USC Gamecocks Football

Bass remembered as a man of character

USC football coach Marvin Bass in 1965.
USC football coach Marvin Bass in 1965. Courtesy of Mike Safran

They called him “Moose,” and the nickname fit.

“Shake his hand and yours disappeared,” former USC player Ken Lester said. Imagine that scenario, the disappearing hand, then consider his physically imposing stature, and one conclusion became inevitable: This guy has to be involved in football.

Marvin Bass was.

For more than 60 of his 91 years, his life revolved around the game. An all-star player in high school and an All-America performer in college, he coached at the college and professional levels and left a lasting impression on those he worked with, teaching not only blocking and tackling but also the lessons of life.

He died Friday, and his legacy will not be so much the honors he won on the field or the records of the teams he served. Rather, the positive influence he had on so many will be his signature.

Bass’ life on the coaching carousel included two stops at the University of South Carolina, and he made Columbia his home. He was a Gamecocks assistant from 1954-59 and was head coach and athletics director from 1961-65. He had a 3-2 record against Clemson.

No matter where his profession took him, his heart never strayed far from his players.

Talk to former Carolina players almost a half-century after Bass left the Gamecocks, and a theme emerges. The words might be different — “second father,” “a blessing,” “a great man,” “an inspiration,” “outstanding character,” “great role model and mentor” — but the meaning is clear.

Mike Fair, a state senator from Greenville, could talk about one of his favorite football moments — his 50-yard pass to J.R. Wilburn that ignited the Gamecocks’ comeback win over Clemson in 1965 — but he prefers to think back and “remember how much coach Bass did for us.”

Dan Reeves, who played for Bass at USC before leading four NFL teams to Super Bowls, recalled how Bass “came at a critical time in my life, and he became a second father to me.”

Reeves hired Bass on his NFL staffs with the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons, and his first attempt to bring his college coach to Denver tells so much.

“I got the Denver job and called him in Calgary to offer him a job,” Reeves said Friday. “The Canadian season had not started, and 99 out of 100 coaches would have been in Denver the next day. But he told me, ‘Dan, I promised these people (the Calgary Stampeders) I would coach their team this year,’ and he did. That defines his character.”

After joining Reeves, Bass provided wise counsel — especially off the field.

“He would tell me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear,” Reeves said. “Not many people will do that with a head coach.”

Jim Johnson, a tri-captain on the Gamecocks’ 1964 team, visited Bass on Tuesday and said his coach touched players in a way that still sends a powerful message.

“Coach Bass taught the gospel; he taught character,” Johnson said. “The Lord used him in mighty ways. He touched us in a special way, and that has passed down to our children and our children’s children. It was a great privilege to play for him.”

Said former Gamecock Benny Galloway: “It’s a blessing in my life to have played for him.”

Several players remembered Reeves’ arranging a trip to Denver for former players to honor Bass, and the theme never varied. “People came from all over the country, and everyone said the same thing in different words,” Pete Divenere said. “I always thought he was a man of few words with acts of grace and fortitude.”

“The thing is, you didn’t always see the good things he had done for you until later,” J.R. Wilburn said. “He was a great coach but even a greater person.”

Divenere echoed the thought, saying, “You could always count on him being there for you. I just wish we could have won more games, but I know a stadium full of people who will say that Marvin Bass made them a better person.”

Pride Ratterree, an assistant under Bass at Carolina, talked about how Bass always had his players foremost in his thoughts and said, “He might have been too nice to be a head coach. He showed integrity beyond football.”

Too nice? “He had his way of letting you know if he was not happy,” Wilburn said. “When he lowered those eyebrows, you knew a message was coming.”

Fair laughed about how Bass would give players “at least 39 last chances, and that had to do with the personal affection (he had) for the people he recruited. He made it a point to know his players. Even though freshmen could not play on the varsity then, he knew every freshman’s name. As I get older, I am reminded of how much he did for us.”

Reeves signed a USC grant-in-aid with assistant coach Weems Baskin, but after a sparkling performance in the Georgia all-star game, all schools sought him — and grants-in-aid were not binding. Soon enough, Bass and Baskin came to the Reeves’ home to visit.

“He told me the truth,” Reeves said. “He told me that USC had signed other quarterbacks and I would get every opportunity, and if I were the best, I would start. That was right down my dad’s alley. He told me, ‘Son, that’s where you ought to go to school.’ I agreed, and I’m glad I did.”

The relationship flourished, not only with Reeves but also with other athletes.

“The amazing thing to me is that all these years later, people were always coming back to see him,” Ken Lester said. “Then again, it’s not so amazing when you consider who he was and what he meant to so many people.”

Bass was an All-American football player at William and Mary and is a member of the Virginia and South Carolina athletic halls of fame.

Services will be held at Greenlawn Memorial Park Chapel at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Monday