Ron Morris

MORRIS: Sandy Gilliam was a coaching legend, but fame eluded him

rmorris@ thestate.comJune 21, 2014 

SANDY GILLIAM DIED recently in Lancaster at age 81, leaving a legacy as one of the most outstanding coaches in South Carolina high school football history. Sadly, few took notice. Fame largely eluded Gilliam.

Most of Gilliam’s coaching success came at black high schools prior to integration.

Willie Jeffries, the longtime hall of fame coach at South Carolina State, played one season of high school ball in Union under Gilliam. Jeffries later coached under Gilliam and still sings his praises.

“Sandy was ahead of his time in coaching,” Jeffries says. “He was an excellent X-and-O coach. Plus, he knew how to coach young men. He was very good at it.”

Records from the now-defunct black high schools are difficult to find and verify, so it is nearly impossible to determine how many regional and state championships Gilliam’s teams won. No doubt, Gilliam did not have enough fingers and thumbs to hold all his title rings.

This we do know about Gilliam: His overall record in football, basketball and baseball through stints at Sims High in Union and Barr Street High in Lancaster was an astounding 235 wins against 23 losses. Then Gilliam took his coaching expertise to Maryland-Eastern Shore (then called Maryland State) where his football teams went 24-11-2 and his baseball teams were 211-15.

emphasis on education

Yet for all his successes on the football and baseball fields, Gilliam likely is best remembered for his emphasis on education with his athletes, which is quite remarkable considering Gilliam’s humble upbringings and those of his parents.

“He never coached me, but as a son and someone who has watched him in everything else, the thing that made him truly great at what he did was that he cared about the people he coached,” says Rosey Gilliam, the oldest of Sandy Gilliam’s three children. “You talk to anybody he played for, and they will tell you he encouraged education first.”

Gilliam grew up in Union where his parents worked for Gen. Miller Arthur’s family. Gilliam’s mother was a maid and his father a chauffeur. Neither of Gilliam’s parents graduated high school, yet they imparted on their only son a belief that education was paramount to finding a better life.

Gilliam was a three-sport start at Sims High and the same at Allen University, where he graduated in three years. Then he earned a master’s degree at Indiana University and returned to South Carolina to coach.

Along the way, he married Betty Davis, who hailed from a similar low-income background in Union. Her mother died of cancer when Betty was young, and she was raised by her father, who, as a custodian, once had the Union High yearbook dedicated to him. Betty eventually earned her master’s degree from Winthrop.

The Gilliams had three children, Rosey, now a cardiology doctor at the University of North Carolina; Patrice, who earned her doctorate at USC and is a guidance counselor in the Lancaster city schools; and Wayne, a dentist in Lancaster.

“All three of us read all the time,” Rosey says.

Rosey said he made the mistake as a youngster of returning home from school one day without a book in hand. His father immediately called the school and requested more homework for his son, who never again forgot to tote books home.

Sandy Gilliam was a disciplinarian as well. He served in the Army and carried some of the discipline learned in the service to the athletics fields and to his family. His three children routinely faced room inspections on Saturdays.

Once, when Dad carted his two sons to a USC football game in Columbia, they brought along a friend who sported fashionable, long braided hair and a hat.

“Son, we have 60 miles to get your hair looking like a young man or you might as well sit in the car for the game we’re going to watch,” Rosey recalls his father telling his friend.

‘A better opportunity’

In 1963, Gilliam surprised even his family by announcing that everyone was moving to Maryland so he could be a college football coach at Maryland State. Then Dad caused quite a stir when he enrolled his three children in white schools.

“He felt it was a better school and gave us a better opportunity,” Rosey recalls. “End of conversation.”

Jeffries says Gilliam’s teams were equally opportunistic over the years. The two grew up in Union and attended the same St. Paul Baptist Church there. When Gilliam was later coaching at Sims High and Jeffries was playing at S.C. State, Gilliam occasionally visited Orangeburg for games.

Once, Jeffries says, S.C. State ran a perfectly executed tackle-eligible play for a 70-yard touchdown pass to All-American Deacon Jones. A little later in the game, S.C. State attempted the same play, but the opponent recognized it and blew it up by smothering Jones before he could catch the pass.

Afterward, Sims folded a couple of dollars into Jeffries hand while commenting on the tackle-eligible plays.

“You should have just faked the pass to Deacon, let them wrap him up and swung your back on a flare pass, and he would have gone the distance,” Jeffries recalls Gilliam saying.

It was the kind of thinking that made Gilliam one of the great coaches in South Carolina high school football history.

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