By Trey Williams
Sidney Smallwood was arguably the most important person in the history of Science Hill athletics.
Not only did he hire coaches such as Kermit Tipton, Elvin Little and Bob “Snake” Evans during his decades-long run as athletic director, he also facilitated the move of Steve Spurrier and his family to Johnson City from Newport after seeing a 12-year-old Steve and his 15-year-old brother, Graham, playing sports at a summer camp in Montreat, North Carolina.
Smallwood said he’d gotten to know the Spurrier’s father, John Graham Spurrier, when the reverend occasionally brought a veteran from Newport to receive medical assistance at the Veterans Administration. A fellow Presbyterian, Smallwood liked John Graham, and he chuckled warmly while saying that watching Spurrier’s sons play sports recreationally in the North Carolina mountains might’ve made him even more likeable.
So Smallwood, a longtime member of First Presbyterian Church, lined Spurrier up to preach at Calvary Presbyterian Church – a good Spurrier punt from the Kiwanis Park he would make famous.
Smallwood said it was readily apparent the first day in Montreat that Graham could be a good high school athlete, and the sky seemed to be the limit for Steve, who had exceptional hand-eye coordination and an “it” factor in his confident focus.
Smallwood, of course, watched the Spurrier brothers with educated eyes. He’d played quarterback in high school at Jonesboro when the Tigers’ formations included the Notre Dame Box, Pop Warner Double-Wing and the Slaughter Formation. He played in the backfield with Charlie Fleming at East Tennessee State.
“Dr. Eugene McMurray was our coach, the finest man that ever lived,” Smallwood said. “He was probably too nice of a man to be a football coach. … Charlie really, in my own opinion, was a classic runner with the football. He was not only fast, he was quick and had a lot of moves.”
Smallwood played at Jonesboro when Fleming, a state champion hurdler in high school, was carrying the football for Plowboy Farmer at Science Hill.
“We had some good teams with T.J. Boswell,” Smallwood said. “We tied D-B (Dobyns-Bennett) and we beat Tennessee High. But he left and went to Elizabethton to help Coach (Mule) Brown, and they won a (mythical) state championship. …
“It was just our luck that those were the years of some of Farmer’s greatest teams. I played wingback (at East Tennessee State) and Charlie did most of the running. When Charlie got hurt, I’d get to take over and carry it.”
Smallwood liked basketball as much as football. And he was Science Hill’s basketball coach for a decade (1947-57) before beginning a 20-plus year run in administration. His best team, featuring future San Francisco Giants shortstop Ernie Ferrell Bowman and Baltimore Colts draft pick Bob Taylor, entered the state tournament with a 26-0 record and ranked No. 1 in the state at the end of the 1953-54 season.
But Science Hill went on to miss 12 of 26 free throws in a 51-50 loss to Memphis Treadwell in the first round of the state tournament. Smallwood said the undefeated record became a gorilla on the back.
“I wouldn’t have ever wanted to coach one (an undefeated team in the state tournament) again,” Smallwood said, the disappointment from that team’s fate still obvious in his warm, raspy voice some 50 years later.
Bowman, who went on to play basketball at East Tennessee State, was the star on that team.
“He wasn’t 6-feet tall and he could dunk easily,” Smallwood said.
Smallwood also coached Science Hill’s track and field team when Bowman won a state title in the long jump and Taylor won the state in the high jump and the high hurdles.
“They were fantastic athletes,” Smallwood said. “I believe Bob would’ve played in the pros too if he hadn’t gotten hurt.”
Bowman admired Smallwood, although he wasn’t exactly a “player’s coach” in the 1950s. He recalled Smallwood showing no sympathy when he got knocked silly on a hard foul from Dickie Warren.
“I had a girlfriend named Katie,” Bowman said. “One night we were at Ketron and I drove in under the basket and went down hard. I mean I got my teeth rattled.
“Coach Smallwood came out and asked me if I was alright. I said I wasn’t sure, and he said ‘Get up, Katie. You’re not hurt.’”
Smallwood had a rough exterior as a coach, but he was open-minded and compassionate. He recalled nearly drowning when he was perhaps eight years old and an African-American kid, who was four years older, consequently teaching him to swim. This was in the early 1920s.
“His name was Hiawatha Perrry,” Smallwood said. “We called him Bud. I followed the older boys up there and they’d dam up the creek. It’d get six feet deep.
“Bud said, ‘Anybody that starts to throw Sid in that deep water is going to have to come through me first.’ He said, ‘I’m going to teach Sid to swim.’ The first thing he did was teach me not to be afraid of the water. He would hold on to me. … Bud died in France in World War II.”
Smallwood became close friends with another African-American, coach Paul Christman, after Johnson City Schools integrated in 1964. Christman had enormous success coaching football and basketball at Langston High School, but had to become an assistant at Science Hill.
Smallwood admired how Christman handled the transition. They’d break bread often, maybe even break open a Heineken or two.
“Paul and I were friends for a long time, very good friends,” Smallwood said. “A lot of people didn’t realize it, but Paul was a Major in the Army and he was seriously wounded in Italy. Up until the time he died, he had constant pain in his arm where he’d been machine-gunned. …
“I watched Langston play all the time. I wish I’d had those Langston guys when I was coaching basketball. It made me drool watching them. And Paul had them well-drilled.”
Science Hill had excellent coaches, too. Kermit Tipton, Snake Evans, Elvin Little and Tommy Hundley all had notable success after being hired by Smallwood.
“Sid never interfered with you running your program,” Little said in 2007. “You know, a lot of these people in leadership roles will throw you to the dogs when the wolves start to howl, but he always tried standing up for you if you got in any kind of problems or trouble and help out. … He was Science Hill athletics for a long time … and we were all very successful during a lot of those years. He was Mr. Science Hill as far as I’m concerned.”
Life never got old for Smallwood, who was 98 when he died in 2014. He golfed, painted, recited poetry and visited regularly with friends, including the Spurrier boys, well into his 90s.
“Coach Smallwood was just a wonderful person and wonderful man that everybody loved and respected,” Steve Spurrier said during a telephone interview after Smallwood died. “And he did a lot for Johnson City, that’s for sure. … He certainly had a wonderful life and was a well-liked person, well respected. Certainly, we all hope to have a long, wonderful life like Coach Smallwood did.”