By Trey Williams
Basketball coach Brien Crowder won a state high school championship in Arizona, captured a National Little College Athletic Association championship at Bristol College after beating Paul Westphal’s team in the quarterfinals and coached the likes of Tiny Archibald’s son Keith and Ralph Sampson’s cousin Terry in junior college.
But the Science Hill alum, who has begun his second tour at Rhea County this season, isn’t sure he ever had more fun than he did while leading Antioch to a runner-up finish at the Arby’s Classic in 2006.
“My all-time highlight of my coaching career,” Crowder said Christmas night, “besides winning the state championship out in Arizona and going to the national tournament and winning and beating Carson-Newman and beating Milligan, of course, was to coach in the Arby’s. That tournament’s almost like a state championship.”
The Bears, who were led by Tahj Wells, Michael McAdoo and Kyle Upton, pressed their way to blowout victories against Unicoi County and Tennessee High before handily defeating Holy Cross (New Orleans) in the semifinals.
Wells has played professionally overseas and played at Walters State, where Upton also began his college career. McAdoo played football at North Carolina and was signed by the Baltimore Ravens before tearing an Achilles tendon.
Most of the fans in Viking Hall got behind Antioch and its large, animated coach.
“The fans were just crazy,” Crowder said. “I was told that we sold more T-shirts at Antioch than any other school that was there. And I mean, that was one on my bucket list (tournaments). It was the excitement of seeing all my friends and knowing so many people.”
Crowder couldn’t help but think about coaches such as Elvin Little, Dickie Warren, Bobby Snyder, Charlie Bayless and Buck Van Huss during the course of the week.
“If I’m not mistaken, George Pitts was the one that told (tournament director) Dale Burns that we had a good team,” Crowder said. “I just think how many good – great – basketball coaches and minds have come out of this area and it was a privilege and an honor for me to coach in that, and I mean that wholeheartedly.”
The Bears lost to Dr. Michael Krop (Miami) by double digits in the final. Four games in four days, particularly early in the season, was taxing for a pressing team.
“About everybody was pulling for us except Florida,” Crowder said. “Now, there’s gonna be a few Crowder haters out there, I know, that didn’t want us to win. But most of ‘em did.”
Crowder became accustomed to winning while playing for Elvin Little at Science Hill. He led the Hilltoppers in scoring (approximately 17 ppg) as a senior in 1975-76, which concluded with a state tournament loss. The team included sophomore Gary Carter, a future 1,000-point scorer at Tennessee, and Walter Bradley, who also played with Crowder two seasons at Milligan College.
Science Hill defeated Oak Ridge, 76-65, in the sectional (Sweet 16) at Freedom Hall. Carter had 23 points and 18 rebounds and Crowder scored 22 points, including 10-for-11 free throw shooting.
Science Hill lost to Brownsville in the first round of the state tournament. Crowder, the Hilltoppers’ lone double-digit scorer, had a team-high 18 points.
Among the 6-foot-3 Crowder’s favorite high school memories is hitting a jump-shot from the foul line with two seconds remaining to beat Greeneville, 52-50, in Freedom Hall during his junior season. Crowder scored eight of Science Hill’s final 10 points.
“Greeneville had Tank Black, Mike Blue and (Gary Treece) and all them,” Crowder said. “I scored like eight points the last minute and a half or something. Daddy (Frank) always said he (Little) threw the chair up when I hit it.”
Crowder also hit a game-winner in Greeneville while playing for former East Tennessee State assistant Gary Scheuerman’s North Junior High team.
“We tore the nets down,” Crowder said.
Crowder respected Little and didn’t regret playing for him. He would, however, have been open to the idea of Science Hill playing at a faster pace.
“We had some players,” Crowder said. “Gary Carter was a sophomore, but he could do anything. He was a competitor, a winner. And Walter Bradley was a very good player.”
The outspoken Crowder clashed at times with the unyielding Little, a West Virginian who played at Tennessee after initially signing for football. He won a state title at Lenoir City before coming to Science Hill in 1960.
“He was pretty mean,” Crowder said dispassionately. “One time I screamed back at him and he smacked me and I had five fingers on me the next day. I said, ‘Look here, he bruised my leg.’ Daddy said, ‘What’d you say?’ I said, ‘I yelled back.’ He said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have yelled.”
Crowder said Scheuerman was good preparation for Little.
“Coach Scheuerman could get after you too,” Crowder said. “He’d grab me by my hair. I had long hair.”
Crowder considered transferring to Daniel Boone at one point during his Science Hill career. Little reminded him of that when the team bus passed the Gray exit on the interstate while bound for Murfreesboro.
“We were going through Gray on the way to the state tournament,” Little said some 30 years later, “and I said, ‘Now see Brien, if you’d gone to Boone you’d
be sitting over there in a classroom today instead of going to the state tournament.’ And Brien said, ‘If I’d
gone to Boone you all wouldn’t be going to the state, Boone would.’
“Brien was a little bit different kid, very colorful. He liked to talk a lot, but I think he likes to talk more (since he became a coach).”
