All you need to know about the positive impact Herbert Greene made as Columbus State University's men's basketball coach for a quarter century can be summed up by a reporter at one of the most popular events in college athletics.
Amid the big-time, high-profile, larger-than-life frenzy called the SEC football media days, former Ledger-Enquirer sportswriter David Ching, now covering the Southeastern Conference for ESPN.com, took time to elevate this local legend to a national audience when he tweeted a link Monday night to the L-E's story reporting Greene's death: "Very sad. Herbert Greene was one of the greats that you probably never heard of. Loved covering his teams."
Folks in the Chattahoochee Valley sure have heard of him. From playing at Eufaula High School and Auburn University, to assisting at Auburn and head coaching at Walker High School, Auburn-Montgomery and CSU, to leading the Cougars' athletics department and the Columbus Sports Council, Greene left a legacy of excellence in competition, commitment and compassion.
Scott Miller, who broadcasted the Cougars' play-by-play for each of Greene's 481 wins (and 240 losses), called him "the best friend you could ever have."
Never miss a local story.
Greene, 71, died Monday night after suffering a heart attack at his Fortson home.
He played for Eufaula High from 1959-62, delivering the 13th-best scoring season in Alabama high school history with 928 points. After playing for Auburn University from 1963-66, he was the head coach for basketball and baseball and assisted in football while teaching biology at Walker High School in Jasper, Ala., for six years. He was a graduate assistant at Auburn for one year before becoming head coach at Auburn-Montgomery, where he started the athletics program and worked for three years, then returned to Auburn as a full-time assistant from 1977-81 under Bob Davis and Sonny Smith. Greene was renowned for recruiting the "Round Mound of Rebound," All-American Charles Barkley, who became an NBA star.
Smith said he retained Greene from Davis' staff in 1978 because he knew two things about Greene: He loved Auburn and he had great connections at Alabama high schools. Smith quickly realized Greene also was a good coach. And after CSU, then known as Columbus College, hired Greene in 1981, the Cougars almost beat the Tigers.
"He was using our same plays but running them better than we were," Smith said.
In his 25 years coaching the Cougars, Greene produced 11 seasons of at least 20 wins and five others with 19, qualified for nine NCAA Division II tournaments and twice reached the Sweet 16.
Greene also helped establish the Peach Belt Conference and won four regular-season league championships. He compiled a 29-9 record in the PBC tournament and won six of those titles. During his 23 years as CSU athletics director, the department's teams collected 48 conference crowns and five national championships.
But talk to some of the athletes who played for him, and they apologize for sounding trite, but they contend Greene cared more about their success off the court. Three of his players -- Matt Bell, Marvin Crumbs and James Wilson -- became high school principals in Muscogee County.
Bell, the Hardaway High principal, played for Greene from 1988-92 and assisted him during the next two seasons.
"He saw the best in everybody," Bell said. "We had guys on the team from every spectrum of life and then some, and he was a master psychologist. He could really get the best out of people."
Greene figured which players needed which style of correction.
"If you needed to be coached up and loved, he did that," Bell said. "If you needed to be dogged out, he did that."
But he remained respectful.
"He would never embarrass you," said Wilson, who played for Greene from 1984-86 and was principal of Northside High before last year's promotion to one of the Musocogee County School District's three region chiefs. "His hollering and floor stomping was more to get your attention."
Greene used humor as well.
While watching him correct a player during practice, Miller sometimes would laugh so hard he had to duck out of the gym.
"Then 5 minutes later," Miller added, "he would lovingly have his arm around the same guy."
And that caring continued past the players' time at CSU.
"Coach Greene was a constant influence in my life," Crumbs, the Columbus High principal, said in an email to the L-E. "He was there when I was a teenager and needed a foundation for positive growth and he was there as an adult when I needed advice and support. He always supported me and provided inspiration. Talking with Coach Greene always made me feel better and created a much needed focus when needed. He took care of me when I decided to leave my home and play basketball at Columbus College like no other college coach could. I will truly miss him."
Sterling Hicks, who played for Greene from 1992-96, has coached the Kendrick High girls to two state titles and eight final fours in 15 seasons. He credits Greene with giving him the chance to be the first member of his family to graduate from college.
"He taught me a lot of lessons I still use now," Hicks said, such as trusting his seniors to lead the team after being hard on them when they are underclassmen. "You don't stay on them all the time. You treat them like adults."
Greene was praised for his hard work and smart strategy, but the foundation of his coaching success was treating basketball as a people business.
