Science Hill coach Elvin Little left lasting impact
By Trey Williams
Steve Spurrier will tell you that few, if any, coaches had as much influence on his coaching style as Elvin Little did while coaching him in basketball at Science Hill.
Little, who died at age 88 on Thursday, was as competitive as Spurrier and every bit as confident as the Heisman Trophy-winning Head Ball Coach, who led Florida to the 1996 national championship.
“Coach Little, I tell you, what an influence he had on me and every player he coached,” Spurrier said Sunday. “He was a dynamic, energetic coach that loved competing, hated losing and really pushed us to be the best we could be. He was intense, and I tell you what, he ran the show. A lot of people that knew my background would say, ‘Steve, you coach like Coach Little.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ ”
Spurrier thoroughly enjoyed playing for Little, baseball coach John Broyles and football coach Kermit Tipton.
“But I was more like Coach Little than the others just because of our personality, or maybe the way we did it was similar,” said Spurrier, an ahead-of-his-time ball-handler who Little enjoyed allowing to engineer his ‘Four Corners’ after a steady diet of pick-and-rolls with Spurrier and post Bill Wilson. “I was a head coach and an offensive coordinator and a quarterbacks coach and called the plays. A lot of people say you can’t do all that kind of stuff. I always thought, ‘Let me tell you what Coach Little did.’ He was our offensive coach. Our defensive coach. Our free throw shooting coach. Our conditioning coach after practice. He told everybody what time the bus was leaving, and you better be on it. So he did everything, and that was just sort of the way I was taught maybe how to be coach – the way Coach Little did it.”
Little loved basketball. He often attended the Final Four, would tell you about personal meetings with everyone from Adolph Rupp to John Havlicek, and would avidly summarize an NBA playoff game even in recent years.
Little signed with Tennessee for football after being an all-state running back in Princeton, West Virginia, but quickly switched to basketball with Robert Neyland’s blessing. His greatest accomplishment as a coach was winning a single-classification state championship at tiny Lenoir City when he was 27 in 1958.
He nearly won another 10 years later at Science Hill, where he’d taken over in 1960 for Spurrier’s sophomore season. But the ‘68 Hilltoppers, who were led by Percy Hairston and Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart, fell to Richard Fuqua-led Chattanooga Riverside in the state championship game in Memphis after outlasting one of the tournament favorites, Memphis Carver, in the semifinals.
“Coach Little was always kind of brutally honest with you, and before we played Carver he basically told us that they were more talented than we were,” Tony Street said decades after being the point guard on that Science Hill team. “He was very quick to say, ‘That doesn’t mean we can’t beat them, but they’ve actually got more talent than we have.’ We didn’t run into that a whole lot, because we were pretty talented. So he challenged us with that. I think we kind of went out there to prove that wrong.”
Little often said Hairston and Stuart were the best duo he ever coached. He’d say Spurrier was the best clutch player and he’d waffle on whether or not Hairston or Gary Carter was the best all-around basketball player he coached.
He often said he could’ve won the state the year one of “Buck’s homers stuck Randy Ferrell with four fouls in the first quarter” in reference to Dobyns-Bennett coach Buck Van Huss.
And mentioning Morristown coach Gene Quarles, who’d played at East Tennessee State, invariably agitated Little. He recalled a brawl when a Morristown player fouled Spurrier by hitting his mask, which was protecting a broken nose, while Spurrier was quarterbacking a stall. Street recalled Little kicking a trash can at halftime of a game in Morristown during the 1967-68 season. Little said he was hot because Quarles had altered the rims somehow with tape.
“I enjoyed the three years I played,” said Carter, who helped Tennessee to an SEC tournament title and scored more than 1,000 points for Don DeVoe. “I enjoyed Coach Little. He helped me tremend
ously and he gave me the green light, and I liked that.”
Little won 431 games at Science Hill in 20 years (1960-79). His ‘Toppers finished third in the state in 1967, second in ’68 and reached the state three others times (1972, ’73 and ’76). He won 10 straight district tournaments (1968-77) and 13 overall with the Hilltoppers.
Little went on to become the athletic director and interim superintendent at Science Hill. After having his friend, Dennis Greenwell, succeed him in ’79, Little hired George Pitts in 1984. Pitts tallied three state championships and a runner-up, and overshadowed the sterling run by Little, who was practically self-deprecating about it in 2018.
“You know, a lot of people said I wouldn’t have hired George if I’d known he was gonna do all that,” Little said before punctuating it with silence and a mischievous smile. “I’ve had some good kids to coach in my lifetime. I’m 86 years old now and I’m getting on up there in the years. I think back about the kids that I coached, you know, and I’ve told ‘em, ‘Y’all did a lot more for me than I ever did for you.’”
Hundreds of players, of course, would disagree.