Crowder never took any of it personally. In fact, he recently had lunch with Scheuerman and his fifth- and sixth-grade coach at North Side, Carl Williams, at Carver Rec.
“I got to eat with Carl Williams and Coach Scheuerman last week,” Crowder said. “You don’t know how blessed I was to have those guys. … I’ve taken something from about every coach I’ve ever played for. You know, all coaching is is stealing from everybody else.”
Crowder played two years at Wofford and started as a sophomore. He had 16 points, five rebounds and three assists in a win against Piedmont.
He transferred to Milligan and averaged double figures for Phil Worrell his final two seasons.
“Coach Worrell, Coach Scheuerman and Coach Williams are my three favorites,” Crowder said.
Bradley and Crowder scored 27 and 17 points, respectively, in a 93-72 rout of Jerry Green-coached UNC Asheville in Steve Lacey Fieldhouse in December of ’79 (Crowder’s senior season). Crowder was 8 of 10 from the field. Most of his shots, as was always the case, came from the perimeter.
“I shot 3-pointers when they were worth two points,” said Crowder, who added that his shooting range deepened while growing up at 109 West Chilhowie getting his driving shots blocked by the Stuart brothers – Sammy, Charlie and Buddy.
“I liked driving,” Crowder said. “I liked Pistol Pete and I liked Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe and his spin moves. But when I’d go to the basket the Stuarts would block it and I’d have to walk after it. So I just kept backing up.”
Milligan played an exhibition game with an experimental 3-point line during Crowder’s career.
“Brien hit three threes in the first two minutes,” Milligan teammate John Dyer said, “and he got tired: ‘Coach, take me out.’”
Worrell also noted Crowder’s deep range.
“Brien salivated at the possibility of playing a game where all of his shots would count three points,” Worrell said. “We never let him shoot if he got close to the basket. And he had a good game. … He was loving that 3-point line.”
When Crowder coached at Northland Pioneer Community College in Arizona one of his assistants was Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s father Vince. Mike was a touted recruit in the area at the time and might have played for Crowder had he not made a high enough ACT score to get money at NCAA Division III Pomona, where he was initially recruited by Gregg Popovich.
Of course, Budenholzer formed lasting bonds with both coaches. He began his NBA career with San Antonio and he spoke on Crowder’s behalf when he was applying for a job in Florida. Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks were in the playoffs at the time.
“Brien’s basketball knowledge and passion for the game are very special,” Budenholzer wrote in the recommendation. “His work and efforts with Northland Pioneer College (with my dad as his assistant) were excellent and beyond anyone in that area’s hopes for that program. I gladly recommend him to you.”
Crowder chuckles thinking about Budenholzer spending time singing his praises while prepping for an NBA playoff game.
Crowder bested a future NBA coach when he led Bristol College to a national quarterfinal win against Westphal-coached Southwestern College (Phoenix) in Viking Hall in 1986. Bristol College had players such as Jaymie Jenkins (Daniel Boone), Granville Arnold (Sullivan North) and Crowder’s brother Steve, who set a career scoring record at Sullivan Central. Arnold was out with an injury in the national tournament and former Sullivan North teammate Derrick McGlothin filled the shoes by playing his way to tournament MVP.
Crowder said he talked to Westphal a number of times through the years, even getting tickets from him for an NBA game.
Steve Crowder, some would say, was a better all-around player than Brien. Steve played in 10 games at Fairleigh Dickenson during the 1987-88 season.
“Well, we were different types of players,” Brien said. “Steve could score inside. I had to score all outside. I think we both were very clutch players.”
Steve is in his first season as head basketball coach at Mt. Pleasant. He previously coached at Palmetto Ridge (Florida).
He had followed Brien to Florida. Brien, who became known as “Briefcase Brien” thanks to sportswriter Bill Lane, coached in Kingsport (Draughons College), Bristol, high school and junior college in Arizona, Savannah, Georgia (South College) and four stints at three schools as head coach in Tennessee.
He coached Nate “Tiny” Archibald’s son Keith in Savannah.
“Nate came to my house after a game,” Crowder said. “He was at Georgia as Hugh Durham’s assistant right before he went to UTEP. He was very humble. You’d never known he was a Top 50 NBA player.”
Crowder began his career coaching at the Johnson City Boys Club and in the Johnson City Parks & Rec programs. He coached at North Side elementary school and coached Derrick and Mikey Bristol at Stratton elementary. The Bristols started on Science Hill’s 1990 state championship team.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Crowder, who is currently 10-7 at Rhea County, which went 6-16 last season before making a coaching change.
Crowder will turn 65 in April. He has a house on Boone Lake, where he plans to retire. But he has a lot of underclassmen and might coach one more year. In fact, an Arby’s invitation next year would probably seal his return.
“It was a great week (in 2006),” Crowder said. “My dad was there and he was so proud. Our principal from Antioch drove up in her sports car just to watch that final game. And to see the TV (crew) that was there for SportSouth, and to be in our locker room and taping us before we went out, the excitement was just – you can’t explain that experience. Yeah, I’d love to do it again.”