By Trey Williams
Charlie Bayless played basketball on two state tournament teams for John Treadway at Happy Valley, and his best friend Buck Van Huss’s 1,021 victories were within six wins of a national record when he died in 1990.
And when that trio attended Sonny Smith Day in Roan Mountain years ago, well, it was near the top of the list for Smith, who recently had a banner hung in Auburn Arena for his time coaching the Tigers.
Smith especially appreciated that day while reflecting Monday night after the 98-year-old Bayless had died earlier in the day.
“If you were growing up and you were thinking about going into coaching, there were three guys you wanted to be like and learn from them, and it was John Treadway, Buck Van Huss and Charlie Bayless,” said Smith, who coached Charles Barkley at Auburn after coaching players such as Bob Brown and Scott Place at ETSU. “Those three guys, they had more impact on young guys wanting to be coaches than anybody I know of. … Nobody had the impact on me like Buck Van Huss, Charlie Bayless and John Treadway – just watching the way they did things and all they accomplished.
“I remember they had a day for me on the Roan,” Smith continued.“John Treadway, Charlie Bayless and Buck Van Huss came. And you don’t know – it was hard for me to explain how much that meant to me that they would come all the way up on the Roan. This was back when I was at Auburn.
“Charlie was a great one. Jim Hallihan (Smith’s assistant and successor at ETSU) loved him. He’d go see him every year.”
Bayless played at East Tennessee State and was the head coach 59 seasons at Happy Valley, where he won 964 games, including the 1974 state championship.
A number of players from that team, including standout Marty Street, got together and visited with Bayless this past fall.
“I was so shocked with how sharp he was – his mind,” Street said. “He sat there and brought up a couple of different things about the team that he remembered and called out names and that kind of thing. I was surprised that somebody at that age had that much recall.”
Street assisted Jeff Sisk’s game-winning basket with three seconds left in a 44-42 Class S state championship win against Knox Catholic in Memphis. Sisk’s mother was Bayless’ sister, and she’d died in January that season.
“I do think it made it even more special that he made that winning shot,” Street said. “We didn’t think of Jeff even being related to Coach, because he treated everybody the same, which – he was hard on everybody. Coach was very demanding. He was hard to play for. He was hard to satisfy, which you really appreciated it, especially when you won games. But it didn’t make practice very much fun.”
Chuck Babb played center for Bayless (class of ’93) before working as his assistant nine years and eventually succeeding him in 2012. He’ll never forget his introduction to Bayless during his freshman season.
“There was such a mystique when I was growing up about going to play for Coach Bayless,” Babb said. “I’d never met him and the first day of freshman basketball he came walking in the gym. Of course, all of us were whispering, ‘There’s Coach Bayless. There’s Coach Bayless.’”
Before they knew it, Bayless was working with them on the Shuffle offense.
“He put me in the middle and was showing ‘em how to throw the ball into the middle and run the Shuffle Cut – the double-guard cut – off of it,” Babb said. “And he said, ‘When I cut off of ya, throw it to me right here on the layup.’ And you know, he looked ancient then, and I just kind of politely tossed the ball in there. And he grabbed it and he came over there and got in my face and he said, ‘You ain’t gonna hurt me. Throw the ball!’
“So the next time he came off of it, I threw it. And about the time I let go of it, he turned his head and started talking and it hit him right in the face and knocked his glasses off. Of course, that wasn’t a fun next couple of minutes. That was how we met.”
Babb quickly grew to admire Bayless, who was known for everything from coaching with Van Huss against Shaquille O’Neal’s team in the 1989 McDonald’s All-Star game to stall tactics (The Teepee) and iffy enunciation.
Street and Babb each chuckled recalling all-star settings where they had to “translate” for Bayless. Street played in the Tennessee East-West All-State game at Middle Tennessee State when Bayless coached.
“We practiced for three days before we played,” Street said, “and for three days, I was an interpreter. They didn’t understand a thing he said. I’d have to tell him simple things: he wants us to shoot layups.”
Bayless eventually got his message across in crystal-clear fashion.
“We were down 20 at halftime,” Street said, “and it was funny because everybody was slumped over in the dressing room and everything, and here comes Coach in the dressing room and the first thing he does is take a water bottle and throw it up against the wall. And you just saw everybody straighten up. Everybody got real stiff-backed and looking straight ahead. He got their attention. And we ended up getting beat in overtime.”
Bayless would usually talk about Street, Danny Webster and Doug Verble if he was talking about some of the Warriors greats he coached.
“He was a great basketball coach,” Babb said, “but my goodness, what a life. He used to tell me that he would go down behind Milligan College and trap animals and sell the furs to help his family. He was in World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and he guarded the prisoners at Nuremberg. He was a military policeman. He was just remarkable.”
Street said several times during perhaps an hour-long conversation that playing for Bayless was tough. Indeed, a kick in the tail might not even be a figurative deal.
But undying awe was Street’s prevailing sentiment.
“If Coach Bayless had told me to jump off the top of the gym three times to be a better player, I would’ve been finding a way up there,” Street said. “I mean that’s just the way I was. And I wasn’t by myself. I think that’s why we had a pretty special team. … He’s a big reason I got into coaching.”
Street coached at David Crockett a number of years when it hosted the Hardee’s Classic and Bayless’ Warriors would be one of the entrants.
Bayless was pushing 80, but still passionate enough to angrily throw his play-call ping pong paddles under the Crockett gym’s bleachers on occasion. Street, recalling the paddles from his playing days, eventually collected five from under the bleachers, and he cherishes them now.
“I couldn’t believe he could still coach with that much energy,” Street said. “Coach was amazing.”