly recommend.
     He was a child of the Depression and a member of the Greatest Generation. As he told ESPN's David Fleming: 
"During World War II, I was a paratrooper waiting to go to California with orders to ship out to the Pacific to join the 17th Airborne in battle. But then we dropped the bomb, and everything slowed down. The lives that decision saved or changed … I was one of 'em."
     I figure that McKissick has been carried off the field on his players' shoulders at least 14 times10 state championships, plus his 347th victory in 1987 that broke Pinky Babb's state record, plus the 406th in 1993 that broke Texan Gordon Wood's national record, plus his 500th in 2003 and 600th in 2012.
      His last state championship in 1998 was also the last football game I covered, as Summerville beat Gaffney 31-23 to wrap up a perfect 15-0 season. What I'll remember most about that season was not the state final at Williams-Brice Stadium but a first-round playoff three weeks earlier on John McKissick Field—the only time I ever had an opportunity to see a game in Summerville. Knowing my career change was imminent, I asked John if I could eavesdrop on his pregame speech, and he graciously invited me into the locker room. Sixteen years later, all I can remember is how businesslike it was. John, then 72 and in his 47th season, let an assistant give the pep-talk.
      I dealt with John every week for 13 seasons when he participated in our state coaches' poll, and he was unfailingly pleasant, accommodating, and wise.
     In 1991, when I was working on a centennial history book for Mountain View United Methodist Church in northern Greenville, I asked him if he might be kin to our founding pastor, Eli McKissick. 
     "He was my grandfather," John told me.
     Now, this grandson of a 19th-century circuit-riding preacher has become the grandfather of Summerville's 21st-century coach. On June 25, school administrators honored McKissick's recommendation and promoted his 36-year-old grandson, Joe Call, to be the head coach for 2015.
     If Joe has his grandfather's success and longevity, Summerville won't need another coach until 2067.

John McKissick set a national record with his 406th victorythen won 215 more.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Sunday in Rick Barnes' foyer

     I was glad to see that Rick Barnes found work with the University of Tennessee just two days after being ushered out by the University of Texas. He's a good man and a good coach, and I'm glad he will not have to spend Easter negotiating for a job. 
     That's what he was doing in 1998 when he left Clemson to go to Texas. That Easter morning was the last time we dealt with each other face-to-face. 
     My job at the time was to cover Clemson sports for The Greenville News. The year before, Barnes had taken Clemson to the Sweet 16, which for a sportswriter like me meant a sweet junket to Kansas City and San Antonio.
     But small-town Clemson and the condescending ACC were starting to chafe on him. At the same time, big-time college sports was making me pretty cynical.
     We were both ready for a change, and as usual Rick was a step ahead of me.  
     It all came to a head that weekend, as Barnes negotiated with Texas. Understandably, he was not returning calls to reporters. So I had to go knock on his door.
     Rick, on the phone, invited me into his foyer and disappeared around the corner to complete the call. When he came back, he was cordial enough, but obviously he didn't appreciate my invasion of his privacy. 
     "It’s Easter Sunday, for goodness’ sake," he said. "What kind of Christian are you?"
     What could I say?
     It was a good question, even if he didn't mean it that way.
     I mulled that for a while and eventually decided I would no longer be the kind of Christian who chased coaches and recruits for a living. Through a series of events marked by the fingerprints of God, by the next Easter I had found my calling in Boone and was safely out of the newspaper business.
     Thanks, Rick, for the best career advice I ever got.
     Have a blessed Resurrection Day, everybody.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meet the biggest 'Mouth' in basketball

    Let's have a pickup basketball game.
    I'll take players who went to high school in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. You can have the whole rest of the country.
    I've got Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Ty Lawson, and Brandon Jennings. That's 101 points per game in the NBA this year, plus two of the league's four leaders in assists.
    They all come from that overflowing fountain of hoops at the mouth of Wilson CreekOak Hill Academy. 
    Mouth of Wilson is only an hour's drive from Boone, so several of us made the trip Monday night to experience Oak Hill basketball in person. Courtside seats cost just $5, where you can get splashed by the sweat of future millionaires who are still playing for the joy of the game.
    So here we are deep in Appalachia, 12 miles from the nearest traffic light, sitting in a 300-seat gym, listening to a student play the national anthem on a clarinet, and watching the No. 1 high school basketball team in the country. Eight national championship banners adorn the far wall. Behind the basket on the left hang the college jerseys of dozens of Oak Hill graduates, including several who won national championships at Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Maryland.
The jerseys behind the basket represent a Who's Who of college basketball.
The Warriors have lost only once in this gym in the last 18 years.

