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73-year-old Pitts stays ahead of the game even on his way out

Johnny Wilson • Mar 7, 2020 at 11:00 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — A swift kick to the gut was almost more than George Pitts could take — almost. However, the legendary hall of fame coach is back for more.

For how long? His crystal ball is a little cloudy at this point.

“I’m anxious to see what the Lord has in store for me,” Pitts said Thursday from his office at King University. “I’ll look forward to whatever it is. I’m not closing the door to anything.”

But the door to his time at King will indeed close, sooner than later. This is known for sure.

“I‘m retiring from King, effective the end of this season,” said the 14-year boss of the Tornado men’s basketball team, choosing not to elaborate on an announcement that was made back in November. “When our last game is done, I'll be moving on.”

Pitts sure hopes his last game won’t be Saturday, when his top-seeded Tornado (23-6) and Southern Wesleyan meet in the semifinals of the Conference Carolinas tournament.

The 73-year-old leader of men thinks his club has enough wins in the bank to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II tournament, regardless of the weekend's outcome.

“We’re sixth in our region, and they take eight teams,” Pitts said. “I think there’d have to be a couple upsets in our region’s three conference tournaments to keep us out. We’ve made it to nationals three times during my time here, so it’s a big deal to get there. And with this being my last go-around, you’d sure like to make it back once more.”

ANOTHER CHANCE

Getting to the postseason was the last thing on Pitts’ mind in the late hours of Feb. 1, when he had to endure two emergency surgeries after being injured in a 93-87 win over Barton.

“A player dove for a ball,” Pitts said. “It was a freakish thing and the kid made a great play, but he hit me right here in the stomach, full tilt, both feet.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the game, but then that adrenaline kicked in. Later that night, though, I had to go the hospital, and a CT scan showed I had a torn bowel. So they had to repair that thing and then put an ileostomy in on the other side.

“But I’m good. I’ve lost 20 pounds and my appetite’s not what it needs to be, but I’m good.”

MORE THAN THE Ws

Pitts has had a remarkable career, fashioning 1,119 victories and producing just one losing team in 44 years as varsity head man — “One year in high school I went 14-16,” he noted.

In addition to winning a record seven TSSAA state championships, including three during the 1990s at Science Hill High School and four straight after the turn of the century at Nashville's Brentwood Academy, Pitts has a 299-133 ledger at King.

“I’m always looking for one more,” Pitts said, referring to a possible 300th victory at King.

Over the years, however, the man with five children and seven grandchildren — and an eighth on the way — has learned there’s more to life than that electronic tote board.

“In time, I’ve grown to understand there are much, much, much more important things in this world than winning basketball games,” Pitts said. “And that took time to soak in with me.

“I recall when I was athletic director at Science Hill (1997-99), two men came to see me about one of our coaches, saying they didn’t think he should be in charge of a certain sport. Well it just so happened that one of my children was on that team, and I knew what that coach was teaching — things much more important than winning. And of course, I told them so.”

LEARNING TO WIN

Pitts credited two men in particular for teaching him the ropes.

“I was a decent high school player — all-city in Knoxville — and then went to ETSU and played freshman ball, and I was OK there,” he said. “I thought I knew everything about basketball.

“Then in 1970, my first year as JV coach at the school I’d attended, we played West High in our first game and we couldn’t even get the ball in bounds, had no idea about a press offense.

“We won four games that year, eight my second. So I went to see a Knoxville coach named Bob Fry, who became my mentor for a year. I visited him once a week and he showed me some things. Then I began going to clinics, reading books, watching videos, and that developed a passion inside that’s still with me today. We won 21 games my third year.”

Still, until the late 1980s, Pitts was pretty much a vanilla-style high school coach.

“Until my fifth year at Science Hill I was pretty much a half-court, man-to-man guy stressing defense and rebounding, taking our time offensively and playing low-scoring games,” Pitts said. “Then Rick Pitino came to Johnson City in 1988 and put on a one-man coaching clinic at the Garden Plaza, and that changed everything.

“Myself, my two assistants and about 25 coaches went to that clinic. Imagine today, even with all the issues he’s had, how many hundreds would show up to a Rick Pitino clinic. He talked about the press in the afternoon and the secondary (fast) break in the morning. We had some good, young kids coming up, and I thought this is exactly what they needed.

“And so from that point on, my coaching philosophy changed.”

BEATING OAK HILL

Pitts and his powerful Hilltoppers won Class AAA championships in 1990, 1994 and 1995.

Despite the state titles, it was an 82-72 upset of two-time defending national champion Oak Hill — with star Ron Mercer — that may be the one win forever remembered in Johnson City.

“We’d won state in (March) ’94 with a young team starting two sophomores and three juniors, and one of those juniors (Rob Williams) who was buddies with Mercer decided to leave us the next year and go to Oak Hill," Pitts said. “He thought that was best for him, but I didn’t like it. So I called Oak Hill about playing, and we agreed to play a game in December 1994.

“We sold 7,000 tickets at $6 each. We made $42,000 and gave them $2,500. And we won.”

Pitts recalled the evening vividly.

“There was the crowd, of course,” he said. “The seating today is different, but I believe that’s the biggest crowd ever to see a game at Freedom Hall. Then my point guard, Gabe Goulds, got run over by Mercer and got some teeth knocked out. He had to go to the hospital.

“And then Jovann Johnson took the game over — they didn’t know what to do with him. He was 6-foot-2 in there with the 6-8s and 6-10s, and they couldn’t stop him. It was a fun night.”

THE FINAL SCENE?

An old-school coach from a time when men were men, Pitts has softened over the years. A recent trip to his old stomping grounds shed some light on this.

“We played (Jan. 22) down at Johnson University, which used to be called Johnson Bible College, where I spent a lot of my high school days growing up in South Knoxville, playing ball on that campus,” Pitts said. “We played there, and about 50 people came to see me.

“People who played high school ball with me, my old high school coach, players who played for me back when I coached down in Knoxville. It was truly amazing.

"It kind of reminded me what it might be like going to heaven. You know, getting there and then seeing all these people you haven’t seen in so long. It really was a special night.“

Pitts insists there’s still gas in the tank and that his mind is open about a possible new gig on the sideline. However, he also realizes that Father Time has perhaps run him down.

”My passion is still as strong as ever, but I’d say the chances are pretty slim,” Pitts insisted. “I’m not going to move from here because I enjoy Northeast Tennessee, with my children and grandchildren here. Grandkids are super fun when they come around, by the way.

“As I said, I know the Lord has something for me, and I’m looking for it. Until then, I’m good.”

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