By Trey Williams
Graham Spurrier became a friend in the 1980s when he umpired softball while I kept score for the Johnson City Parks & Rec. He’d known some of my family prior to that.
“Hey, Trey-man. How’s Carl? How’s Denny,” he seemingly always said for the next 30-some years, asking about my father and uncle.
The 78-year-old Spurrier, whose younger brother Steve won a Heisman Trophy as a player and a national championship as a coach at Florida, died Dec. 14 due to heart trouble. He loved seeing musician Delbert McClinton in concert, singing Clarence Carter’s “Strokin” between beers at The Cottage and cutting a rug on a dance floor, which he did late into the night one year at the Murfreesboro Holiday Inn after Science Hill had won another state championship in basketball.
George Pitts might be as good of a coach as your brother, either I or Tommy “T-Berry” Berry said that night, comparing the Science Hill basketball coach to the “Head Ball Coach.”
Graham liked the fact that I appreciated his brother’s dazzling coaching display while taking Duke and Florida to new heights (and South Carolina as well later on). So there was no reason to smell a rat when Graham called with a scoop of sorts when Steve began trying to work his magic with the Washington Redskins.
Graham called in the summer of 2002. Steve was in town, he said, and neither TV stations nor any other media would be made aware.
I was excited with the one-on-one opportunity, but I didn’t meet Steve at the Johnson City Country Club so much as I blindsided him. Thankfully, Steve’s teammate at Science Hill, the outgoing Ken “Big Boy” Lyon, was there to take the edge off as only he could do. And Steve gave me an informative interview.
Graham called after the story was published and said he enjoyed reading it. I thanked him for the tip. I’m sure I was smiling and feeling rather satisfied.
“By the way,” he said with a buzz-killing tone, “we’re having trouble getting coaches for this 4-5-year-old soccer and I saw where your kids are signed up.”
Next thing you know, I’m coaching soccer players that’d rather pick clover.
“Graham could find us a coach for our youth teams better than anyone that ever worked for the department,” said David Carmichel, who worked alongside Spurrier for 11 years. “He knew many people, but he could really persuade parents to help out.”
Granted, Graham continued to alert me a number of times when Steve was headed this way, and once even invited me for another exclusive with Steve and his high school basketball coach, Elvin Little.
“Man, I wish I could, but I’ve had a hike on the Appalachian Trail planned for months that weekend,” I said.
Silence ensued. Graham surely thought I was kidding.
“The Appalachian Trail,” he yelled after a moment, as if I’d said I was going skydiving naked.
Graham found my declined invitation a little more palatable when I told him my hiking buddies would include Jeff Stott, a Plowboy Farmer Award winner while playing offensive line on Steve Spurrier Field at Science Hill in the 1980s. Graham was a proud Hilltopper.
He was a proud Spurrier too, though he was as comfortable in Steve’s shadow as he was being the center of attention. The two often went hand in hand.
Graham was wearing a South Carolina shirt and cap at a luncheon in the spring of 2015. The gathering, hosted by retired FBI agent Al Hamlett, included a regular turnout of local legends such as Ernie Ferrell Bowman (San Francisco Giants), Harley “Skeeter” Swift (San Antonio Spurs), Johnny Russaw (ETSU football’s Jackie Robinson), Billy Gene Williams (Langston and Dillard University quarterback), Ian Morrison (1963 Parade All-American who played basketball at North Carolina and Florida State) and Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart (Bluefield State football and basketball Hall of Famer).
Also in attendance were ETSU football coach Carl Torbush, who was preparing for the Buccaneer program’s first season in 12 years, and recently hired ETSU basketball coach Steve Forbes. A fan of Steve Spurrier, Forbes didn’t realize he was talking to his older brother when he addressed Graham.
“Graham was decked out in South Carolina gear and I didn’t know who he was,” said Forbes, now in his first season coaching Wake Forest. “I started messing with him and said, ‘I guess you are a Gamecock football fan.’ He responded, ‘Yeah, my brother is on the staff there.’ I replied, ‘He must be the equipment manager,’ and he quickly responded, ‘Nope, he’s the head coach.’ I almost spit out my tea and said, ‘The Head Ball Coach?’ And he looked at me and gave the wry grin that sent me the message of, ‘Yeah, (dummy).’”
Torbush also had a memorable introduction for Graham that day: “Boy, your brother ‘bout got our butts fired at North Carolina.”
Indeed, while coaching Duke to an ACC title in 1989, Spurrier’s Blue Devils won their regular season finale 41-0 at North Carolina, where Mack Brown was the head coach and Torbush the defensive coordinator. Afterward, Spurrier and his players gathered in front of the scoreboard for a picture.
Laughter erupted when Torbush mentioned the brazen photo op, and Graham smiled proudly while his brother stole the show from 250 miles away.
Forbes became friends with Graham and Elvin Little, Steve’s basketball coach at Science Hill. They’d see each other exercising at the Wellness Center.
