To fully appreciate Art Baker’s love of football, you should know his hand has been in coaching for nearly seven decades. The 84-year-old former head coach at Furman, The Citadel and East Carolina earned his first head-coaching assignment when he was 17.
In the fall of 1946, young Baker took his Sumter High B team to play the Columbia High junior varsity in Columbia.
“Where’s the coach?” Baker recalled the opposing coach say as he looked past the kid who was the same age as the players he was coaching.
“That’s me,” Baker said, proudly.
“No, I mean the real coach?”
“I’m the only one we got.”
Baker’s team then administered a 35-0 whipping on the older gentleman’s team en route to completing a 10-0 season. From there, Baker never had any doubts what he wanted to do with his life.
“I believe strongly that the good Lord has a plan for everything,” Baker says, “because too many strange things happened in my life.”
Nothing was stranger than the way he landed the B team coaching gig. A year earlier, as a sophomore at Sumter High, Baker and his parents began plotting a way to pay for his college education. Baker’s father, who worked for the Corps of Engineers at Shaw Field, had an idea.
Young Baker enlisted in the Army, figuring that by the time he returned from service, the GI Bill would pay his way through college. He was assigned to basic training in El Paso, Texas, but returned three months later when his mother blew the whistle on his enlistment, revealing to the Army that her son was too young for service.
So, Baker returned to Sumter High, only to learn he was ineligible to play football that year. Larry Weldon, the Sumter coach at the time, named Baker the head B team coach.
“I knew football,” Baker says today of his qualifications for the job. “I had played football since the eighth grade and I always liked to learn what everybody else did on the field.”
A year later, Baker was off to Presbyterian College to play football, facing yet another unusual circumstance to get there. Baker was among four Sumter High grads who tried out for scholarships at Presbyterian. Lonnie McMillan, the Presbyterian coach, liked what he saw and offered all but Baker a scholarship.
Joe Kirkland, one of the other three, returned to McMillan’s office and said the “Sumter Four” were a package. McMillan relented and offered Baker room, recycled books out of a box, a job washing dishes in the cafeteria, and a spot on the Presbyterian roster.
Baker was a starting running back by his senior year and ready to go into coaching. His first job as head coach at McColl High paid an annual salary of $3,600 and meant leading the football, basketball and baseball teams. Lucky for him, the school’s principal coached the girls basketball team.
At every stop of his coaching career, Baker seemed to encounter programs that were strapped financially. He learned early how to pinch a penny. At McColl, he dressed his team in the worst uniforms he could find for a scrimmage, knowing that the grandfather of two players also was the president of one of the local mills. The next day, the grandfather ordered new uniforms for the team.
Eric Hyman, now the athletics director at Texas A&M, served four years as an assistant coach under Baker at Furman. Hyman recalls the assistant coaches recruiting early in the morning, then helping the athletics department save money by snacking on crackers for lunch before hitting an all-you-can-eat salad bar for dinner. Baker combed the receipts of his assistants.
Years later, when Hyman was the athletics director at South Carolina, Baker was an advisor to the USC football staff. Baker turned in a 50-cent receipt for an ice cream cone, and Hyman rejected it by claiming, with a chuckle, “what goes around comes around.”
Baker turned a 2-9 team the previous season into a 7-4 club during his first season at Furman. He finished with a winning record (27-24-4) in five seasons there, and did the same at The Citadel (30-24-1) in five seasons, operating on short budgets and few resources.
When he arrived at East Carolina in 1985, that program was dealing with 18 NCAA violations, operating in the red financially and suffering from an academic image problem. To deal with the financial shortcomings, ECU scheduled “money” games in Baker’s four seasons against N.C. State, Penn State, Miami, USC, Auburn, LSU, West Virginia, Florida State, Illinois and Virginia Tech.
With an annual schedule like that, it was no wonder Baker’s teams never produced a winning season at ECU, but he is largely credited with building a sold foundation for teams that followed.
Baker was known for surrounding himself with outstanding assistant coaches, and for his teams being grounded in the fundamentals of the game. Among his hires at Furman were future head coaches Bobby Johnson, Jimmy Satterfield and Dick Sheridan.
Baker claims he learned most of what he knew about teaching football when he was the head coach at Newberry High for two seasons in the late 1950s. He became friends with his Sunday school teacher at the Methodist church in Newberry. That was Harvey Kirkland, who also happened to be the Newberry College football coach.
“I believe he was the smartest football coach we’ve had in a long, long time,” says Baker, now retired in Columbia. “When coach Kirkland said you took a six-inch step, it wasn’t four, it wasn’t eight, it was six.”
Baker traveled with the Newberry College team, and vacationed with the Kirkland family on beach trips. Many times, on the beach, Kirkland demonstrated techniques for blocking and tackling to Baker.
Kirkland also infused a love for football into Baker, which he set about passing along to coaches and players over a period that would eventually span almost seven decades.