Steve Crowder cut his teeth competing against his older brother Brien growing up. In fact, Steve wasn’t above biting him over a basketball game in the driveway.
So it’s fitting that Steve’s first season as a head coach will include two games against Brien.
The sweet-shooting Steve, 44, who piled up 2,230 points for Dickie Warren at Sullivan Central (1981-85) and led the Cougars to the state semifinals as a junior, recently was hired at Palmetto Ridge High School in Naples, Fla. Palmetto Ridge is two miles from the home of Brien, a 1976 Science Hill alumnus who also coaches in Collier County at football-crazed Immokalee some 20 miles away.
The job was a long time coming for the younger brother of a nomadic coaching legend of sorts. Brien, who helped Elvin Little’s Hilltoppers to the 1976 state tournament and played in college at Wofford and Milligan, won a high school state title in Arizona in 1997 at Monument Valley, has won multiple junior-college conference titles and won a small-college national championship during a season when his Bristol College team, which included Steve, beat a Paul Westphal-coached team in the semifinals at Viking Hall.
Steve assisted Brien for seven years. They put Rhea County basketball on the map with unprecedented success during a four-year run (90 wins), and next won 50 games in two years at Antioch, where they finished runner-up in the 2006 Arby’s Classic.
When Brien left for Florida, Steve hoped to inherit a loaded Antioch team, but didn’t get the job.
“That just about killed me when they didn’t give me the Antioch job,” Steve said. “We had five starters coming back. I know we could’ve won the state.”
Instead, he ended up coaching softball a year at Nashville-MLK. Steve returned to basketball the following season, joining former Lees-McRae coach John “Sarge” Siers at Orlando’s St. Francis Catholic, where Billy Donovan Jr. was playing his junior season.
Steve reunited with Brien this past season at Immokalee, the alma mater of Edgerrin James. Brien is 51-31 in three years at Immokalee, which includes his 8-18 debut at a football school that he said had previously had eight straight losing seasons.
Steve recently tried to get the Elizabethton job when Tony Gordon was hired and tried to get the David Crockett job when Richard Tarlton did. He thought he had the Lenoir City job last year. He was beginning to wonder if becoming a head coach was in the cards.
“My daddy told me everything works out the way it’s supposed to, and now it feels like it has,” Steve said. “There are seven jobs in Collier County and me and Brien have two of them. Who would’ve thought that when we were growing up on Chilhowie?”
Brien is 9 1/2 years older. Steve remembers crying when Brien went to Wofford when Steve was eight, because they’d always slept together. Of course, as Steve got older, especially when they were competing, there was a thin line between love and complete contempt.
“Whenever we competed at anything, man, it was on,” Steve said. “We were playing basketball and got in a fight when he was 27 or 28 and I was 17 or 18. We got in a big brawl and Brien swings and misses me and hit daddy (Frank). And the preacher (Boones Creek Baptist’s Bud Pate) was standing outside next door.
“Brien had probably called a foul and I didn’t like it, or vice-versa. … I think I tried to bite his finger off.”
Brien has become the hand that fed Steve, delegating more responsibility to help prepare him.
“Steve’s really worked hard and helped me a lot of years,” Brien said. “He’ll have winning teams. He’s been ready for awhile. He’s overdue.
“I’m happy for him. It’s a good job. That’s a pretty new school – a 6A school – that’s had two head coaches. It’s not a second-rate school. We’ve definitely been blessed.”
Still, Steve is taking over a team that went 7-19. His expectations for the immediate future were modest when he took the job, but he’s since seen a respectable set of tools in 6-foot-7 John Sparkman and 6-foot-5 Chris Anderson that he thinks can make the transition smoother than he initially anticipated.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Steve said. “I’m pumped. I can’t stand to lose.”
Always a hoops junkie, Steve will tell you what a versatile athlete Gary Carter was or what a pure shooter Mark Mason is. So is Steve. He finished in the top four out of what he said were more than two million entrants in Pepsi’s Hotshot competition, which included a chance to compete at a Cleveland Cavaliers game and meet Oscar Robertson.
Steve transferred to Boones Creek in the sixth grade. He played for Dwight “Greasy” Leonard, and his teammates included Steve Cox. Crowder said he thinks they lost two games in three years.