Robert Moore, the CSU men's basketball coach since 2010, came to Columbus as a graduate assistant in 1994 because Greene trusted the recommendation from Terry Sellers, who played for him at Auburn-Montgomery and coached at Georgia College. Moore hadn't received his GRE score yet, but Greene hired him provisionally.
"Most coaches would have turned me away," said Moore, who then was selling shoes at a Macon mall. "But for him, it was all about relationships."
A few weeks later, when Moore showed him his passing score, Greene said, "I told you."
That started a mentoring relationship which blossomed into Moore's coaching career -- and Greene never let him pay for lunch.
"It was never about money or power or status for him," Moore said. "I work every day to make him proud."
Retired CSU President Frank Brown also remembered Greene taking chances to give chances.
"He went into some pretty dangerous neighborhoods to recruit, not because he found someone everyone overlooked but because he knew that player could be a good citizen," Brown said. "Herbert Greene did not have the difficulties with players that you often read about in the newspaper. They didn't want to betray him, and he didn't stand for any foolishness."
Miller recalled the time an opponent's foolishness in Miami during the late 1980s allowed Greene to show off his coaching and playing talent all in one moment.
In the opening game against Florida International, the students behind the Cougars' bench derisively chanted Greene's name in sing-song fashion and tried to mimic his courtside gyrations and inimitable "whup" he yelped to get his players' attention.
FIU's hotshot guard, who had been jabbering all game, was fouled in front of the Columbus bench. Greene shouted at the ref, and the guard fired the ball at Greene, who cleanly caught the ball, stared at the out-of-control opponent and calmly shot it toward the hoop.
"The student section went crazy, high-fiving each other," Miller said. "The rest of the night, they were on his side. It was the biggest cheer of the game, and the officials were so stunned, they neglected to give the kid or Herbert a technical."
Greene's sharpshooting continued well into his 50s. During 5:30 a.m. pickup games, Bell said, "he could flat-out play. Nobody could guard him."
After inducting Greene into the CSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008, the university named the Lumpkin Center's court in his honor in January.
All of which never inflated Greene's ego, Miller insisted. In fact, he said, Greene was worried nobody beyond his family would show up for the naming ceremony.
"It was the biggest gathering of former players we've ever had," Miller said, "but he was so humble."
That sense of serving others and not feeling too important was evident in Greene alternating with his wife, Jan, the Mathews Elementary principal, to serve as president and vice president of the Northside PTA while their daughters, Olivia and Maria, attended there.
"That was the thing," Wilson said. "He would do whatever it takes to be involved and to do his part."
After leaving his basketball position in 2006 and retiring from CSU as AD in 2008, Greene remained involved in the community and did his part by being the executive director of the Columbus Sports Council.
"He was a legend in Columbus and, because of his influence and the people he knew and networked with, we were able to do so many events," said Merri Sherman, the council's assistant director.
Since he came to the council in 2009, the organization hosted hundreds of competitions in sports such as softball, baseball, soccer, basketball, tennis, bowling, fishing, cheerleading and even cupstacking, generating more than $100 million in estimated economic impact, Sherman said.
Greene also kept being a resource for CSU. Athletics director Todd Reeser is grateful for Greene's guidance since he took over the program last year.
"He's been a great mentor and always very supportive," Reeser said. "It's a tremendous loss for our program, the university and the community. There are a lot of folks in this department who are extremely sad today."
Smith said Greene was good enough to coach at the top collegiate level.
"If I were an AD, there's no doubt in my mind I would have hired him," Smith said. "He could have been a D-I coach. Herbert was the total package."
In a 2008 interview with Morgan Carraway for the CSU Archives, Greene explained why he stayed in Columbus:
"I tell everyone I came to Columbus on April 1st and I've been an April Fool ever since. I thought I was just passing through. You know, I thought I'll just do a few years and I'll move on. I get into administration or get another job or, you know, do something. I absolutely fell in love with this. Most of that was because of the community. The people in this community are the most giving, the most supportive folks that I've ever seen in my life. I mean, there can't be another community in America like it. These people have done amazing. And now, you know all my friends are here. I wouldn't even think about going anywhere else. I want to stay where my friends are, and all of them are here. So I wouldn't even think about going anywhere else at all."
The funeral for Herbert Greene will be 11 a.m. Friday in the Lumpkin Center at Columbus State University. The private interment will be at Parkhill Cemetery. Visitation will be 5-7 p.m. Thursday in McMullen Funeral Home, 3874 Gentian Blvd.