There they were two weeks ago, Tim Whipple with his Irmo basketball team at one end of the gymnasium and Bailey Harris with his Lexington team at the otherwith a region championship on the line.
For more than two decades, Whipple and Harris have gone at each other while building perennial powerhouses at their respective schools. Along the way, they have established one of the most bitter high school basketball rivalries in the state.
Along that same path, the two also formed mutual admiration, Whipple praising Harris for launching a winning tradition at a school previously accustomed to losing, and Harris toasting Whipple for setting the standard for big-time basketball in the Columbia suburbs.
Yet for all the respect the two share, they never have grown close, either in basketball circles or away from the game. Each admits to copying parts of the other's blueprint to success. They share mutual friends. Yet Whipple and Harris never have formed a friendship.
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"I'm not sure why," says John Goodale, an Irmo Elementary School teacher and friend to both. "They're both great people. They both not only do a great job coaching basketball, but their main purpose is to make kids successful and instill habits for a lifetime. ... I just think it's both of their competitive spirit and nature."
How competitive? Let's just say getting the two together for a photo shoot was roughly equivalent to getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on health care reform. Not until the past few years have the two carried on casual conversation courtside before their annual games.
Do not misunderstand, though. There is no dislike between them. Neither can remember exchanging cross words. There just exists a distance that competition between the two and their programs prevents from being closed.
"I talk to a lot of coaches about what we do and how we do things," Whipple says. "But that never happened between us, that we've ever felt comfortable about talking about what we do in any way.
"I have the utmost respect for Bailey and what he has done over the years. But there's never been that relationship where it's developed past a professional situation."
Harris counters with the same.
"A lot of coaches hang out and do things outside basketball together, go to clinics together or play golf," Harris says. "It's the nature of the sport. Tim and I don't hang out together. We don't do things together.
"It's a very healthy respect from my side, because I think he's the best. In my opinion, he's just a little more of a to-himself kind of guy."
THE RIVALRY HEATS UP
To understand why the competition between Whipple and Harris has created a divide over the years, one has to comprehend the magnitude of the rivalry between Irmo and Lexington, located 14 miles apart and divided by the Lake Murray Dam.
Every year but two from 1990 through 2000, either Irmo or Lexington played in the Class 4A state championship game. Whipple's Irmo teams played in the state title game six times, winning it all in 1991, 1994 and 1995. With Harris chewing on the same blue towel he always has draped over his shoulder during games, Lexington played in the 4A title game four times from 1996 through 2000, winning championships on the front and back ends.
Early in his tenure at Lexington, Harris was welcomed to the rivalry. He recalls his team traveling over the dam to face Irmo. As soon as the Lexington bus reached the Irmo side of the dam, it was greeted by Irmo students who pelted it with eggs.
Whipple had established his program with 20-win seasons in 1983 and 1984 by the time Harris came along for the 1986-87 season. Harris inherited a 19-game losing streak from the previous season, yet Lexington managed to defeat Irmo in the first meeting between the two coaches.
The following season, the rivalry really heated up, boiling over when the teams met at Irmo. The first quarter took nearly an hour to play. An announcement over the public-address system was necessary to prevent officials from clearing the gym and completing the game without fans.
During pregame warmups, Irmo students disrupted Lexington's layup lines by tossing tiny bouncing balls onto the court. When the same students tossed dog biscuits at the Lexington cheerleaders, Lexington students retaliated by throwing a dead fish that landed at the feet of Irmo's cheerleaders.
Irmo students greeted their team's first basket of every home game by showering the court with rolls of toilet paper. Lexington students decided to do the same following their team's first basket. As Irmo school officials cleared the toilet paper from the floor, a soft drink cascaded down from the upper reaches of the bleachers and exploded at the feet of a Lexington player.
Then came the public-address announcement.
Irmo always has played in a gym that can seat close to 3,500. Until it opened a sparkling new gymnasium three years ago, Lexington played in a cracker-boxed size gym that originally seated about 800. By the return match that season in the regular-season finale, both teams were ranked among the top five in the state and the region championship was on the line.
The last ticket was sold one hour before the girls' game tipped off. About 500 fans beyond capacity squeezed into the tiny Lexington High gym. Fans in the front rows had to move their feet to the side so players could trigger inbounds passes.
When Lexington won, its students stormed the court, igniting a tradition at both schools that continues today.
The rivalry also continues to be peppered with incidents. During the 2000 season, after Lexington won at Irmo, its fans rushed onto the court. During the celebration, a plastic Powerade container was thrown from the Lexington section and smacked Whipple on the side of the head. When Irmo played the return game, Lexington students held giant posters of Powerade bottles with signs that read: "Duck!"
A season ago, Harris' oldest son, Drew, was ejected from the Lexington student section by Irmo security. Whipple says he knew nothing of the incident, but Harris still claims his son was singled out in the crowd.
"They didn't treat my wife very nice, either," Harris says.
The Irmo-Lexington rivalry has occasionally been compared on the high school level to that of North Carolina-Duke on the college level. If so, then Whipple is the Dean Smith of area high school basketball because he arrived first, and Harris is Mike Krzyzewski.
The difference between the two levels of competition is that Smith and Krzyzewski recruited players to their respective schools. Whipple and Harris, like all high school coaches, work with what is given to them each season.
For both, that has meant building a system based around playing fundamentally solid, disciplined basketball. For the most part, Whipple and Harris have employed former players as assistant coaches, players who know the system and how to teach it.
