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King of the Hill: Smallwood hard to top

Trey Williams • Jul 6, 2014 at 10:11 PM

Visiting with Sidney Smallwood or talking to him on the phone always lifted spirits, as has reviewing many of those conversations since his death on Tuesday.

Arguably the most influential figure in the history of Science Hill athletics, Smallwood lived 98-plus years to tell about it.

He played football at Jonesborough High School and East Tennessee State and coached track and basketball at Science Hill before spending the majority of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as the Hilltoppers athletic director.

He played golf and hit it straight well into his 90s, when he was a raspy-voiced, hard-of-hearing, good-natured, gingerly walking encycolpedia.

Smallwood got Steve Spurrier and his family to Johnson City from Newport after seeing a 12-year-old Spurrier and his 14- or 15-year-old brother, Graham, playing sports at a camp in Montreat, North Carolina in 1957.

He hired football coach Kermit Tipton and Tipton’s successors, Bob “Snake” Evans and Tommy Hundley. He hired basketball coach Elvin Little, who coached 20 seasons beginning in 1960, and coaches such as Paul Christman, Bob May and Emory Hale.

He was also an exceptional painter and, apparently in his day, quite the ladies man. One afternoon while going through some Lamar girls basketball team pictures from the 1930s, he pointed out several different girls he’d “courted.”

But he was having none of it when it was suggested that he must’ve been a regular Casanova.

“No,” he said with a sly smile, “somebody just always shot me out of the saddle.”

As a child, Smallwood usually walked home through a cemetery in Jonesborough.

Indeed, death was seemingly waiting at his home. His father died when he was five and his brother died during childhood — and part of his mother obviously died with them.

He even feared for his life as a youngster when some older boys were threatening to throw him in a swimming hole.

“I couldn’t swim,” Smallwood said. “The biggest body of water in Jonesborough was Green’s Pond. ... But I followed the older boys up where they’d dam up the creek. It’d get six feet deep.”

Smallwood said an African-American boy, Hiawatha “Bud” Perry, saved him from a traumatic dip.

“Bud said, ‘Anybody that starts to throw Sid in that deep water is going to have to come through me first,’” Smallwood said.

Instead, Perry taught Smallwood how to swim.

“The first thing he did was teach me not to be afraid of the water,” Smallwood said. “He would hold on to me. I was maybe eight or nine.

“He taught me how to swim. He died in France during the war.”

Smallwood was ahead of his time in terms of race relations. When Johnson City Schools integrated in 1965, he was already close with legendary Langston High School coach Paul Christman.

“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.”

Actually, Smallwood envied Christman when it came to coaching.

“I watched Langston play all the time,” Smallwood said with a smile. “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.”

Smallwood’s best Science Hill team was during the 1953-54 season, and remains the only Hilltoppers team to reach the state tournament undefeated. It included future Major League Baseball player and state champion jumper Ferrell Bowman and Bob Taylor, who played football at Vanderbilt, was signed by the Baltimore Colts and won the state high jump in 1953 and the state high hurdles in ’54.

But Science Hill lost 51-50 to Memphis Treadwell in the first round. The Hilltoppers missed 12 of 26 foul shots.

Worse yet, Dobyns-Bennett won two games at the state, and Guy B. Crawford’s Indians had lost to Science Hill four times that season, including a 68-47 rout the week before that secured the Hilltoppers’ 26-0 record entering the state tournament.

Smallwood joked — or not — that he’d take that loss to his grave. His ’Toppers were tight, and he thought part of the reason might’ve been because he’d taken them to see LSU play Kentucky under the bright lights of the same new Vanderbilt gym the day before.

And Science Hill’s unblemished record suddenly seemed to generate added pressure.

“I would’ve never wanted to go in undefeated again,” Smallwood said with a slight chuckle 55 years seemed required to produce. “I know it broke my heart, because we might have had the best team in the state.”

Smallwood marveled at how easily the 5-foot-9 Bowman could dunk.

A pretty good athlete and a good coach, Smallwood always remained a fan at heart. When Bill “Bull” Durham returned a punt 77 yards with 1:20 remaining to give Science Hill a 14-12 Optimist Bowl win against Knox Central in 1957, Kermit Tipton needled Durham about being slower than his athletic director during the return.

“Coach Tipton said, ‘Coach Smallwood was faster than you and he jumped higher than you, and he was the one in the suit,’” Durham said.

