Six months ago, folks gathered in the Lumpkin Center at Columbus State University to name the floor in his honor. Friday, another crowd came to the arena and again celebrated Walter "Herbert" Greene.
This time, however, the beloved retired coach was at center court in a casket.
But the approximately 500 mourners smiled more than frowned because the eulogists reminded them that Greene gave more reasons to be grateful than to grieve.
The program listed funeral speakers, not basketball players. The officials were pastors, not referees. The music was soft piano, not thumping rock. They sang "Amazing Grace," not CSU's fight song.
And along the sideline where Greene had guided the Cougars to some of those 481 victories during his quarter century in Columbus, his family and friends heard CSU sports broadcaster Scott Miller tell them, "What a life it was. It has been a most difficult week, to say the least. But, you know, it's OK to cry, it's OK to laugh, and it's OK to cheer, because Herbert did those things all the time. He loved life more than any man I've known."
Greene left a legacy of excellence before a heart attack in his Fortson home ended his life at 71 Monday night.
He was the 1962 Mr. Basketball in Alabama as a standout guard at Eufaula High School. After playing at Auburn University, he became the assistant coach credited with signing eventual NBA star Charles Barkley.
Combined with coaching the boys of Walker High School and the men of Auburn-Montgomery, Greene finished his coaching career in 2006 with 656 wins in 33 years. In his 25 years coaching the Cougars, he produced 11 seasons of at least 20 wins and five others with 19, captured six Peach Belt Conference tournament titles in a league he helped create, qualified for nine NCAA Division II tournaments and twice reached the Sweet 16. In his 23 years as athletics director, CSU teams won 54 conference championships and eight national championships. He is a member of four sports halls of fame. When he died, Greene had been executive director of the Columbus Sports Council for six years, attracting hundreds of events and generating a total estimated economic impact of more than $100 million.
But his life was more about people than numbers, Miller said.
"The most important thing to him was not the wins," he said. "He wanted each and every one of you, all of his players, all of his athletes, all of his coaches, he wanted you to succeed in life - in life. He cared so much. He loved all of you."
So much, Miller said, he sometimes would confide that he was worried about a player he couldn't motivate. "We've got to find a way to help him. We can't let this guy fall through the cracks. To some, he was the father they never had. But to all of you, he was the friend that you would always have."
Greene "wore his heart on his sleeve," Miller said, and he was equally comical and compassionate.
Miller remembered the practice when a player "clanked one off the rim three straight times" and Greene told him, "Son, I've got good news, and I've got bad news. The good news is that you're a great outside shooter. The bad news is that we play all our games inside."
Miller recalled a road trip when he sobbed with Greene in their hotel room as they watched a sappy movie about a father-daughter relationship.
Whether the relationship was as coach, friend, mentor, father, husband, brother or uncle, Miller said, Greene "was a great man who was a good man."
When it's crunch time during CSU games, Miller asks his radio listeners to "find your lucky spot" to help the Cougars win. While addressing Greene's wife, Jan, the principal of Mathews Elementary School, Miller said, "Well, on Monday night, Herbert found his ultimate lucky spot. That's why he's sitting next to God, on the front row, looking down at you, your girls and all of his kids and all of his family that he loved so much. Everybody here knows what he's also doing. He's leaning a little forward in that chair. He's got a big bag of popcorn, and "
Miller donned a CSU cap and continued.
" and he's got on his CSU cap, and he's going, 'All right! Here we go! Let's go Cougars!"
And the mourners turned into fans as they applauded Miller's finale before Alicia Vinson sang and Adam Rodgers played "How Great Thou Art."
The Rev. Lynn Meadows-White of Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church spoke for Greene's family. He excelled in his roles as a husband and father as much as a coach, she said.
The pastor said family members described Greene as "a character, a mess quick-witted, so funny, resourceful, able to make do with what he had, smart humble, loved music, willing to learn, passionate, giving."
One of his daughters, Melissa Mathis, remembered the night, Meadows-White said, when a player knocked on the door of their house at 10 o'clock and said he was hungry but didn't have any money. Greene told Melissa to take everything out of the refrigerator, put it on the table and let him eat anything he wanted.
Talking about eating, Meadows-White said Jan and the girls told her that Greene would come home after a loss and eat a gallon of ice cream. After a win, he still would eat a gallon of ice cream, she said, "but he shared with a bunch of other people."
Meadows-White said another daughter, Maria, told her that Greene loved to coach, even if it was to offer unsolicited comments while she was virtual bowling on the Wii video game system.
And he loved to sing, even though he couldn't, Meadows-White said another daughter, Olivia, told her.
The pastor reported Olivia said, "I just realized recently that I got my voice from him. Even though he didn't have a musical bone in his body, he taught me how to practice. I didn't get this until I was well into my musical training, but he knew how to practice and get better. He coordinated his muscles to shoot a ball, just like I coordinated my muscles to sing. It's the same principle, and he's the one who taught it to me."
Meadows-White said Greene once told her, "These girls! I just don't know how I got so blessed!"
She also relayed this quote from Jack Powell, who coached Greene at Eufaula and, at 96, was the first person to call Jan with condolences Tuesday morning: "Herbert just could not conceal his love for people."
In fact, she said, despite his recent health trouble, Jan noted Greene was considering taking up ballroom dancing.
"Though is physical body was struggling, it was clear Herbert wanted to continue to live life to the fullest," the pastor said. "He was not done."
Maria diagnosed his demise this way, Meadows-White said: "He just wore out his heart."
The pastor concluded that Greene lived his life "with joy and gratitude and deep love, influencing countless others for good along the way. Herbert knew he was a blessed man, and he lived his life to be a blessing to others. I know you join me in saying, 'Thanks be to God for the gift, the great gift, of Herbert Greene.'"
BARKLEY THANKS GREENE
When he was an assistant coach under Sonny Smith at Auburn University, Herbert Greene was credited with recruiting Charles Barkley, who played for the Tigers from 1981-84. In a news release this week from the Auburn athletics department, the retired NBA star gave the following tribute to Greene:
"I have always had great admiration for Herbert because he was the first guy who actually thought I could play. He has always been a special person to me, but the main thing, he is the first person who thought I could play, and that will always mean a great deal. Auburn was actually recruiting another player on my team and wasn't recruiting me so Herbert is actually the first person who thought I could play major college basketball. I will always be in debt to him for that. He will always be a special person in my heart."