Enough good memories to last a lifetime

Sports Editor - Union Daily Times

After 31 years in coaching, Mike Anthony has been blessed with many special memories.

Anthony retired as Union's head football coach last Monday.

"I hope most people understand why I did what I did," he said. "I don't feel I have the energy to put into it anymore. I want the program to be energized and to stay right where it is. I believe somebody else can come in and just take off."

They'll have a hard act to follow. Anthony's teams won three state championships and 79 games in seven seasons.

Those are memories that Anthony, players, coaches and fans will cherish.

Coach Anthony after the 2002 win over GaffneyFirst things, 1997
Things could have started disastrous for Anthony, who was hired to coach his alma mater in 1997. Tommy Bobo and Bill Owens, two key assistants, wanted the job.

"I had to smooth that over first," he said. "I said, guys look, I didn't hire Mike Anthony. Either you're going to work for me or not work for me and let's move on."

Bobo and Owens showed true professionalism. Bobo was promoted to offensive coordinator and Owens remained as defensive coordinator. (Bobo is now head coach at Wren and Owens at Broome).

"Tommy told me by the time spring practice started that we were going to take the state championship," said Anthony. "He said he didn't know what year it would happen, but that it would."

Over the summer the coaches grew closer. Union opened with a win against Woodruff. The assistants gave Anthony a plaque which said, "First ever win at your home school."

But then the bottom fell out. Union lost six straight games - three close loses to Dorman, Spartanburg and Gaffney, a rout at Fairfield Central and region losses to York and Chester.

"After going through a 1-10 season at Easley, I didn't panic," said Anthony.

"But the other coaches were going nuts."

Then came the turning point. Union trailed Fort Mill, 14-0, at halftime.

T.J. Glenn returned a kickoff for a touchdown to open the second half and it sparked the Yellow Jackets to a 35-14 win.

"In the Fort Mill game we turned the corner," said Anthony. "That kickoff return probably turned everything around. The kids started believing in what we were doing."

Union won the rest of its region games and made the playoffs. The Jackets upset No. 3 Newberry in the first round, followed by BHP and Seneca. Then came the upperstate title game against Daniel. Union led 28-27 at the half.

"They ended up beating us 62-28 and ran the score up on us late in the game," said Anthony. "We learned a valuable lesson that night. I said, I'd never run up a score and I never have."

So, after starting 1-6, Union played for the upperstate title.

No sophomore jinx - 1998
Expectations were high going into 1998. Union coaches went to Clemson and learned how to implement the Tigers' spread offense and the Jackets had the athletes to use it. But during the first scrimmage at Boiling Springs, quarterback Joe Pettit broke his ankle.

"We were scrambling around to find a quarterback," said Anthony. "We had all these great hopes and disaster strikes."

Marcus Porter filled in quite nicely for Pettit and Union finished the season with an 8-5 record, advancing to the third round of the playoffs before losing to Fairfield Central, which lost to eventual champion Daniel.

"We had an unbelievable first two years," said Anthony.

The most special - 1999
The 1999 team, especially the seniors, were thinking championship.

"When they were in 8th grade they watched the '95 team win it and said, 'We're going to do it.' They stayed together as a group through high school and were hungry for a title of their own."

Pettit returned at quarterback and Porter moved to wide receiver. Other captains for the would be champions were Chris Smith, Bryce Gregory, Reggie Tucker and Shane Fast.

"Tommy (Bobo) said, 'This will be it. We're going to win it,'" said Anthony.

"I didn't have a clue we'd get as far as we did."

Union found itself in the state championship game, but seemed star struck at first. Anthony said the kids were focusing on watching the Jumbotron at Williams-Brice Stadium and not paying attention. Dillon took advantage and led 18-6 at the half.

"As I was walking to the locker room I thought - what am I going to say to these kids?," said Anthony. "I believe the Lord gave it to me. I said, 'Guys we've been behind plenty of times. It's not a big deal. We need to relax."

The pep talk worked. Roscoe Crosby returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and Union rolled, dominating the second half for a 28-25 victory and the state championship.

"Naturally the first championship is the most unbelievable feeling," said Anthony. "It took me several weeks to realize what had happened, because everything happened so fast."

Back-to-back - 2000
Imagine what it feels like to be inside a pressure cooker. That's what Anthony felt like in 2000.

"Everybody expected us to win the championship," said Anthony. "It was anticipated. It was the beginning of the pressure."

"Everybody said, 'You've got Crosby, (Kyle) Browning, (Xavier) Byrd, (Stewart) Young and (Jermaine) Savage - you're going to win it.'"

The X-factor was a new quarterback, Josh Harris.

"You've got all these great players, but you've got to get the ball to them."

"We knew Josh was capable, but weren't sure how he would react in game situations."

"But the whole community, all they talked about was back-to-back championships."

A year before, Harris had caught a touchdown pass from Pettit in the state title game. It was a glimpse of Union's newest star.

