Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, November 23, 2014, 5:44 p.m.
I remember a snowy day on campus in the late 1970s. Bruce Fowler, Tim Sorrells, Paul Sorrells, Jeff Snipes, and I were walking from “A Dorm” to the Herman W. Lay Physical Activities Center, the PAC, to play a little basketball. The snow had a crust of ice, and we were stomping our way to the gym. Naturally, snowballs started flying, and I reached down to press one, and a big chunk of ice came up, and I hurled it at Paul, who ducked, and it hit Jeff, which had not been my intention.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw Jeff’s eyes. He was a thoroughly dangerous man, and I knew he was going to tear me apart, limb from limb, as they say, if I didn’t buy enough time for Jeff to settle down. It was quite an image. Did you ever know a kid, who, when chased by a bully on the playground, would wait for him to almost catch up, then hit the ground, and come up running in the opposite direction? I wasn’t a kid, and I wasn’t small, and I wasn’t agile, but that’s what I did, and much to my amazement, Jeff settled down, and I lived to see another day.
Just as vivid a memory as my desperate attempt to avoid the wrath of Jeff Snipes is how much Bruce Fowler enjoyed watching it. Yes. Those were the days.
Bruce grew up in Cincinnati. Jeff somehow persuaded him to reveal the school cheer of Mariemont High School. Bruce allowed as how it was, “M! A-R-I-E! M-O-N-T! Mariemont!” Jeff immediately provided his own, highly profane and obscene cheer for his own high school, Belton-Honea Path. As in the movie Animal House, decorum prevents that cheer from being repeated here.
Jeff Snipes was the most memorable human being I’ve ever known. He had the spirit of a lion. He could have been a character in a Dan Jenkins novel. Come to think of it, Jeff and Mark Taylor could have been Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s still hard for me to believe that a man who seemed utterly indestructible has been dead for more than five years. I think of him every day.
Now Bruce, who like all the others mentioned here except me, played football for the Furman Paladins, is the head coach. Tim Sorrells, his roommate, is assistant head coach. I expect they’re as close as ever. Tim once wrecked Bruce’s car – as I recall, it wasn’t his fault — and it had no effect at all on the friendship. In fact, it benefited Tim because being banged up in the crash wound up giving him an extra year to be the Paladins’ record-setting quarterback. Even bad things wound up good back in those magical years of shocking upsets and Southern Conference championships.
“Certainly there are lots of things we’ve got to correct. … Every day is connected. They don’t stand alone. You make progress day to day. We’ve just got to keep building this program and moving forward.” — Bruce Fowler
Bruce Fowler and Tim Sorrells were there at the dawning of Furman football’s Golden Age, and now they are in charge of restoring it.
The only way “two steps forward, one step back” could be more literal would be a person actually taking two steps forward and one step back. In Bruce’s first year as head coach, the Paladins went six and five. Next was three and eight. In 2013, Furman roared back from a slow start to win the Southern Conference’s automatic bid in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs and advanced to the second round, finishing eight and six.
On Saturday, I watched and wrote about the concluding game of a three-and-nine season. This year I started writing high school and college game stories for a little spending money, and I was only too happy to go back to Furman and write about the team. I was there for the high point of the season, an upset of rival Wofford, but I was also there on Saturday to watch the curtain fall with a forty-five to nineteen loss to this year’s SoCon titlist, the Chattanooga Mocs.
As Coach Fowler freely declares, I, too, love Furman. It doesn’t mean I can shirk my responsibility to report unsparingly when the news is bad. This year, the quarterback, Reese Hannon, was lost for the season in the opening game. After starting the season with two victories, the team lost eight games in a row and nine of the final ten.
Talking to the Furman players, I see not a trace of discord. They seem to have every attribute of a winning program except the actual winning. Their head coach never stops trying, never lets the losses pile up. He just hitches up his britches, a term used more in South Carolina than Cincinnati, and goes back to work. Bruce was once the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt. He’s not going to let problems at Furman get him down. He answers every question forthrightly, takes responsibility for every mistake, and at the end of many replies, he simply adds, “We’ve just got to get better.”
I don’t think Furman could have a better coach, and, given the results of the disappointing season, I’m happy that most of the people to whom I talk feel the same way.
The Furman football graduation rate is ninety-five percent, which is on a par, statistically, to such schools as Harvard and Penn. Brown and Davidson are at ninety-eight percent; Dartmouth, Yale, Bucknell, and Northwestern are at ninety-seven; and Holy Cross, Lafayette, and Rice are at ninety-six. It’s pretty good company the Paladins keep. It remains plausible to refer to them as student-athletes.
Next year, they turn the competitive corner for good. And, if not then, the one after that. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said he’d fight till hell freezes over and then lay siege on the ice.
On the one hand, I’m partial to Bruce Fowler because I’ve known him for thirty-seven years. On the other, I think I’m qualified to extol his virtues because I know them very well.
My latest short story, “The Lucky Break,” is a bit of a fable on the loyalty of two men who once played ball together. You can find it at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com. Take a look at my books, whether of the non-fiction variety or my two novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope. You can buy them here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1