Gary Edwards Column
When my Francis Marion University men’s basketball team hosts Clayton State this weekend, it will be my 1000th game as a collegiate head coach. When our long-time sports information director, Mike Hawkins, informed me of this milestone, my response was, “I am an old person.”
But not really. I just got an early start, and I have been lucky enough through the years to navigate the minefields of this profession successfully.
When I was in the ninth grade at Norfolk Collegiate School in Norfolk, Virginia, Coach Larry Riggs brought me up to the varsity for the season ending Tidewater Conference Tournament. The Oaks upset the heavily favored Norfolk Catholic Crusaders and I was hooked…I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
I continued my playing career at Virginia Wesleyan College under Coach Don Forsyth. He hired me as Sports Information Director/Head Junior Varsity Coach/ Assistant Varsity Coach the day after I graduated.
After three years, my good friend Bob Valvano was instrumental in helping me land an assistant coaching job at Hofstra University. A conversation I had with the athletic director there at the time, Bob Getchell, paved the way for my future plans.
I asked him his opinion on the best way to rise in the coaching profession. He said, “Gary, you can be an assistant and ride someone else’s coattails, or you can get a program of your own and make your own mark.”
The latter choice appealed to me, so I applied for a job at tiny Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) in Wilson, North Carolina. The Bulldogs had gone 4-21 the year before, no one else wanted the job, so they hired me as the head coach.
I was 26 years old.
My first game was a thrilling overtime win over UNC-Greensboro on November 16, 1984. And the rest, as they say, is history.
There have been so many memorable games:
Atlantic Christian’s upset of Belmont Abbey to go to the NAIA National Tournament.
Point-guard Eric Burks hitting a last-second shot to give Charleston Southern the 1995 Big South Championship and the Buccaneers beating UNLV at UNLV the following year
Indiana University of Pennsylvania earning multiple trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
And I would have to rank this week’s win at #4 ranked USC-Aiken by the Francis Marion University men’s basketball team as one of the best, too.
I remember when Bruce Curtis, the Atlantic Christian athletic director, called me to tell me I had the job. I was standing in my basement apartment in Hempstead, New York, and I was listening to James Taylor sing, “Carolina in my Mind”.
Now, 1000 games later, I am still in Carolina doing what I love. And though I have more games behind me than ahead, I believe the best is yet to come.
Gary Edwards Column 2-02-19
I watched an NBA game on television the other night. I was with my Francis Marion men’s basketball team on the road, and I turned on the Houston Rockets game to kill some time in the hotel.
I really couldn’t believe what I was watching. Houston guard James Harden stood in the middle of the court dribbling the ball while his four teammates stood watching him.
When the 24-second shot clock wound down a bit, he would travel to gain spacing and then launch a 30-foot shot. Sometimes these scud missiles would find their mark, but many bounced harmlessly away.
I had not watched an NBA game in a long time, but I soon started talking to myself in my hotel room. This is the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player? This is how professional basketball is now played in America?
The answer to both questions is a pitiful yes. For a basketball aficionado, the current NBA is almost unwatchable.
Phil Jackson, who won multiple championships with the Bulls and Lakers, said, “...it’s really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game. Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball.”
After a pre-season tour of Spain, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook commented on how hard it was to guard the great professional basketball teams of Europe. He wasn’t used to guarding offensive players who actually move without the ball.
When I was growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, I would go over to the Jewish Community Center and watch the ABA Virginia Squires practice. I got a close up look at the talents of Julius Erving, George Gervin, and Charlie Scott.
As great as their individual talents were, they always played together, moving the ball with precision and skill. Basketball was meant to be a team game.
But former NBA commissioner David Stern made a conscious decision years ago to shift the emphasis of the league from team accomplishments to individual accomplishments. He wanted to market the so-called superstars of the NBA.
So now we have a handful of superstars and very few decent teams in the NBA. And the defensive rules (defensive three seconds and no hand checking) make today’s NBA player look better offensively than they really are.
I have played and coached basketball for over 50 years, but I didn’t recognize the game I watched on television the other night. I am not really sure what it is but I am not going to watch it any more.
I have a hard enough time watching my own team play.
Most sports teams huddle. Football teams huddle after every play. My basketball team huddles in the locker room, right before we take the floor for the pre-game warm up.
We all put our hands together; the coach says “1-2-3”, and then in unison the players say something like “Defense” or “Family” or “Patriots”. It is usually a very unifying moment as the team prepares for battle.
The other night the Francis Marion University Patriots took their home floor against Peach Belt Conference rival Augusta. Right before the game, as my team broke from the traditional huddle, they yelled, “Have Fun”.
Now I like to have fun as much as the next guy and I want my players to have fun playing the game of basketball, but that exclamation moments before one of the most important games of the year surprised me.
