THE FIVE MEN sat, one in a wheelchair and the others in wooden chairs, outside the cinderblock building just off S.C. 200, smack in the middle of downtown Great Falls.
On this unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon, talk turned, as it usually does, to the way things used to be in Great Falls, back when three cotton mills kept the area economy thriving and nearly everyone in town worked and lived in the tiny community located 40 miles north of Columbia.
Today, the mills are gone. Great Falls has evolved into the classic bedroom community with most of the working population of 2,000 employed in nearby Chester or Lancaster or Rock Hill. Downtown is boarded up and virtually shut down.
No sign hangs over the gathering place for the five locals. You have to trust that the building behind them “used to be McCoy’s Grill.”
With all the change over the years, there remains one constant in Great Falls.
“Everywhere you go around here, all you hear is basketball, basketball, basketball,” said William Henry Perry, 63.
High school basketball might be the only local entity that has enjoyed sustained success, all the way back to the 1930s. Banks McFadden, later a two-sport All-American at Clemson, led Great Falls High to state basketball championships in 1935 and 1936. Elizabeth Heights High, the town’s black school before integration, claimed numerous state basketball titles in the 1960s.
Then a 22-year-old out of Newberry College arrived in September of 1969 to coach the boys basketball team at Great Falls High. John Smith’s only qualification for coaching was his family’s friendship with the athletics director, Harvey Stewart, who needed help so he could concentrate on coaching football and baseball.
Forty-three years later, Smith’s 892 wins at Great Falls are the most in South Carolina boys’ basketball history. On Saturday at Colonial Life Arena, Great Falls will compete in its 19th state championship game under Smith. The Red Devils seek their eighth title under a coach who never has given serious thought to leaving Great Falls for another job.
So, when you sit to eat lunch with Smith at the Wagon Wheel restaurant in nearby Fort Lawn, you quickly come to understand why he has earned his place as the most successful and respected basketball coach in the state.
Sitting across from you, Smith might as well be another Smith at the University of North Carolina. John Smith sounds like Dean Smith in the way he deflects all credit for his success and wishes you really would talk about anyone but him.
John Smith says he has not won a single game at Great Falls, his players have. He profusely praises his assistant coaches — Jeff Holmes, Floyd McCrorey, David Rice and Leon Bouleware. He talks about remembering the 230 losses more than any of the wins.
Then he turns professorial.
On changing his coaching style over the years: “You have to adapt. You have to change your system to stay successful. If I’m too slow, I’m going to back up and play defense 25 feet from the basket. Now, if I’m quick as a cat and can press, I’m going to play defense 94 feet. ... You have to fit the system to the players.”
On a code of conduct pledge each player and his parents must sign prior to every season: “It is a privilege to play. It’s not a right. It’s a privilege. So, take advantage of it. If you don’t want to do this, I’ll still love you. Shake my hand and go on home, but I still love you. ... It’s not quitting. If you don’t want to spend the time to work on it, we’re not going to be successful.”
On using peer pressure in doling out discipline: “I’ll say, ‘I’m going to get a drink of water. You all solve it because I’m not happy with (a particular player) right now.’ I’ve been successful because the players put pressure on themselves. I don’t get tried because of peer pressure, community pressure, athlete pressure. If it just came from me, I wouldn’t be successful.”
On winning and losing: “It’s not a life-and-death situation. I’m going to be fine whether I win or I lose. I tell the kids the same thing. Nobody died. Nobody got hurt. We just lost the game, that’s it.”
On the only technical foul — yes, only one — he was assessed during his career, sometime in the 1980s: “You always preach that you want to keep your composure. You have no control over the officials. Therefore, if you’re spending all your mental time and effort correcting them, you’re not watching the other team. You’re not picking up on things that you could be correcting against the other team.”
All of Smith’s philosophy’s on teaching and coaching have been modified over the years, just as many of the traditions of Great Falls basketball have been altered over time.
The 6-foot-7 Smith used to jump behind the steering wheel of the team bus for all road games. Only in the past few seasons has he ceded bus-driving duties to an assistant coach ... once the playoffs begin.
Smith’s wife of 40 years, Anne, once kept the Great Falls scorebook at courtside for nearly every game, home and away. She finally gave up scorekeeping a few years ago.
Anne also presented her husband with a red-velvet cake for each of his milestone victories. The same kind of cake with homemade icing went to the team after significant wins. No more. Instead, the head coach treks to Sam’s Club in Columbia where he purchases cupcakes and oranges for team celebrations.
Rest assured, there is not a young man in Great Falls who does not know of the school’s traditions, the most storied of which is the hanging of state championship team photos in “The Barn,” as Smith calls the school gymnasium.
“When you grow up as a little kid, you want to play for Great Falls and coach Smith,” says Holmes, the assistant varsity coach for the past 18 years who played four seasons, concluding in 1982, under Smith.
Holmes was a middle-schooler when he listened to the radio broadcast of the 1977 Class A championship game at Irmo High, dreaming of being a Red Devil. Great Falls defeated H.E. McCracken High of Bluffton that year for Smith’s first state title.
Back then, the play-by-play broadcast of playoff games was aired on a Chester radio station. These days, there are no radio broadcasts, so most of the town’s residents get in their cars and drive to Columbia for the championships.
The return drive home will be even sweeter on Saturday if Great Falls wins what would be the Smith’s eighth — and the school’s 10th — state title. That would secure the state record for most boys’ basketball championships.
Such a mark will be talked about back at what used to be McCoy’s Grill for years to come. The team will celebrate with cupcakes and oranges. And John Smith says he likely will return next season in search of yet another Great Falls state championship.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)