     In a nice effort to keep things in perspective, the media guide ... What? Your local high school basketball team doesn't have its own media guide? 
     As I was saying, in a nice effort to keep things in perspective, the media guide includes this message from Oak Hill president Dr. Michael Groves: "Basketball is one of the things we do well at Oak Hill, but it is not what we do best." 
     Unlike many of the small private schools and random upstarts that have come to dominate national high school basketball in recent years, Oak Hill's roots are deep and humble. In fact, the academy is actually 13 years older than the game itself. 
     Oak Hill was founded in 1878 by Baptist churches in the New River Valley who were concerned about the lack of educational opportunities following the Civil War. It has become a boarding school serving 150 students and "offering a highly structured curriculum that focuses on accountability and self-discipline." 
     We can all admire the values Oak Hill embraces in its educational philosophy:
1. Deep down inside, all children are good.
2. Regardless of academic ability, every child is capable of success.
3. All children would rather succeed than fail.
4. Once a child gets a taste of success, he or she will want more.
     Those noble standards apply to the basketball team, tooexcept that we're not talking about children anymore. These are full-grown blue-chip student-athletes who have already been through the meat market of college recruiting. They've come from seven states and two other countries, leaving behind their families, friends, and hometowns to spend their final one to three years of high school here on "The Hill," polishing their college credentials. 
     The team flies to games all over the country. Last weekend, they played in a Nike tournament in San Diego. This coming weekend, they're off to Nebraska. In between, they have three home games scheduled, including the one we're watching against Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, a Chattanooga school that's no older than its seniors. Hamilton Heights has only 75 students but has attracted basketball players from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean.
     The game is close for most of the first half, but Oak Hill's talent is overwhelming. Dwayne Bacon, a sculpted 6-foot-6 Florida State recruit, is Oak Hill's highest-scoring player since the aforementioned Brandon Jennings, who was a first-round NBA draft pick one year after he graduated from Oak Hill. Daniel Giddens, a 6-10 Ohio State signee from Georgia, rebounds relentlessly and dunks acrobatically. Andrew Fleming, a 6-5 Iowa recruit from Tennessee, drains three-pointers. Jennings' half-brother, 5-11 whirlwind Terrence Phillips, is headed to Missouri. 
     Two juniors, 6-7 Joe Hampton and 6-5 Joshua Reaves, are already committed to Penn State. Looking at Hampton's 280-pound physique, you may think it's a shame Oak Hill doesn't play football.
     Oak Hill's rotation also includes players standing 7-0, 6-9, and 6-7.
     Hamilton Heights has several college-caliber players, too, but they don't have a chance. Nobody does in Turner Gymnasium, where the Warriors have lost just once in the last 18 years. Oak Hill dominates the second half, wins 83-55, and raises its record to 38-0.
     The Warriors can't lose for winning. If you saw them lose on ESPN last month in Memphis, you need to know that their opponent used an ineligible player, so Oak Hill won by forfeit and regained its undefeated record.
     Presiding over this juggernaut is Coach Steve Smith, an Asbury College graduate whose 30-year record is 973-63, surpassing his golf buddy Dean Smith on the list of most victories by coaches named Smith. After Dean died this past weekend, USA Today called Steve for his memories. It's worth reading
     The fact that he's accomplished all this at Oak Hill instead of some city school says a lot about how the high school basketball landscape has changed in the 30 years since USA Today launched its Super 25 national rankings and shoe companies got their foot in the door. If you grew up with the notion that you could watch the rise of a basketball star at your local high school, you're dating yourself. Nowadays, it's rare for elite players to finish their careers at the schools where they grew up. Instead, they matriculate to places like Oak Hill.
     Mouth of Wilson is not a townjust a post office a couple of miles from campus. There's not even a crossroadsjust a couple of abandoned country stores at the T intersection where Highway 16 from Jefferson, North Carolina, intersects Highway 58 between Galax and Damascus, Virginia. The "mouth of Wilson" denotes the little delta where Wilson Creek feeds into the New River. 
     If you're hungry for a McDonald's, there are none within 20 miles of Oak Hill, except for the 28 McDonald's All-Americans during Coach Smith's tenure. (Want fries with that? Down the river from Mouth of Wilson, there is a little town named Fries, but they don't have a McDonald's either.) 
     If you're thirsty for a draft, you may not be able to buy one in Grayson County, but at halftime you can step out of the stands and shoot at the same hoops as 28 NBA draftees have done.
     If you're serious about basketball, Oak Hill should be on your bucket list. 


