2008 Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: James Patrick found winning, teaching athletes rewarding experience

January 17, 2014 

Looking back on his career, James Patrick realized that a painted basketball may have provided his team the push it needed to win a state championship.

Patrick, then the young coach at South Girard High in Phenix City, became fascinated when he saw a college team show up with a red-and-blue ball, well before the days of the American Basketball Association.

His team was preparing to play a regional championship game against a team it had lost to twice already. He needed an edge. He sent his athletic director out for blue-and-gold paint and painted up a ball for his team.

As his team ran a tip drill and practically put on a dunking clinic in pre-game warm-ups --- it was allowed back then --- Patrick became aware of something.

"I looked around and the team we were playing, they were standing there watching us warm up," Patrick said. "In my mind, I was like, 'Hey, this game is already over.' They were all into watching us instead of getting ready for the game."

South Girard did win the game, then went on to win the 1965-66 state championship. It set Patrick on a successful 20-year coaching career that included stints on the high school and collegiate level.

On Saturday, Patrick will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments.

"It was exciting," Patrick said about learning of his induction. "Not only for me, but for my wife, who has always encouraged me. I knew I had the credentials. As a coach or player, you always want to feel you met the standards."

During the course of his career, Patrick coached 34 players who went on to play collegiately and three who played professionally. Claude English, whom Patrick coached at South Girard, was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers. Gary Wilson, whom Patrick coached at Carver High, was drafted by the Kansas City Kings. Oddly enough, he also had a former player that was drafted by the NFL as a punter, Larry Boyd.

Patrick said his state championship, which he won early in his career, has always stood out for him.

"That always has to be the standard by which I'm judged in terms of reaching that plateau," Patrick said. "That's what every coach wants to do."

Patrick coached from 1971 until 1979 at Carver High and although his teams were often ranked high, he wasn't able to lead them to a state title.

Patrick took the job right after Carver won the state title in the spring of 1971, but the following fall, the school was integrated and Patrick ended up with just two of the 10 returnees as they were bussed to other schools.

Beginnings

Patrick, who played basketball and ran track at Alabama State, got his coaching start at Montgomery County High in Mount Vernon, Ga. Patrick recalled being asked to interview for the South Girard job and taking a bus to Columbus. He was to meet a representative of the school, who would drive him there, but waited a long time.

"Finally, a guy came up to me and asked if I was James Patrick," Patrick said. "I said yes and he was like, 'Oh. I was looking for a man. You're a little boy.' He said he'd been in several times looking."

Patrick refined his coaching style, but remembers being almost on the court coaching his team in the first game. He remembers referees shooing him from the baselines back toward his bench.

"I was all the way under the basket, coaching them, telling them what to do," Patrick said. "It was my first game, and I was excited. They knew that was my first game coaching."

He recalled picking up a player for his team on the night of the first game, a young man who had never played at the time. Patrick sent the 6-foot-3 young man in to help rebound, then tried to expand his game by telling him to put anything he rebounded back into the basket.

"The first time he did, he put it in the other team's basket," Patrick said. "I was like, 'Not their basket, our basket.'"

Patrick's other memories of his first season coaching included working as a referee to supplement his income, then finding out he wasn't really going to receive a coaching supplement --- after he ran his principal's car into the school and needed to pay for damages.

College calls

Thanks to his early success on the high school level, Patrick said he always kept it in the back of his mind he wanted to coach at the collegiate level. There was just one problem with that notion, however.

"I figured I had the talent to coach on the college level," Patrick said. "The only problem was they never paid any money. A couple of times, I applied for jobs, I found out they were paying less than what I was making teaching high school. It was still always something I wanted to do."

Former Columbus councilman A.J. McClung encouraged Patrick in a couple of work ventures outside of the realm of coaching. Patrick worked as an urban developer in the anti-poverty program and later worked as an executive with Coca Cola. However, coaching remained in his blood.

Asked to help a couple of athletes garner athletic scholarships, Patrick took them to Morristown (Tenn.) Junior College, but the president offered him a coaching job there as well. Patrick initially took it, but then later accepted his first college job coaching at Fort Valley State.

He led Fort Valley to its first winning record in 25 years during his first season and surprisingly guided his team to the league tournament finals, upsetting Savannah State and the No. 1-ranked team along the way before falling to Albany State.

"Our athletic director didn't think we were going to win the (first) game, so he didn't give us enough money for food," Patrick said. "They didn't think we'd need transportation, so our transportation went back to Fort Valley.

On the day of the finals, we had to ride to the game on Albany State's bus with them. Imagine that. They were in the same motel. The bus finally came and picked us up and took us back to the campus."

While at Fort Valley, Patrick took his team out to Tulsa, Okla., to take on then-Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson and his famed "Forty Minutes of Hell," press. Patrick said his team actually saw about "30 minutes of hell," in losing to Tulsa.

Patrick stayed at Fort Valley through 1986 and finished with a record of 64-51. He then finished up his coaching career as an assistant under Columbus College coach Herbert Greene.

Staying busy

Although Patrick no longer coaches, he remains busy.

He's served as an adjunct professor at Columbus State and Troy University. He also works with Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell and Marc Upshaw, helping them realize their dream of giving back to Columbus through learning centers and basketball camps.

Patrick helped the two open up a learning center which debuted last Monday. He's also worked with educators in parent involvement and mentoring sessions, teaching educators better ways to work with parents.

He's proud of what he did on the hard court.

"I stayed in it about 20 years and had success at all levels and enjoyed it," Patrick said. "That's what James Patrick has been about."

JAMES PATRICK

Age: 67

Sport: Basketball and track

High school: Perry County Training School (now R.C. Hatch), Uniontown, Ala.

College: Alabama State, Montgomery, Ala. (four-year letterman)

Ties to Columbus: Patrick coached at South Girard High in Phenix City and Carver High in Columbus. He also worked for Coca Cola and later coached at Fort Valley and at Columbus College.

Family: He and his wife, Ethel, have three children --- Ursula, James Elliott and Everett. They have six grandchildren.

Accomplishments: Patrick coached South Girard to a state title in 1965-66. While there, his teams posted a record of 113-20. He also had a successful stint at Carver High (126-46) and Fort Valley State University, where his first team posted the schools first winning record in 25 years. He then finished his coaching career as an assistant coach at Columbus College.

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