As it turned out, we didn’t have a lot of fun in the first half against the Jaguars as we missed 19 of our first 20 shots. We made a game of it in the second half but the damage was done and the visiting team came away with an 81-76 victory.
Do you think Patton’s profanity laced speech to the Third Army prior to D-Day in 1944 included the words “Have Fun”?
Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez made no mention of fun as he exclaimed “Burn the ships!” and gave his men no option but to press on in their conquest of Mexico in 1519.
I’m not comparing a basketball game to war, but there is an element of battle in every athletic competition. Sometimes you have to roll your sleeves up, get dirty in the trenches, sacrifice for all that is dear to you.
I have a framed cross-stitch in my office which states “Nothing we ever really want is easy.” I am not sure we are effectively teaching or remembering this life-lesson.
There was a time when this country embraced sacrifice. Remember “Rosie the Riveter” or the rationing of World War II? Those were not especially fun times but they were unifying times.
And the fun of victory was made sweeter by the sacrifice. The sweat and toil comes first; then can come the fun.
Our country needs that reminder now, and maybe I’ll mention it to my team today as we take on Flagler College down in St. Augustine, Florida. Let’s work together, play hard and play smart, and come away with a big road victory.
Now that will be fun!
There has been a lot of talk recently about the porous southern border of our country. Donald Trump wants to build a wall to help the situation.
If he wants to see porous, I can show him porous. Just come to Florence and watch my Francis Marion University men’s basketball team play defense.
In our last four games we have given up 120, 92, 80, and 83 points respectively, but have won three out of those four. Our record stands at 10-2 overall and 6-1 in the tough Peach Belt Conference.
On average the Patriots give up 86 points a game. When an opposing player drives to the basket we look like Manolete, the famous Spanish bullfighter, shouting “Ole” as the bull charges past.
We are not alone in our defensive ineptness. The Golden State Warriors of the NBA scored 51 points in the first quarter alone against the Denver Nuggets the other night.
The Philadelphia 76ers put up 83 in the first half against Minnesota on that same date, and a night later the Warriors beat the Pelicans, 147-140.
When the Oklahoma Thunder lost to the Atlanta Hawks, 142-126, OKC Coach Billy Donovan said, “What did we score, 126? That should be good enough for us to win.”
I hear you Billy, but my Patriots have averaged over 100 points a game since Christmas and I am still nursing an ulcer because the games have been so close.
It’s just a sign of the times. Defense is tough, and our society is now geared toward making things easier.
But easier is not necessarily better. I still believe defense wins championships.
We play Georgia Southwestern this afternoon on our campus at 3:30 p.m. When we traveled to Americus before the holidays we beat them in a very spirited contest, 90-85.
But we gave up 57 points in the second half of that game. It is going to be a monumental challenge for us to hold the talented Hurricanes to under 100 points.
I am not sure what our defensive game plan should be. Do you think the NCAA would let me build a wall?
The Francis Marion University men’s basketball team traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, this past Tuesday for a game against Shaw University. I drove from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and met the team in the Bears’ tiny gymnasium.
I had to meet the team because I am doing my best to care for my mother, Carol, who has been in a hospital and is now in a rehabilitation facility near our home. For two months now she has been unable to keep food down, and she continues to get weaker and weaker while the doctors continue to scratch their heads over the cause.
Jim Valvano used to be the basketball coach at North Carolina State, also located in Raleigh. Perhaps that is why my melancholy thoughts turned to him as I drove past the cotton fields running parallel to Highway 58.
Only 10 years after leading the Wolfpack to the 1983 National Championship, he sat down with Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith and spoke of his relationship with sports as he battled a cancer that ravaged his body and would soon kill him.
“The triviality of it just clobbers me,” he said. “You get this sick and you say to yourself, sports mean nothing. And that feels terrible. God, I devoted my whole life to it.”
I have devoted my whole life to sports as well. And yet, I thought about how insignificant this game against the Shaw Bears was in relation to the very sick mother I just left behind.
I got to the Shaw campus early and walked around. It was a clear, chilly night, and as I walked I talked to the moon and the stars and asked for many things; some for my mother and some for me.
And then the game began. The Bears boasted the #1 scorer in the nation, Amir Hinton, who was averaging over 35 points a game. Chances were slim my young Patriots were going to pull off an upset.
But we kept battling and hanging in there as the game went back and forth. The hostile crowd was going nuts. We kept our composure, hit some big shots down the stretch, and won the game, 80-72.
It was quite an accomplishment. “That is why athletics are important,” wrote British sportswriter Brian Glanville. “They demonstrate the scope of human possibility, which is unlimited. The inconceivable is conceived, and then it is accomplished.”
Months before his death, Jim Valvano said, “That’s it! That’s the value of sports. All those games, they mean nothing-and they mean everything.”
I drove back from Raleigh with a renewed spirit and optimism. I am bringing my mom here to Florence today to get some second opinions and to continue her recovery.
We won’t give up. We will never give up.