“They always swore Steve was a better basketball and baseball player than football,” Forbes said.
Graham was a good basketball and baseball player. Indeed, Little might not have coached Steve at Science Hill had Graham not injured an ankle during his senior season (1959-60).
Graham was the primary ball-handler on a Science Hill team that was 19-4 and ranked No. 10 in the state when he sustained a season-ending ankle injury. Coach Bill Wilkins was in his third season and his Hilltoppers had beaten Buck Van Huss’ Hampton, which went on to win the state tournament that season, and ended Guy B. Crawford’s 43-game Big 10 Conference winning streak at Dobyns-Bennett.
But Science Hill lost four of its last six without Graham, including a season-ending loss to Erwin in the first round of the district tournament. Wilkins was dismissed and succeeded by Little, who had won a single-classification state title at tiny Lenoir City in 1958.
Wilkins often said Little was a far superior coach, but Wilkins was also known to say in joking-but-serious fashion that he wouldn’t have gotten fired if Graham hadn’t hurt his ankle.
“It was why (Wilkins got fired),” Scheuerman said with a chuckle. “There’s no doubt about it in my mind.”
Wilkins’ final Hilltoppers team had balance with 6-foot-6 Steve Wilson (17.2 ppg), Scheuerman (15.8 ppg), Spurrier (12.1 ppg), Bob France (9.1 ppg) and Larry Miller (8.4 ppg).
Scheuerman, who went on to start at ETSU, and Spurrier were backcourt mates. They hit it off quickly as outsiders of sorts. Graham moved from Newport to Wilson Avenue for his freshman year at Science Hill. Scheuerman moved from Defiance, Ohio to Peachtree Street prior to their sophomore year.
“So I’d go down to Kiwanis Park and I remember Graham coming down there,” Scheuerman said.
Eventually, they’d sit on the hood of a car in the parking lot at Texas Steer, where they might drink a beer while watching the girls go by.
“Graham was a super guy,” Scheuerman said. “He was the man to handle the basketball, and he was a pretty damn good baseball player, too.”
Indeed, Graham played baseball at Science Hill and ETSU. He hit for the cycle during a game with the Buccaneers, a feat that still injects pride into his younger brother.
“He hit for the cycle,” Steve said Sunday night. “Man, I wasn’t there, but that’s something very few people have done in the history of baseball. I correlate it to two hole-in-ones in one round. He was a good hitter and a really good baseball player, obviously. …
“I just remember the picture in the paper of him coming across home plate. They sort of had a play (at the plate). You know, at Mountain Home there was no fence. So you had to leg it out. And speed is something that’s not in the Spurrier family, that’s for sure. But they waved him on in, obviously, and he just made it by a yard or so before the ball got there.”
Who knows what Steve would’ve become without an athletic big brother to enhance his mental and physical toughness?
“The advantage is you were always playing him one on one in basketball and in football,” Steve said. “We’d try to get past each other – one-on-one tackle out in the backyards. I guess mostly the one-on-one basketball (was a benefit). He was three years older and it took me a while before I could ever beat him. I think I was 14 or 15 before I could beat him, and gosh, we were playing since I was three or four years old.”
Graham and Steve were Little League teammates in Athens when Steve was seven years old.
“For some reason my dad got me a uniform and I was only seven,” Steve said. “Graham was 10. He played a lot. I got in right field, I think, at the end of one game.”
Not long after the season, the Spurriers moved from Athens to Newport. Steve spent grades 2-5 there. Then came the move to Johnson City, where their father became the pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church.
“We played on the same church softball team for Calvary,” Scheuerman said. “Graham played center, I played left and Steve played right field. … I can’t remember who coached it. Reverend Spurrier didn’t. I’m surprised he didn’t. Bobby Jack Hamilton played shortstop.”
Steve recalled playing for that team, perhaps the spring before he left for Florida.
“I think Lonnie Lowe was the pitcher,” Steve said.
Scheuerman recalled watching Graham play for ETSU at Mountain Home, where the dugouts were dug out and many of the Veterans Administration residents would help pack those glorious, long-gone grandstands.
“The veterans loved it,” Scheuerman said with a warm chuckle. “Graham had pretty good power for his size. And he could roam the outfield and he had a good arm. During his senior year, I would say he batted second or third. He didn’t have much speed.”
Graham and Scheuerman visited Wilkins a number of times in his declining years.
“We had pretty good teams, and we had some guys that were pretty hard to coach,” Graham said with a laugh. “He did pretty good. That year I was there in ’60 we had a damn good ball club. … We just didn’t have any depth. If somebody got hurt or fouled out, we’s in trouble. …
“He (Wilkins) just wasn’t all about himself. He was a players’ coach, I guess you’d say. … He never took much credit for anything. It was always the players.
“Now, he had a temper and a half, I’m gonna tell you. But I liked playing for him; I think we all did. That’s why you saw us up there visiting him so often 50-some years later.”