Leonard, who is a girl’s head basketball coach in Melbourne, Fla., was still the coach in eighth grade when Crowder scored 50 in a game. He scored 47 in a game at Sullivan Central, where he was a two-time All-State player. Central and Daniel Boone, which included Cox and Mark Larkey, were Northeast Tennessee’s premier teams Steve’s junior and season seasons (1983-85). Steve said Central beat Boone twice his junior year and Boone won twice the following year. Oddly enough, neither got out of the regional that season.
George Pitts’ first Science Hill team ended Boone’s season, and Steve said Central lost to David Crockett in triple overtime. Crockett had Anthony “Blue” Warren and Timmy Thomason, who concentrated on Steve in the Pioneers’ box-and-one.
The 6-foot-4 Steve was a scorer for Brien as a freshman at Bristol College when they won the national title over Dyke College (Ohio), and he played for Brien his sophomore season at South College in Savannah, Ga.
Steve initially signed with Morehead State after that, but backed out and opted for Fairleigh Dickinson. He got to play in Madison Square Garden against Iona and against Marist’s Rik Smits.
Fairleigh Dickinson won the ECAC Metro that season and lost to No. 1 seed Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. But Steve had left before then. Nagging injuries and being homesick led to a “dumb” decision to leave.
Steve’s coach there, Tom Green, remained at FD through the 2009 season.
“Green was in the backcourt with (Jim) Boeheim at Syracuse,” Steve said. “He wanted me there, but he didn’t want me shooting on a break, and you know me, I was gunning. I left in a bad situation. …
“I got offered early by ETSU when Barry Dowd was there. That’s probably where I should’ve gone. Don DeVoe (Tennessee) recruited me and Elvin Browne at the same time. DeVoe liked me offensively, but he didn’t like me defensively. So he went with Elvin Browne.”
Steve has a son, Brock, who is nearing a biology degree at Middle Tennessee, and a daughter, Chandler. She’ll be a senior at Science Hill, where she’s on the dance team. Steve worked more than 10 years at Eastman before getting into coaching.
“It got to where I was coaching AAU,” he said, “and taking vacation to go watch high school basketball.”
Steve throws out legends when naming coaches who inspired him.
“I think Coach Warren was the best at getting people open shots,” he said. “Dickie Warren, Buck Van Huss and George Pitts – those three stick out more than anybody (as influences). And Coach (Bobby) Snyder – he was a great defensive coach.
“I think Mark Blevins (Bearden) might be the best in the state of Tennessee right now. He develops kids as well as anybody.”
Steve said Brien’s rapport with players is rare, as is his extreme distaste for losing.
“He’s nowhere near as high strung now,” Steve said. “He’s not living and dying with every possession and letting the losses kill him. He still walks back and forth … but he reminds you of (Rick) Majerus or somebody. He’s gotten older and the refs kind of respect him.”
The burning desire to win is still there, as evidenced on the golf course. Steve says he’s a better bowler but Brien’s the better golfer. So it was eating at Brien when Steve was up three strokes through 16 holes recently.
After acting like he was having a good time while getting in such a bind, Steve says, Brien resorted to gamesmanship when it got down to the nitty-gritty. At their essence is still the desire to please their father, Frank, who put so much time into their childhoods despite a full-time job as a fireman and a part-time job on a Sears delivery truck.
“Brien would never let me win and I’d cry,” Steve said. “He’d let me get close and then swat a shot or something and go in and score and carry on like he’d just won the NBA Finals.”
Added Brien: “It didn’t matter if we were playing that APBA Baseball, we made it a life-and-death situation with how competitive we are. When I heard he had the job at Palmetto Ridge I told him I hope you only lose two games.”
Indeed, Brien knows the dates – Jan. 17 and Jan. 28. Steve says Brien basically has them penciled in as two wins, and Steve wouldn’t mind dropping one of the two games to lighten the load of a taxing schedule in his transition year. The teams only played once this past season.
But Brien wants to play both games. Apparently area coaches are also eager to see the two large men with white hair and matching goatees square off – you might have seen them captivate the audience while Brien was winning $234,000 on “Deal or No Deal” in 2008 – and some coaches have said they’ll reschedule games to go watch the Crowders if there are scheduling conflicts.
“I think Brien’ll win his conference unless they’re so beat up after football,” Steve said. “They could win the state in football. I think they’ve got 11 D-I commitments. They have serious athletes – Jovann Johnson-type athletes.”
But at this point, whichever Crowder loses will be as close to content as possible in defeat. After all, Steve lives three miles from the beach in Naples.
“White sand and clear water,” Steve said. “Life is good. I can fish. We’re down here at what Brien likes to call ‘Paradise.’”