A few years ago, John “Cy” Szakacsi began paring down his collection of trophies.
Over a career that spanned four decades, five sports, and two leagues, Szakacsi won seven state championships.
But 20 years after the end of his long and distinguished career, Szakacsi knew that his greatest trophies were not those that lined his shelves.
The treasures that shined most brightly for him, the prizes he chose to keep, were the letters from his former players.
“I had wonderful players, and it’s the players that make the coach,” Szakacsi said.
The letters flow with glowing praise and gratitude for the coach’s efforts and for his example. They represent the most significant of his accomplishments. Szakacsi, now 91, walks with a cane and does not get around as well as he once did. But in his retirement, the coach has prized the opportunities to keep in touch with many his former players and assistants.
And one afternoon each month, Szakacsi enjoys one of the greatest rewards of his career.
At Just Us Café in Cayce, a dozen or more of Szakacsi’s former players, some in their 70s, gather with their old coach. They talk about basketball, baseball and the good old days. And they put a smile on Szakacsi’s face.
“I’ve got some very good people that call and check on me every day,” he said. “And when we get together, they come from all over – Charleston, Hilton Head, Charlotte ... it’s great to see them.”
Don Saxon recently moved back to the area after living in Asia and showed up for lunch with his old coach.
“He’s the model old-time coach,” Saxon said. “He’s a somebody that you respected very much, and you knew he cared about you.”
Szakacsi is one of the most decorated coaches in the South Carolina Athletics Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He also is a S.C. Athletics Hall of Fame member.
The Ohio native came to Columbia to attend South Carolina on the G.I. Bill after World War II and became a multi-sport athlete. He scored more than 500 points for the Gamecocks basketball team from 1947-49. He also was a pitcher on the USC baseball team from 1948-50.
He began his coaching career in 1951 and led University High to back-to-back SCHSL Class B titles in 1961 and 1962 and a state runner-up finish in 1964. After University High closed in 1966, Szakacsi claimed a third state title with Class 4A A.C. Flora in 1969. After relinquishing his coaching duties at Flora in favor of the athletics director position in 1980, Szakacsi determined that he belonged on the sidelines. In 1981, he went to Heathwood Hall, where he coached football, basketball and baseball and led the Highlanders to state titles in all three.
Jack Haynes was with Szakacsi through most of his career, starting as team manager and statistician as an eighth grader when Szakacsi was at University High. As he graduated high school and then college, Haynes became friends with the coach and continued to work with his teams as a volunteer until he left Heathwood Hall in 1988.
“He was my hero,” Haynes said. When Haynes began coaching Little League baseball, he did not need to ask Cy for advice. “Just being around him all that time, he was a great example. You knew what he would do.”
Not that Szakacsi is the same now as he was when he was coaching.
“I have a little more patience than I used to have,” said the coach, who now spends much of his days watching sports and visiting with friends and family.
“One bad thing about being old, you outlive too many of your friends,” Szakacsi said. His wife died 11 years ago, and he is now the only living player from his high school football and basketball squads. Many of the acquaintances he used to chat with on his daily visits to his neighborhood Dunkin Donuts also have passed away.
But with dozens of his former players still eager to spend time in his company, Szakacsi will never be without a friend.