Wilkins’ booming laughter was never far away while driving memory lane, and he might’ve laughed hardest when Graham and Scheuerman recalled eating at a steakhouse in Asheville prior to a game against Lee Edwards. Scheuerman ate all the fat off many, if not all, of his teammates’ plates.
“Shoot, I thought it was the best part,” Scheuerman said while Graham and Wilkins laughed. “It tasted good. Of course I had heart surgery (in recent years). I never was too smart.”
Wilkins resided in Elizabethton, and he got a kick out of another tale involving Graham visiting Elizabethton. Steve’s first year with the Redskins was Jason Witten’s first year with the Dallas Cowboys. So the week they met that season, I got Graham and Witten’s grandfather, iconic Elizabethton football coach Dave Rider, together for a picture and story.
Steve had wanted Witten to play tight end at Florida. In fact, when he was playing at Tennessee, Witten said he really liked Spurrier and Florida, but thought his best chance to reach the NFL was on defense, which was in line with the thinking of Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis and head coach Phillip Fulmer.
Three years later, Spurrier had a chance to get Witten again – in the NFL Draft. It was a surreally disappointing day for Witten, who was expected to be no worse than the second tight end taken. Stunningly, four were drafted ahead of him, and the Redskins traded away one pick and drafted wide receiver Taylor Jacobs with another when Witten was available.
Of course, all of this was the farthest thing from Graham’s mind when he was making conversation with Rider a few months later.
“Boy, I know Steve sure wanted Jason to come to Florida,” Graham said.
Rider, a succinct, square-jawed man’s man if there ever was one, didn’t miss a beat.
“Well, he sure didn’t want him with the Redskins,” Rider responded rather sternly.
The best I recall, Graham did little more than stammer for a moment, before a twinkle surfaced in Rider’s smiling eyes. Maybe he’d loaded that one up on the drive over and had just been waiting to pounce.
At any rate, we all agreed, getting with tight end-friendly Bill Parcells and the popular Dallas Cowboys was sure to make that draft a blessing in disguise. (Witten, now with the Las Vegas Raiders, is the only active player remaining from that draft.)
Graham had me momentarily reeling one day similarly to how Rider had caught him off guard. I’d mentioned how I liked former Science Hill football coach Mike Martin, and before I could finish, Graham vehemently disagreed.
His son Johnny was a quarterback at Science Hill, and Graham said if Martin had been candid about his intentions to run a triple-option offense, Johnny would’ve probably been a quarterback at a different Northeast Tennessee high school.
“I liked Martin too,” a chuckling Scheuerman said. “Boy, it just shocks me to see Graham gone. I’m gonna miss the ole boy.”
Graham and I agreed on seemingly everything else. We each thought former ETSU basketball player Skeeter Swift was wildly entertaining lunchtime conversation, and we probably spent 50-60 hours, at least, chewing the fat while eating with a number of local legends. I can still see Graham horse-laughing at the Cottage while Skeeter carried on with the likes of adept agitator Pete Paduch (Johnson City’s former mayor), the colorful Morrison and Scheuerman, who coached Skeeter at ETSU before leaving because of Skeeter’s hot-headed disposition.
“We need to get together and eat with Skeeter,” Graham said many times, and I’m thankful that his enthusiasm surely increased the number of luncheons we had.
Graham didn’t spend a lot of time talking about his legendary brother. He liked hearing about Morrison getting cursed by Adolph Rupp, Ferrell Bowman spilling champagne on Richard Nixon or Skeeter getting fired by Jerry Falwell.
Of course, the others wanted to hear about the Head Ball Coach, and Graham was more than willing to oblige. He always seemed happiest to recall Steve kicking the winning field goal against Auburn to essentially seal his Heisman Trophy triumph. Graham was sitting beside Steve’s new bride Jerri on the sideline when Steve made the improbable kick (he wasn’t Florida’s kicker).
“Jerri was right next to me when Steve kicked that thing,” Graham said. “She sort of went berserk when it went through. Of course, that won him the Heisman – that’s for sure. It was something to see.”
The postgame scene on The Plains was indeed one for the ages.
“Graham was on the field right after that,” Steve said. “And my wife Jerri was on the field. I had the ball in one arm and my other arm around Jerri, and he was standing right there with us. …
“He was a good man, Brother Graham, and hopefully he’s in a better place. And hopefully we’ll all see him again someday.”
Carmichel arguably knew Graham as well as anyone did.
“Graham was a great guy,” Carmichel said. “He loved his family, from Johnny to his parents, his sister and, of course, Steve. He talked about all them so lovingly.
“He loved his orange roughy and key lime pie. … He loved his Delbert McClinton music. Graham would go see him anytime he was in the area. He loved to get up and dance and there were many times he would be dancing in Knoxville and I would think, ‘If these Vols fans knew who he was what they would say.’
“I know the Wednesday night Cottage backroom group will miss him as well. He was a really good guy.”