After an opening loss to Spartanburg, the Jackets didn't lose again and Harris guided Union to the back-to-back title that the community was craving with a 28-12 win over Manning.

"It was a smooth ride," said Anthony. "We lost that first game and then won 14 straight and not many were even close. It was a great run."

Near miss - 2001
Harris was back and experienced in 2001, but gone were Crosby and Union's senior core. A new crop of Jacket stars were ready, but it wouldn't be easy.

"It was a much tougher year, not as easy as in 2000," said Anthony. "Josh Harris made it happen. He made it so easy for all those guys, all they had to do was catch it, because he put it in their face all the time."

Again, Union was back in the state championship game, this time against Camden. Perhaps no memory stings Jacket fans as bad as this one. Charles Brannon was tackled one-yard short of the end zone on the final play of regulation, the game went to overtime and Camden kicked a field goal for the championship.

"We were one yard short of three state championships," said Anthony.

"Sometimes in overtime I feel the winner is whoever wins the coin toss (Camden did). That was a depressing time for our kids."

Union finished 12-3 on the season.

"It was a struggle but at the same time it seemed like our kids knew when to turn it on, when to play and that led up to playoff time, when they'd take off," said Anthony.

One more time - 2002
Justin Knox was the new quarterback in 2002. Curtis Rice, Eric Young, David Smith, Charles Brannon and Jay Baylor were the captains.

"What a group of kids that we had," said Anthony. "They really knew how to play the game. They loved the game."

"2002 was an unbelievable group of defensive players. We've been blessed on defense."

But winning the title was not a foregone conclusion.

"To win the title was almost a surprise," said Anthony. "Again, we had a new quarterback and didn't realize how good he'd be. This was a special team; they were very good and got better and better as the year progressed."

Union got a rematch with Camden for the state title. This time it was no contest, as the Jackets won 61-28.

"We had 40 points on the board at the half against pretty much the same defense we struggled with the year before," said Anthony.

Last things - 2003
Union had to rebuild its offensive line and replace several other key stars in 2003. But expectations remained high, especially after the Jackets opened with a win over rival Spartanburg.

Gaffney handed Union its first loss, but the most disappointing loss of Anthony's career came to Newberry at home.

"The most disappointing loss of the last five years was this year's Newberry loss, because we just didn't play that night," said Anthony. "I don't have any regrets of any of the other losses we had, but the Newberry loss was the most disappointing. It was devastating and I didn't know whether I was going to be able to hold this team together."

He did, but a loss to Greer meant Union needed a win over Broome in the final week of the regular season just to make the playoffs. For the first time Anthony let the pressure get to him and he lashed out at the fans during a radio interview.

"I made a statement that I didn't care if the people didn't show up for the next game," he said. "We didn't have as many fans as usual at Broome. It was Halloween night and many parents were taking their kids trick-or-treating.

"I don't know why I made that statement. I was so intense about it and consumed with beating Broome to get into the playoffs - it just took me out of character."

Anthony said he started to debate leaving coaching around this time.

"I didn't want that to happen again," he said. "I didn't want to tarnish what character I have. I said, ' When this ever gets to be a job. I'll walk away from it.' That week encouraged me to take a look at everything."

But there was still work to do. Union dismantled good BHP and Eastside teams as it marched through the playoffs to the upperstate championship game with Greer. Trailing 21-17, Union drove to the 3-yard line with just seconds left, but Greer's Josh Williams intercepted a pass in the end zone denying Union a chance to defend its state title.

"We were three yards away this year and one yard away in 2001 from five straight championships," said Anthony. "That's how close it was. But what's fair. We knocked Greer out of the playoffs four years in a row. We've got to handle things. I'm proudest of how the kids and community handled the second loss to Greer. You find character when adversity strikes."

What's important
Anthony said the his fondest memories will be the pre-game devotionals.

"Each Friday at 3:30 p.m. those kids knew they were going to be together and that we were going to talk about real life, not just football life," he said. "Sometimes we cried together and prayed together. I just wanted them to understand that there is something greater than what's in this old world."

Anthony also will cherish memories of fans lining up as far as the eye can see to get players signatures at Wal-Mart and packing the stands wherever Union traveled.

"Everyone talks about the Union crowd. They are classy, kind and pull hard for their team. What more can you ask for? This is the ultimate high school football town. There are not many of them left."

His close relationship with the coaching staff provides even more cherished memories for Anthony. After games they'd meet at each others houses. Chicken stew was a hot item at Anthony's home.

"I'm going to miss the relationships I have with these coaches," said Anthony. "I hope maybe they won't run me away from here and let me come to some of the games and do what most people do - second guess. I think I'm close enough with these guys we can do that and still have fun the rest of our lives."

Anthony gives all praise to the talent of his coaching staff and players. He said the time and effort put into the program by them was the difference, not anything he did. He's proud of all his former players.

