Coaching legend Little left his mark at Science Hill

Douglas Fritz • Updated Jan 31, 2020 at 6:00 PM

Northeast Tennessee had a true gold mine of basketball coaches in the 1960s and 1970s, and Elvin Little was right in the mix as one of the best.

“He was part of the golden age of coaches in Northeast Tennessee,” Science Hill Athletic Director Keith Turner said about Little, who died Thursday at age 88 after complications from a recent fall. “Looking back at that era, they had the best coaches in the country all in one little area.”

Little was the head coach for the Hilltoppers from 1960 to 1979, amassing 431 victories. He also left his mark on the school as athletic director and superintendent.

But it was his days on the hardwood where Science Hill fans remember him the most.

“He set the tone for the basketball program,” said Turner. “He took it to new heights, and that expectation is still here today. He did so much for the school.”

Little was the central figure in the hiring of George Pitts, who escalated the Hilltoppers into a national power. Pitts originally approached Little about coaching Science Hill after the 1979 season.

“I told him I was interested in the job, but he said if Dennis Greenwell wanted it he would get it,” said Pitts. “When Dennis got out, I contacted Elvin again and he hired me.

“I had heard nothing but great things about Johnson City and the basketball there. That was Coach Little. I wanted to be able to coach in that environment, and that’s why I pursued it. It wasn’t too long ago that I saw him. I hated hearing he had passed away.”

Former player Jeff Aldridge said Little was a demanding coach.

“I never heard him cuss a kid or berate a kid,” said Aldridge. “But he would get on you and ride you if you weren’t giving the effort he felt you were capable of giving. But after practice or after a game, he would put his arm around you and tell you tomorrow is another day.”

Pitts experienced Little’s tough demeanor when Little was the Hilltoppers’ athletic director.

“He always had a little wrinkle about playing Dobyns-Bennett,” said Pitts. “He would always come over on game day and say, ‘This is keep-your-job game. Hope you do well.”

Little’s best team came in 1968, when the Hilltoppers reached the state championship game. Science Hill defeated Oak Ridge 68-48 in the round of 16 and then took down Springfield Bransford 77-69 in the quarterfinals.

In a thrilling semifinal matchup against Memphis Carver, an explosive third quarter helped the Hilltoppers earn a tough 77-73 win with Sammy Stuart racking up 31 points and hitting 15 of 16 free throws.

Powerful Chattanooga Riverside waited in the finals, and the Hilltoppers went into halftime with a 29-27 advantage. This time, the third quarter was the difference against the Hilltoppers and Riverside walked away with a 67-61 victory. Despite the finals loss, James Hairston was chosen the tournament’s most valuable player.

Science Hill reached the state tournament under Little in 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973 and 1976. His teams won 13 district championships, including 10 straight from 1968 to 1977.

Little previously coached Lenoir City to the 1958 state championship. That team went 33-2 and held off Chattanooga Central by one point, 34-33, in the title game.

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