Whipple was born into an Army family in Leavenworth, Kan., and reared in Columbia after his family moved to Fort Jackson when he was 5. He is a Spring Valley High graduate, where he played basketball under coach Lee Coty, and later under coach Red Myers at Erskine.
Upon arriving at Irmo, first as an assistant, Whipple began attending the Saturday breakfast get-togethers with the legends of the Columbia inner-city game, George Glymph of Eau Claire, Jim Parker of Columbia, Ben Trapp of Keenan and Karl Williams of A.C. Flora.
Six years later, when Harris arrived at Lexington, he joined the breakfast crowd, which was immediately accepting of the two newcomers.
"What we saw were two young coaches who were trying to preach and teach the same things that we were doing," Glymph says. "Coaching is not just between the lines. You do a lot outside the lines.
"We saw those two young coaches doing the same things that we talked about, that we championed for, things that we thought basketball programs should be about. So we welcomed them with open arms. Yes, you come right on in because you're doing what we did."
When Whipple and Harris began winning, and winning big, the game had moved from the inner-city to the suburbs.
At the time, an Irmo administrator wrote a poem that characterized Whipple as having "a suburban team with an urban attitude." The same slogan could also have applied to Harris and his early Lexington teams.
Harris was a Butch Estes disciple, playing one season under the coach at Presbyterian and serving two other seasons as a graduate assistant. Estes learned the game from UNC's Smith and passed along his methods to Harris.
Harris is not ashamed to admit he often emulated Whipple in establishing his Lexington program, primarily in promoting youth basketball, AAU tournaments and instructing coaches at the middle-school level to teach the same fundamentals he was teaching at the high school.
Fundamentally sound basketball is important at schools like Lexington and Irmo because more often than not their teams are void of Division I talent. When a star does come along, both coaches and programs benefit in big ways.
BJ McKie was instrumental in Whipple's teams winning state championships in 1994 and 1995. He was gone the next season, when Harris' club reached the title game against Irmo with Tim Heskett as its star. Heskett later played at Oklahoma.
That 1996 championship game played at the Carolina Coliseum represented the peak of the Irmo-Lexington rivalry. Irmo was making its sixth trip to the title game in seven years, an incredible run that resulted in a 185-30 record. Lexington's appearance would be the first of four in five seasons.
When Lexington won, it marked the breakthrough championship for Harris and his program. There was little or no sympathy from Lexington for Whipple having lost a state title game to his closest rival.
"They had won two state championships in a row and beat us to death for 15 times in a row," Harris says. "I wouldn't feel sorry for them. He got no pity from me on that one, I assure you."
Harris says he believes that game resulted in a change in his relationship with Whipple. Following the game, Whipple was gracious in his comments about Harris and Lexington, something Harris says was not always true in previous years.
In the early years of the rivalry, Harris was occasionally bothered by what Whipple would say after games. When Irmo held a region opponent in single digits, Harris says Whipple stated publicly that maybe his team should have held the team scoreless.
It was not the first time Harris sat down and penned a pointed note to Whipple. Each time, though, Harris says he spoke with their mutual friend, Goodale. Each time, Goodale talked Harris out of mailing the notes. They went into the top drawer of Harris' desk, never to be seen by anyone else.
Whipple admits to helping foster what some perceived as ill will between the two.
"It probably took me about 20 years to realize that the opposing coach wasn't my enemy," Whipple says. "I was there to do war. I was there to do battle. The coach on the opposing team was the enemy. I was always respectful of any coach that I ever coached against, but there was no love lost at any point in time. There was always a line drawn."
Age and maturity often wipe away those kinds of lines. Whipple is 54 years old, Harris 46. Both have established themselves among the state's top coaches and both are pillars in their respective communities. Both continue to teach classes as well as coach.
Whipple will be married to his wife, Valerie, 30 years in June. They have two grown children, one of whom, Kate, will teach drama beginning next year at Lexington High. Harris and his wife, Beth, have been married 23 years. They have three children, all of whom attend Lexington schools.
Long gone are the days when three technical fouls earned Harris an ejection from a game or Whipple chased an official off the court following a game.
"Between the two of us," Harris says, "you wouldn't have wanted to be an official."
Whipple used to enter the court just prior to tipoff, thus avoiding the customary small talk and handshake with the opposing coach. Two weeks ago, when Irmo played at Lexington, Whipple and Harris chatted for a good 10 minutes prior to tipoff.
Whipple and Harris seldom sat together when scouting other games or attending summer camps. This past Thursday, the two sat side by side while scouting potential playoff opponents Summerville and Fort Dorchester.
That's not to say the rivalry between the two has vanished. Hardly. In their last head-to-head meeting, Lexington stormed back from a 17-point halftime deficit to win. As Lexington High students rushed the court, Whipple slumped in a chair at courtside. Before Harris approached Whipple to shake his hand, the Lexington coach turned to his fans in the stands and pumped his fist as ferociously as he did when Lexington defeated Irmo for the 1996 state championship.
Goodale says the competitive fire within Whipple and Harris burns as bright as ever. Neither have plans anytime soon to step aside from coaching. So, their competitive battles likely will continue to forge a gap in any possible friendship.
Goodale says he is confident that one day in the distant future he will host a cookout with Whipple and Harris as guests. Then, Goodale says, the two will reminisce about their Hall of Fame coaching careers and laugh about how competitive their rivalry became.
They might even become friends.