Irmo coach Tim Whipple has guided 32 boys basketball teams during his tenure. He quickly agrees that the faces, names and styles change, but one thing remains constant.
The passion and desire to excel have remained for each of his teams. Eight times, those ingredients have allowed the Yellow Jackets to reach the state title game and five times they’ve walked off the court holding the championship trophy high above their heads.
That is the main reason Irmo’s boys basketball has been named one of the Midlands Best Prep teams in the The State’s Dozen Dynasties series.
“These kids from the last three or four years are exactly like the kids I coached in the 1980s,” Whipple said. “Do they look the same? No. But they get it. They look different and wear different clothes and the demographics have changed a lot but the kids are the same. They have the same work ethic with the same desire and have come from the same type of family upbringing. They understand what it takes to be successful and they’ve been willing to make those sacrifices to do it.”
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Whipple, who has the court named in his honor at Irmo, said the reason for the success has been the continued development of young men that he’s been privileged to work with over the years along with a strong support system.
“The coaches, the administration, the school, the parents, they all play a key role in our success,” Whipple said. “If I don’t have good assistant coaches who understand the mission of what we’re trying to accomplish, then it’s not going to happen. Then, obviously, if you don’t have players, you can’t do it. But for us to all work together and put ourselves in position to compete for a state championship, all of those things have to work together.”
The five state championships are tied for sixth best in boys basketball, according to the latest addition of Palmetto’s Finest published by the South Carolina High School League. Whipple has compiled a 624-249 record and his win total is good enough for fifth place in state history.
The cycle of success seems to be coming full circle for Whipple. He started his career at Irmo in 1981 and didn’t reach his first state championship game until 1990, when the upstart Yellow Jackets lost to legendary coach George Glymph and his powerful Eau Claire team.
Whipple remembers telling a group led by Pat Marshall and Marvin Orange to soak in the environment because there was no guarantee they would experience that feeling again. He thought maybe it was a once in a lifetime experience for them as well as himself. Little did he know that was the beginning of a stretch in which Irmo played for the state title six out of seven years. They returned the following year after the loss to Eau Claire and claimed the first championship with a win against James Island. They added championships in 1994 and 1995 with runner-up finishes in 1990, 1992 and 1996.
“After that first year, in no way did I think we would ever get back,” Whipple joked.
Those back-to-back titles in 1994 and ’95 were spearheaded by maybe the most decorated player that Whipple has coached: BJ McKie. He holds the school career scoring record and claimed that same title playing at South Carolina before enjoying a successful playing career overseas. Whipple made it back to the title game the year after McKie graduated but came up short against Lexington.
Irmo endured a 15-year drought of not making it to the state championship game before the Jordan Roper-led squad captured the title in 2011. Whipple said that was one of the more satisfying titles because of the long wait between championship games. He felt maybe that win solidified the program. There were several teams during that time that he thought had championship-caliber talent but came up short.
“What made two years ago so special is it came 15 years after our last state championship game,” Whipple said. “To me, that gave a little validity to our basketball team, that we were a legitimate program. All the teams that play now had heard about it, knew the tradition and knew the legacy but they couldn’t touch it because they never experienced it. It was old and kids don’t live in the past, they live in the moment. Now, it gave Irmo a chance to touch something right now.”
The Yellow Jackets were knocked out in the third round in 2012 but came back this season and accomplished something those great teams before this one never had done. Led by Justin McKie, BJ’s son, and Detrek Browning, they capped off a perfect season with a 65-46 victory against Goose Creek in the state championship game to give Whipple his first undefeated season.
If the win in 2011 didn’t do it, the victory in 2013 made this run a true dynasty.
“This past year was a culmination of a career,” Whipple said. “It puts you on the map as a dynasty, not just a school that was able to do something in a short period of time. We were able to go back and do it again. We were successful. We started this in the late 80s and were very successful during the 90s. We had great teams in the 2000s but were not fortunate enough to win one and we start this decade and have won two out of three. In the long haul, that is what a dynasty is all about. It’s very satisfying.”
Whipple has no plans to step away any time soon. The junior varsity team just completed an undefeated season and some of the those players might still be a year a away before they can contribute on the varsity level.
But the pride and enthusiasm that is in place is what keeps him coming back.
“Right now, I feel obligated to coach but only because I have kids that share the same passion for basketball that I do,” Whipple said. “I hate to wear out a phrase but they get it. As long as I have kids that get it, I want to be there to share it with them. When I reach the point to where I don’t have that passion or I don’t have the kids to coach that share that same passion, then I will walk away. But it’s so gratifying to see them want to be successful.”
That success has transcended generations. From the first team he coached up to the team that completed a perfect season, they all enjoy the success of the program.
“Having guys from a whole different generation feeling a part of that success is incredible,” Whipple said. “I get very emotional when I think of all the kids that I’ve been able to coach through the years, not for what they’ve accomplished on the basketball court but what they’ve accomplished in life. That is what a program is about. It teaches not what is important to be successful on the basketball court but what it means to be successful in life. I wish I knew how I did it.”