The College Coaches Club
Between them, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms boast a healthy collection of retired college football coaches (and one basketball coach). A couple of Thursdays every month, this cadre of coaches gather together with fellow sporting alumni at Page’s Okra Grill to chew the fat and enjoy the coffee. Jennifer Tuohy got a chance to join them one morning. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
College. Sporting. Rivalry.
Three words with the power to divide a state, infuse pride into a city, unite a stadium and galvanize a team. But at Page’s Okra Grill every other Thursday, those powerful words don’t come between these college coaches and their grits.
It’s at this casual eatery on Coleman Boulevard that a remarkable group of men assemble from across greater Charleston every other week. They gather together to enjoy each other’s company, share in the stories of the literally countless glory days they have all experienced, and revel in the trials and tribulations of coaching college sports.
The group, which calls themselves VOCAL, numbers around 16 and includes a former American League Baseball President (Gene Budig), National Wrestling Hall of Famer (Ed Steers), head football coach of Princeton (Frank Navarro), CofC basketball coach (Bobby Cremins), director of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Dr. Harvey Schiller), The Citadel assistant football coach (Rusty Hamilton), and the current Athletic Director at The Citadel (Jim Senter).
On this particular morning six VOCAL members, including an SEC football Coach of the Year (Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt), winningest tennis coach in NCAA history (Paul Scarpa, Furman), NCAA basketball selection committee alum coach (Les Robinson, North Carolina State), NFL scout (Cal McCombs, Denver Broncos), ACC Champion football coach (Ralph Friedgen, Maryland) and a College Football Hall of Fame inductee (Fisher DeBerry, Air Force), stay behind after the pancakes have been consumed. They’ve graciously agreed to talk with this writer because they share another trait. They all live on Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms (well, Paul lives in Snee Farm, but it’s so close we’ll give him a pass).
“Venerable Old Coaches Association, Loitering,” is what the name stands for, says Tommy McQueeney, the group’s organizer and former youth basketball coach.
“Really? I thought it was Very Old Coaches Acting Looney?” Bobby says.
As I sit down with this terrifyingly successful assemblage, I draw frantically on my limited football coaching knowledge (“My mom was friends with Steve Spurrier in college,” I say. “We’ll try not to hold it against you,” comes the response).
Thankfully I’m not the only newbie here, Tom O'Brien, the very recently retired head football coach at North Carolina State and former coach at Boston College is on just his second visit and ends up joining our roundtable somewhat unwittingly.
“Bobby told me the rules are if you bring a guest he can’t pay for breakfast the first time,” Tom says. “But that the second time you pay for everyone...”
Les Robinson quickly interjects that Tom actually lives on Daniel Island.
“All the football coaches live on Daniel Island and Isle of Palms. Football coaches aren’t allowed on Sullivan’s,” says the lone basketball coach.
“We didn't make enough money to live on Sullivan’s,” Fisher DeBerry replies.
In case you hadn’t noticed, this group takes no prisoners. Teasing, riffing and joking are all on the menu, along with the occasional wry reference to West Virginia (ask Les next time you see him).
The lone native Charlestonian among the college coaches is Paul Scarpa; the rest found their way here by happy accident. Bobby Johnson married a Charleston girl (“They always come back home,” he says). Ralph and Cal both coached football at The Citadel between 1973 and 1983, where Les also coached basketball (’74 to ’85) and was Citadel Athletic Director from 2000 through 2008.
“The toughest part of that job was dealing with the football coaches,” he says with no deference to present company.
“Yeah,” Ralph bounces back. “They’re so much smarter than the basketball coaches, that’s for sure.”
All three men were clever enough to portion out enough of their Citadel salaries for a smart and early investment in property out on Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.
“I bought my home in ’77 for $37,000,” Ralph says. “From Tommy Baker, who owns all the car dealerships.”
Les bought his first lot on Sullivan’s in ’73 for $7,500, behind what is now Dunleavy’s.
“They must have heard you moved in,” Ralph says with a trademark booming laugh, referencing his friend’s frequent attendance at the Irish pub. “Everyone knows my name at Dunleavy’s,” Les agrees.
All three have lived here ever since, and marvel at the changes they've seen on the islands.
“Since they put in that connector the island has just grown,” Ralph says. “When we bought our house, Wild Dunes wasn’t there, there were 11-foot alligators instead. That piece of property was wild.”
Fisher first came to Charleston a few years later, in 1987. He was on a recruiting trip with Cal.
While some of the coaches have “lived” here for a long time, and others such as Bobby and Tom, chose to retire here, it’s only now that any of them are able to spend any quality time here.
“I estimated once that I was in a hotel 225 nights a year,” Cal says, referring to his time as an NFL scout. But the rest of the group also cite time away from home as probably the hardest element of being a college athletics coach. Surely the intense pressure of the role has also got to be on that list, I ask.
“No, that's part of the fun!” Ralph says. But how do you handle all that pressure?
“We all have good wives,” Fisher says to general chuckles of agreement.
I speculate that perhaps this Thursday morning breakfast club was encouraged by the wives, who are now rather surprised to find their husbands at home all the time. It turns out it came from a game of golf.
“We like to play golf together,” Ralph says. “Some of us fish together.”
Do you ever all get together to watch football?
“No, but they all got together and coached football together—the Medal of Honor Bowl,” Tommy McQueeney says. Tommy is the chairman of the Medal of Honor Bowl, and says the idea for the all-star game featuring the nation’s top draft-eligible college football players actually grew out of the breakfast club, with many of the retired coaches lending their expertise to the two year-old event played at The Citadel.
“The player who intercepted the pass in this year’s Super Bowl to win the game played in the first Medal of Honor Bowl, Malcolm Butler,” Tommy says, with obvious pride.
“I can see the headline now, ‘Isle of Palms coffee club produces Super Bowl champ,’” Bobby posits.
The conversation moves to the number of places each man has coached during his career. Ralph starts to run down his lengthy resume, “A couple of times at Georgia Tech, Maryland two different times, San Diego Chargers…”
“Some people just can’t keep a job,” interjects Les to a chorus of laughter.
Then heads turn to Fisher who, although he coached at three different schools, holds the record for longest tenure at Air Force, where he coached for 27 seasons—23 as head coach. That’s a long time for a football coach.
“It’s an eternity,” he says.
What’s the secret to staying in one place for over a quarter of a century?
“Staying out of everybody’s way.”
“I'll tell you in one word,” Les interjects. “W-I-N-N-I-N-G.”
And Fisher did, clocking 169 victories and a winning percentage of .608, an Air Force record, earning him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
When it comes to winning however, Paul Scarpa has the rest of the group beat hands down, having won 853 tennis matches in his 45-year career at Furman University. A record in the NCAA.
With all this combined sporting knowledge present I can’t help but sneak in one quick personal question. I have a 7 year old son, I tell the group. He’s great at soccer, an awesome tennis player and he really loves football. Which sport would you advise I “encourage” him in?
Unanimously, almost simultaneously, they say: “Tennis.”