Smallwood played at ETSU with Science Hill Hall of Famer Charlie Fleming, an All-Smoky Mountain Conference back in college. He smiled several times discussing a punt Fleming returned for a touchdown in the mud against King College.

“I played wingback and Charlie did most of the running,” Smallwood said. “When Charlie got hurt, I’d get to take over and carry it. ... 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. You know he was a state champion high and low hurdler, and back in those days you ran on cinder tracks. It took a lot of courage to run those high hurdles on a cinder track. One trip going full speed and they had to get out the iodine.

“Dr. Eugene McMurray was our coach, the finest man that ever lived. He was probably too nice of a man to be a football coach.”

The late Bo Austin wouldn’t have described Smallwood in such fashion. Austin, who went on to play baseball and football at George Washington and was the 1957 Sun Bowl MVP, competed in basketball and track for Smallwood at Science Hill. He joked that he could pester Smallwood and he’d turn red like a mercury thermometer.

“I wasn’t our best basketball player,” Austin would say through his ever-present smile. “Coach Smallwood would say, ‘Austin, just rebound and then get out of the way.’”

Science Hill’s track is named after Smallwood, who coached basketball and track (1947-57) — the latter without any training.

“I had to put on the first state track meet that I ever saw,” Smallwood said with a laugh. “I was working with Coach (Plowboy) Farmer at the time. He left to go to Asheville so they told me I was putting on the state meet.”

Smallwood evidently groomed fast learners. Joe McClain, who went on to pitch for Major League Baseball’s Washington Senators, said he didn’t know what a javelin was when Smallwood told him he was going to start throwing it, and McClain soon set a record.

Smallwood enjoyed recalling Science Hill’s athletes, coaches and competitors. He laughed talking about how Kentucky defensive back Tommy Hundley was mixing it up with some Volunteers in Knoxville when a large Science Hill contingent had gone to Neyland Stadium to watch Hundley.

“Tommy might’ve been 5-10, and there he was battling those 6-4 and 6-6 receivers Tennessee always had,” Smallwood said. “He battled them right down to the ground and it ended up in a (10-10) tie. He had a great day, broke up quite a few passes.

“That was I guess what you’d call a thrill for me. Tommy Hundley was tough as a pine knot. ... I believe Tommy was the last coaching hire I recommended (in 1976). It was a good one.”

On Elvin Little, who retired after 20 seasons when talented Albert Sams and Herbie Bullock were coming onto the scene at Science Hill: “I’m proud to say I brought Elvin Little here. I think he might’ve won a state title or two if he’d stayed a few more years.”

Elvin Little hired George Pitts to replace Dennis Greenwell in 1984, and Pitts won three state titles with the Hilltoppers before winning four at Brentwood Academy.

“I think John Treadway over at Elizabethton probably set the standard in the area early on — he and Buck Van Huss,” Smallwood said. “But I think George Pitts is the greatest coach we’ve ever had in the state of Tennessee, maybe the best ever in the South.”

Smallwood was well versed on seemingly all apsects of the region’s sports. He thought highly of area officials S.D. Jackson and his son, Hunter, as well as Jack Vest, Tommy Miller and Ralph Stout. Hunter Jackson and Jack Vest officiated pro football, but one of Smallwood’s favorite memories was when Vest was officiating a Clemson game when Frank Howard took exception — or thought better of taking exception — to a Vest decision.

“Frank started out on the field and Jack just pointed at the sideline and Frank turned around and walked back,” Smallwood said. “Jack was a good official and well respected. ... Ralph Stout was one of the few officials who got his shirt wet when he worked. He was a good official, both basketball and football. ... Tommy Miller was a good official.

“Mr. S.D. Jackson — I had an awful lot of respect for him. He was sort of like (Johnson City Press-Chronicle owner) Carl Jones; there was no gray area with him, it was either right or it was wrong. He didn’t mind letting you know something either.”

Smallwood could even tell you about high school girls’ basketball games he’d seen more than 80 years earlier.

“Polly Remine was an outstanding girls basketball player at Science Hill when I’s in junior high,” Smallwood said. “One of the greatest girls basketball teams that I’ve ever seen was Lamar High School (1927-28) with the Brown sisters. One of the Brown sisters married John Howren. They were called Katye Kooper’s Killers, and they murdered a lot of these girls basketball teams. Goldie Brown — the Howren girls mother — was the star. I used to watch her and she could really play.

“That was in the 1920s. ... Lawsy mercy, how things pass.”

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