"How many kids have come through our program that are good citizens today?" he said. "I can walk away knowing I've been blessed to have been in my hometown, which I love dearly, and watch these kids mature from young boys to young men."

On the day of his retirement, the team hugged Anthony when he broke the news. While giving a telephone interview the day of his retirement, Clemson's Kyle Browning, one of Anthony's former star players, stopped by and passed him a note. It said, "I love you coach."

"Money can't buy that," said Anthony with tears in his eyes. "That's important. It isn't all the wins and losses. It's the relationships built."

The future
Now Union looks for a new head football coach, with whom the players, assistant coaches and fans will bond. And they'll start to create new memories. No one will cheer louder than Anthony.

Mike Anthony's championship seasons

1999 (14-1) Aug. 27: Union 14, Spartanburg 7 Sept. 3: Union 24, Laurens 19 Sept. 10: Gaffney 31, Union 28 Sept. 17: Union 45, Kennan 20 Sept. 24: Union 35, Fort Mill 7 Oct. 1: Union 20, Clover 0 Oct. 8: Union 55, Flora 0 Oct. 15: Union 32, York 0 Oct. 22: Union 42, Chester 14 Oct. 29: Union 35, Fairfield Central 14 Nov. 5: Union 45, Travelers Rest 0 Nov. 12: Union 33, BHP 7 Nov. 19: Union 35, Daniel 7 Nov. 26: Union 38, Greer 6 Dec. 4: Union 28, Dillon 25

2000 (14-1) Aug. 25: Spartanburg 21, Union 6 Sept. 1: Union 35, Laurens 7 Sept. 8: Union 35, Gaffney 28 Sept. 15: Union 35, Thurmond 7 Sept. 22: Union 41, Timberland 14 Sept. 29: Union 42, York 21 Oct. 6: Union 35, Clover 13 Oct. 13: Union 21, Chester 0 Oct. 20: Union 37, Fairfield Central 7 Oct. 27: Union 50, Broome 21 Nov. 2: Union 56, Riverside 15 Nov. 10: Union 28, Seneca 7 Nov. 17: Union 33, Clinton 7 Nov. 24: Union 17, Greer 6 Dec. 2: Union 28, Manning 12

2002 (14-1) Aug. 30: Union 24, Spartanburg 21, OT Sept. 6: Union 35, Lugoff-Elgin 7 Sept. 13: Union 42, Fairfield Central 20 Sept. 20: Union 41, Gaffney 20 Sept. 27: Union 32, York 6 Oct. 5: Union 44, Clinton 21 Oct. 11: Newberry 22, Union 14 Oct. 18: Union 55, Riverside 0 Oct. 26: Union 35, Greer 23 Nov. 1: Union 41, Broome 7 Nov. 8: Union 41, Seneca 0 Nov. 15: Union 42, Greenville 25 Nov. 22: Union 21, Greer 14 Nov. 29: Union 43, Lugoff-Elgin 7 Dec. 7: Union 61, Camden 28

Anthony's All-Stars Shrine Bowl Kendrick Lyles, 2003 Rashaad Jackson, 2003 Charles Brandon, 2002 Eric Young, 2002 (Tennessee) Mickey Rice, 2001 (North Carolina) Kyle Browning, 2000 (Clemson) Roscoe Crosby, 2000 (Clemson) Joseph Pettit, 1999 Bryan Robinson, 1997 Jonas Scott, 1997

North-South Mike Anthony [head coach], 2003 Justin Knox, 2003 Eirish Stevens, 2003 Curtis Rice, 2002 (South Carolina) David Smith, 2002 (South Carolina) Josh Harris, 2001 (Middle Tenn.) Roberto Smith, 2001 Billy Jack Moore [coach], 2000 Xavier Byrd, 2000 (South Carolina) Stewart Young, 2000 Bryce Gregory, 1999 Reggie Tucker, 1999 Kelvin Jennings, 1998 Yansey Rice, 1998 Lee Jolly, 1997 (Clemson)

Note: All-Stars now playing for Divison I schools have their team listed in parenthesis. Also playing Division I football: Antonio Shippy, Akron, 2002.

Anthony's captains

2003 Kendrick Lyles, Rashaad Jackson, Justin Knox, Eirish Stevens, Chad Robinson.

2002 Charles Brandon, Eric Young, Curtis Rice, David Smith, Jay Baylor.

2001 Mickey Rice, Josh Harris, Roberto Smith, Antonio Shippy and Daniel Gregory.

2000 Kyle Browning, Roscoe Crosby, Xavier Byrd, Stewart Young, Jermaine Savage.

1999 Chris Smith, Joseph Pettit, Bryce Gregory, Reggie Tucker, Marcus Porter, Shane Fast.

1998 T.J. Glenn, Kelvin Jennings, Yansey Rice, Robert Holley, Sataldrie Mobley.

1997 Bryan Robinson, Jonas Scott, Lee Jolly, Emmanuel DeWalt, Sentell Peake, Jon Cudd.

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