Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, May 10, 2019, 9:12 a.m.
It’s taken a while for me to get around to Jimmy Satterfield, who died at age 79 on May 6. He and I chatted amiably at a Furman football game last fall, and it was the first time I had seen him in at least a decade and probably two.
Satterfield never got the credit he deserved in general, but in particular, he was overlooked in spite of the fact that he coached the Paladins to their only national championship, then Division I-AA, now FCS, in 1988. Dick Sheridan coached the 1985 team to the finals and Bobby Johnson took them there in 2001.
The chief reason Satterfield never got his due was that he didn’t much care for it. He was an unassuming man whose eyes twinkled with mischief. He was amused by life. He was the type of man who planted a garden, was careful with his money and didn’t get himself entangled in needless discussion. He just kept his mouth shut and did what he wanted.
As with most coaches, Satterfield was insanely competitive. Most liked him but not when they were playing basketball in the Old Gym at lunchtime. On game day, he turned cold and pitiless toward the opposition.
It was my observation that Satterfield grew on his players. Many coaches dazzle their players initially, but some inevitably grow disillusioned. Freshmen didn’t care for Satterfield at first. By the time they were seniors, they loved him. He was an acquired taste.
It wasn’t long after I got to Furman that I discovered my natural habitat on campus was in the athletics department. I missed playing high school football. The student body consisted mostly of bright young men and women from families more monied than mine. Athletes were my kin on campus. I just wasn’t athletic.
Robbie Caldwell, now Clemson’s offensive line coach, was then a graduate assistant coach at Furman, where he had played center. Back then, Caldwell wasn’t notably higher on the totem pole than yours truly, an equipment manager. It wasn’t unusual for Caldwell and me to drive back from a distant road trip while the team was taking a plane or bus. Once we had to hotwire the equipment van in Boone and drive through the mountains in a cold rain without windshield wipers.
Satterfield was Art Baker’s offensive coordinator when I arrived and then served Sheridan in the same capacity. He became head coach in 1986 when Sheridan left for North Carolina State. By the miracle of some delegation of duties that may or may not have been written down, Satterfield oversaw the equipment department, which consisted of a plain-spoken man named Carroll Peebles and students such as me who came and went with our corresponding education and coaches’ sons who came and went on their way to college studies. In my prime, I could change a faceguard with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit stop because I learned how to do it with impatient assistant coaches screaming at me. It was similar to the way my father taught me how to drive.
Satterfield – I doubt I ever called him Jimmy till last fall – and I conspired regarding the equipment presented to officials. Back in those days, the officials were in complete charge. They didn’t have to worry about some electronic eye in the sky overturning their calls. If they declared a football suitable for use, it was. We had a neurotic, barefoot punter named Willie Freeman – naturally, today he is a psychologist – who liked to kick scuffed-up balls. Most weeks it was my job to present a dozen or so balls to the referee, and one of them would be disguised to look newer than it was. If the referee scribbled a little mark, usually a star, in the corner of the ball, it was good to go punt.
I remember once when a stickler of a zebra refused Freeman’s precious punting ball. When I told Satterfield, those twinkling eyes turned black as coal. At that moment, he would have gladly signed an executive order to have the poor, conscientious referee sent to the electric chair. The look in his eyes sent a chill down my spine.
It passed. The next week, if the same referee was passing through Greenville, Satterfield might have met him on Fried Chicken Day at Stax’ and recommended the cornbread and turnip greens.
Satterfield didn’t tell jokes. He told funny stories that came to mind. When I had been in the ninth grade at Clinton High School, then distant from the varsity, the Red Devils had come up against Satterfield’s Irmo Yellow Jackets in the upper-state championship game. Clinton won, 7-0, en route to its first modern state championship. Satterfield and I discussed that game many times, including last fall, and I don’t think he ever accepted that his team lost it.
Jimmy was from Lancaster. His brother Steve was a college head coach (Wofford) before he was. Jimmy took over at Furman, won a national championship and three Southern Conference championships in eight years. His record was 66-29-3, but the Paladins drifted downhill in his last three seasons – his worst and last record was 5-5-1 – and the love grew cold, as it often does with the men who show the boys how to join them.
Unlike a large percentage of successful football coaches, Satterfield didn’t have much of an ego. He had considerable pride. He packed up the family, and after two idle years, became head coach for eight years at Lexington High School.
When I saw Jimmy last fall, he looked fully capable of coaching the Paladins that afternoon, but then this spring, he underwent bypass surgery, and it didn’t go well. The golden age of Furman football was full of characters on the coaching staff and roster alike. Baker was a rah-rah guy. Sheridan was a man of considerable charisma and indomitable will; he was brilliant at devising game plans, but Satterfield was better at adjusting on the fly. Johnson, whose greatest gift was pure, burning intelligence, shared with Satterfield a cold calculation on game day. That quartet, plus Steve Robertson, a perfect assistant coach who always was one, produced more than a generation of successful coaches. One of them, Clay Hendrix, coaches the Paladins now, and, at this moment, greatness is again at near range.
As was the case with another longtime coaching acquaintance, Presbyterian College’s Cally Gault, I felt no undue sadness at Satterfield’s death because I know from experience the pleasant memories will be the ones that linger.
Satterfield lived his way. It was his badge of success.
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