Williams navigated twists and turns of lengthy coaching career

Choosing to play for Happy Valley was the first major decision of Mike Williams’ basketball journey, but it was hardly the last.

By Trey Williams

Mike Williams was set to go to University School like his younger and older sister did prior to his freshman year of high school, but convinced his parents to let him attend Happy Valley.

“I lived in Pinecrest and a lot of the kids went to University School,” Williams said. “I was on the list to go to University High. And my mom and dad were the typical mom and dad back then, and they never gave into anything that I can remember. But I wanted to go to Happy Valley High School and I wanted to play for Charlie Bayless, and they understood. So they granted me the opportunity.”

It wasn’t the last opportunity he would decline in Johnson City. Sixteen years later, Williams balked at a chance to become the Science Hill head coach long enough for Elvin Little to hire George Pitts.

Williams had coached three years at Morristown East, taking it to the state tournament in his third season, and then coached three years at David Crockett before spending the 1983-84 season on Bill Foster’s staff at Clemson.

Foster left for Miami and offered Williams a job. Foster’s Clemson successor, Cliff Ellis, also offered to retain Williams.

He was still weighing options when Little called to offer him the Science Hill job on a Friday. Williams tentatively declined, but had a change of heart over the weekend.

So he called Little back on Monday.

“Monday morning around 10 o’clock, I thought I’d call Elvin up, go talk to him and take it from there,” Williams said. “Elvin said, ‘Mike, I offered that job to George Pitts on Saturday. He’s calling me at noon today to tell me whether or not he’s gonna take it.’”

Pitts went on to win three state titles at Science Hill. But Williams got an opportunity to go to Unicoi County in September of that year, and despite inheriting an inexperienced team a month before fall practice began, Williams took the Blue Devils to the state tournament in each of his first two seasons. Unicoi County didn’t make it back to the state tournament until ending the 37-year drought this season.

Science Hill girls coach David “Scottie” Whaley was on those teams with players such as Jeff King (senior in ‘85), Trey Whitson, Brad Thelen, Larry McNeese (senior in ‘85), Keith Bowman and Tom Shelton.

The Blue Devils lost 81-62 to Manassas in ‘85, but defeated Sweetwater 54-49 to advance to the semifinals in ‘86 before losing by nine points to Obion County and the appropriately named Cannon Whitby, who was 10 of 34 from the field and 18 of 25 at the foul line en route to 38 points. Obion beat Austin-East, 64-59 in the state championship game.

Whaley didn’t recall the Blue Devils having anything in the way of expectations when Williams arrived.

“We were really inexperienced,” Whaley said. “We had one or two kids that started the year before coming back – and we made state tournament that season. Coach Williams was just a heck of a coach. He’s one of the best in-game coaches I’ve ever been around.

“He was just really, really disciplined. We ran the flex with a lot of different entries into the flex offense. And we were just a really good defensive team. Defensively was how we win games and it’s just something that he instilled in us.”

Williams was voted Most Outstanding Player his senior season at Happy Valley (1971-72). He played at Lees-McRae, followed by one season at Greensboro College. He became an assistant at Morristown East right out of college, and got an impromptu opportunity to become the head coach when Jim Hughes was let go.

Williams initially balked at the offer, saying he didn’t want to become a head coach at the expense of his boss being fired. But Science Hill alumnus Jerry Williams, the East principal, convinced Williams to take the job.

“Jerry said, ‘You need to put your thinking cap on,’” Williams said. “And I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘I’ll just put it this way: He’s fired. He’s gone. He ain’t gonna be coaching. If you don’t take this job, we’re gonna hire somebody, and you may or may not like working for him. So I advise you to take it.’

“Well, here I was 25 years old. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take it.’ And we end up beating Knox Farragut at Freedom Hall in the substate and we go to the state tournament.”

Williams chuckled recalling the colorful Jerry T. Williams.

“Jerry T. was going to be in charge,” Williams said. “He was an old Keystone boy. I played Little League at Keystone. It was called Steve Spurrier Field then. I played for the Jaycees … coached by Kyle Dockery.”

Williams applied at Crockett in 1979, out of curiosity more than anything, but got the job. He ruffled some feathers there by playing four excellent Johnson City players early – Gwan “Curly” Hill, Herbie Pirtle, Lionel “Pine” Carpenter and J.J. Bridwell.

“Curly may have been one of the best players that I ever coached,” Williams said. “Curly could play. If he’d went to Science Hill and hadn’t started, there would’ve been something wrong. He scored 25 points against Central’s box-and-one and made both ends of one-and-one to win in the regional at Morristown East the day of his mother’s funeral service. … Fantastic performance.

“We played North in the region that year. I think it was at D-B. We beat North. Pine Carpenter, heck, he left at their free throw line and dunked one in the last few seconds of the game. He was a heck of an athlete – a heck of an athlete. He could do whatever.”

Williams said he dismissed Hill and Bridwell from the team prior to their senior seasons. The older he gets, the less he’s convinced the punishment fit the crime.

“I’ve thought about it many, many times, you know, what if I had that to do over again,” he said. “I was young and big on being disciplined. … I cared about ‘em and it would’ve probably been my best team at Crockett.

“It was one of the toughest decisions I ever made. With Curly, we were gonna be very good. Without him we were gonna be average at best. But I stuck to my guns. But you get older and you look back and you wonder if it was really the right thing to do.”

Discipline was ingrained in Williams by Bayless.

“Charlie was Charlie,” Williams said with a chuckle. “You knew where you stood with him, obviously. He wanted you devoted to basketball. He let you know when you needed to be chewed, but at the same time, he’d pat you on the back, too.”

Williams’ resume quickly spoke for itself, but he said he always felt like having played for Bayless got him every job offer.

“Everybody knew Charlie,” he said. “All you had to say was ‘Happy Valley High School’ when you were interviewing for a job. They’d say, ‘Did you play for Charlie.’ … It was almost like taking candy from a baby.

“Everybody had so much respect for him. They knew he expected the best of everybody.”

Williams left Unicoi County for Sullivan South for three seasons, where he coached through the 1999-2000 season. Tennessee High coach Michael McMeans was Williams’ top gun that final season and the Rebels got within a win of the state tournament before losing to Halston Lane-led Oak Ridge in the sectional at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever been around as far as being able to run stuff and having you prepared to run your offense,” McMeans said, “and defending what the other team was going to do. Coach was really hard on us, but you knew he really cared about us too.”

Williams relished coaching against area coaching legends such as Bayless.

“When I came in the league you had Elvin Little, Buck Van Huss, Bobby Chambers, Bobby Snyder, Dickie Warren, John McCrary, Len Dugger,” Williams said. “It was a Who’s Who. I tell you, Elvin Little could coach. Probably, looking back – you respected all of ‘em, but you dreaded playing Elvin. Or I did. Defensively, boy, he’d just wear you out.”

And Williams is left to wonder what he would’ve accomplished if he’d taken Little’s job offer. Of course, Unicoi County won its only state tournament game under Williams and Science Hill won its only three state titles under Pitts.

Williams chuckled thinking about the twists of fate.

“I told Elvin that day, ‘I know George Pitts, and you got a good one,’” Williams said. “I’d say it all worked out.”


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