It took time, sweat, and a lot of determination, but John Dyer has become one of the most respected coaches in Northeast Tennessee basketball history.
Yes, that’s saying a lot. But considering the mountain Dyer faced when he arrived on the Big Ten Conference scene, it makes sense.
Twenty-five years ago the Lexington, Ky., native was a new face on the block at Sullivan East. Not only did he take over a program that wasn’t accustomed to fighting for league titles, he entered a league of giants.
At Dobyns-Bennett was the late Walter “Buck” Van Huss, who still holds the all-time Tennessee record for victories with 1,021 — and he is ninth nationally.
Sullivan Central’s coach was Dickie Warren, who is fourth on the all-time state list with 922 wins. Leading the way at Daniel Boone was Bobby Snyder, who coached his team to 835 wins.
And at Science Hill was George Pitts, whose teams would capture three Class AAA state championships and one runner-up finish between 1990-95.
Also, there were guys like Elizabethton’s Len Dugger and Tennessee High’s Dale Burns, who consistently got their teams in the mix for the league title chase and threatened to reach the state tournament.
With all of those wins, somebody else was taking a bunch of losses. And since Sullivan East was already behind the eight ball with a young and fairly unproven head coach — fresh off a stint in Mountain City — it stood to reason the Patriots would be getting their share of setbacks.
“You’re young and you just … yeah,” said Dyer with a laugh. “It was quite the conference — incredible coaches and incredible players. Talk about learning how to coach in a hurry. You try to survive and do the best you can.”
Dyer weathered the storm of the 1988-89 season and embraced Sullivan East with a coaching passion that carried him into a new century and beyond. He said he learned quite a bit from watching those coaching greats.
“A lot of times I would go scout a game and end up watching the coach,” said Dyer.
He didn’t learn just from his Big Ten days. Dyer picked up quite a bit of knowledge at Johnson County, a job he didn’t expect to get in the summer of 1984. After playing at Milligan College, Dyer planned to become a graduate assistant at East Tennessee State University — but went ahead and interviewed for the junior-varsity position at Johnson County.
“I didn’t hear anything, so I was going to ETSU,” said Dyer. “They called me back in August. School had already started. They said, ‘You think you could coach varsity?’ ” I was 23 years old, and I said sure.”
The first season was tough, said Dyer, but it was a good four years in Mountain City.
“I couldn’t ask for a better place,” said Dyer. “Think about this: Jerry White was at Hampton. Charlie Bayless was in the middle of his heyday at Happy Valley. And there was a guy named Mike Williams at Unicoi County. He was a great basketball coach. Two of the four years I was at Johnson County, he took Unicoi to the state tournament.
“I learned a lot of stuff from Mike, a lot of flex, man-to-man offense.”
Also, Dyer had a mentor in Johnson County football coach Jim Crowder.
“I learned so much about coaching from him,” said Dyer. “I can’t describe the influence he had on my life. I can’t tell you how blessed I was to work with a man like that.”
The lure of a bigger stage eventually drew Dyer out of Mountain City.
“I guess at that moment when you’re younger you think of moving on and going other places,” said Dyer. “Then we got to Sullivan East and just fell in love with the community and the kids here. We didn’t set out to stay for 26 years. It just happened. When I say we, I mean my wife, Cindy. There’s nobody luckier than me to have a wife with me, every second of every game.”
Winning games at East was always a challenge in Class AAA. Dyer laughed about the computer-generated schedule that placed East at Science Hill on a Tuesday, at D-B on Friday, at Elizabethton on Tuesday, and at Tennessee High on Friday.
Still, Dyer didn’t shrink from the challenge. The Patriots beat those four teams in succession, although not all on the road, during the 1999-2000 season.
Dyer had conversations over the years with Pitts, and adopted Science Hill’s style of play. The Patriots went to a faster pace and started pressing.
Athletically speaking, East was usually in trouble from the opening tipoff. It wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when” teams like Science Hill were going to run the Patriots ragged.
Yet there on the sidelines was Dyer: Imploring, cajoling, begging, trying to squeeze the last drop of blood from a stubborn turnip. Looked at in the wrong way, it may have seemed Dyer was a wild man. Looked at in truth, he was coaching — and his players almost always gave everything they had.
When Dyer finally had enough talent to assemble at least within the shadows of Science Hill or Dobyns-Bennett, it was “game on.” Dyer’s program found its defining moment during the 1997-98 season.
In one of the most memorable games of Dyer’s coaching career, the Patriots strolled into Johnson City with a belief — one not shared by Science Hill’s fans, coaches or players. After all, Science Hill had beaten East badly in their previous meeting.
But at the end of this evening, the Patriots walked out of the ’Topper Palace with a double-overtime victory in one of the most exciting games in Big Ten Conference history.
“That was a big moment for us,” said Dyer, who has somehow managed a career record of 445-443 despite approximately a combined 100 games against Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett. “That was the turning point for our program. We had a great year; that made it a tremendous year.
“We had that fear factor, where you got beat before you get off the bus. Those 1990s Science Hill teams were awesome. But our guys overcame that fear, and played to a level we’ve tried to expect ever since.”
It wasn’t just the fact East won. What made it more impressive was the way the Patriots attacked, Science Hill-style. It was one thing to beat the Hilltoppers in the 1990s. It was another thing to do it on-edge, full-tilt and all guns blazing.
“We went toe to toe with them,” said Dyer. “That laid the groundwork for where we are now.”
Yes, Dyer took some large-margin defeats against the Hilltoppers because he wouldn’t try to tempo-down against them. It was just another reason he earned respect, especially from his own players.
When East moved to the Class AA ranks for the 2009-10 season, it was easy to see Dyer was going to be a problem for the new league. Not only did he have the talent in-house to compete, they were players tested by the fires of Science Hill.
“That first team we had in 2009-10, we felt like we were going to be good no matter what league we were in,” said Dyer. “We held our own the previous year, going 12-4 in the league and losing twice each to Science Hill and D-B. And we took both of them into overtime.”
Success in Class AA was immediate. The Patriots won three regional titles, and were beating at the door of the ’Boro. Their pounding wasn’t answered, though they pushed Strawberry Plains Carter into overtime and gave Alcoa and Knox Fulton tough battles in sectional contests.
Getting to the state tournament would be the crowning moment for Dyer in his coaching career. It may not happen this year, but there’s enough young talent in the program to suggest he could get another shot.
“Yes, we have some great young kids, and we’re getting to know them,” said Dyer. “We feel if we have the character we’ve had the last six years, we will have a real chance.”
Dyer was honored Tuesday night prior to his team’s loss to Johnson County. There was a time when three decades as a head basketball coach wouldn’t have been all that unusual. Times have changed.
Dyer said relationships have kept him in it.
“It’s the relationships with the boys and your coaches and fellow coaches,” said Dyer. “It’s seeing the guys. (Tuesday) night was a surprise. It threw me to be honest. Some of those guys I hadn’t seen in a while. It was stunning when all of those Johnson County guys walked down.
“I still believe high school athletics is a place where a lot of great things are learned — real life lessons. All of the classes are great, talking about real life lessons. But there’s not a game better than high school athletics.”
And a special coach like Dyer makes the lessons hold their form through the years.