From the Mouth of Wilson to the Big Apple

     Oak Hill pushed its record to 47-0 before losing to Montverde, Florida, 70-61, in the national championship game April 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
     Montverde is a 112-year-old private school west of Orlando that has now won three consecutive national championships. Last year's star player, D'Angelo Russell, made first-team All-America as a freshman at Ohio State. This year's star, Ben Simmons, is headed to LSU. He scored 20 points against Oak Hill and forced Giddens, to foul out.
     It wasn't a total lost weekend for Oak Hill. One of its graduates won a national championship: Quin Cook with Duke. That's one more champion's jersey for the gym wall back in Mouth of Wilson.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dean Smith and the Carolina Way

     Dean Smith was the reason I wanted to go to the University of North Carolina. Then Chapel Hill wait-listed me, Missouri accepted me, and I practiced journalism on coach Norm Stewart instead.
     Stormin' Norman probably got tired of my Carolina  perspective, but all I knew about basketball I learned from watching Dean Smith on the ACC game of the week. I admired the ways he innovated and integrated, how he used the four corners and the blue team, and how everything fit so neatly, from those V-neck jerseys to the almost-perfect graduation rate. I was naive, and it was the Carolina way!
    As far as I was concerned, Dean Smith invented basketball. In reality, he was only two generations removed from the creationhe learned the game from Phog Allen, who learned it from Dr. James Naismith.
     I am thankful that I had the opportunity to cover ACC basketball during Coach Smith's last five seasons, including the infamous feud with Clemson's Rick Barnes that climaxed with their courtside confrontation at the 1995 ACC tournament. 
     If you're looking at Coach Smith from the viewpoint of Clemson or ABC (Anybody But Carolina), I recommend this 2013 interview with Seth Davis, where Barnes goes into detail about their relationship and says that he wishes he had handled things differently.
     Two episodes from that interview reveal a lot:
     Reporters knew Coach Smith as the master of the backhanded compliment. When ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan summoned both coaches to his home in 1995 to work out a truce, Smith told Barnes, "You're the best coach I've ever coached against that can teach guys to foul without getting caught."
     "Really?" Rick said. "You think I'm that good? Tell you what, I'll write a book on what we do if you write the foreword."
     Two years later, in October 1997, the Barnes were at home in Clemson when the news broke that Smith was retiring. His 9-year-old daughter Carley asked, "Daddy, why did he quit?"
     "I told her I don't really know. I told her how great he was, and what he meant to me growing up in North Carolina. My wife told her, 'Why don't you write him a letter?' 
     "She wrote him a letter. And he wrote back a great letter and said wonderful things about me. He said great things."
     Barnes went on to say how much he respected Smith as a coach and as a competitor who did things the right way.
     You didn't have to be Rick Barnes' little girl to get a letter from Coach Smith. I found this out last March when I saw classic stories about Coach Smith by John Feinstein and Tommy Tomlinson and emailed them to a co-worker who graduated from North Carolina and is about the same age as Barnes' daughter. "You probably don't remember Coach Smith," I said.
     Oh, was I wrong! The next day, Hope surprised me by bringing in a package of Dean Smith treasures. As a little girl, she had written him letters, and Coach had responded to each one. In his last years of coaching, he didn't need to be cultivating little fans, but he did it anyway.
     It was the Dean Smith way. He would have called it the Carolina way. 
     If there was any mercy in his memory-clouding illness, at least Coach Smith was spared from seeing the Tar Heels tailspin from the Carolina way to the Carolina wayward. 
     None of that matters anymore. The Bible says heaven is a city built foursquare. Make yourself at home, Coach.