State title appearances is a fitting end to Louie Golden's 24-carat career

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Louie Golden's bend in a career path that bridged generations and paved the way for those who came behind him ended March 7, 2009, when his Southside High basketball team defeated Mullins 72-47 to claim a second consecutive Class AA state championship.

Another one of a thousand games for perhaps the finest high school basketball coach in state history.

Except that Louie Golden intended to be a football coach.

Golden had been a pretty fair basketball player at John Ford High School in St. Matthews. He averaged more than 30 points per game as a senior and earned a scholarship to Claflin College.

"I could shoot, but when I went to college I found out I really didn't know basketball. I was too slow," Golden says. "I couldn't move my feet quick enough."

He played basketball for two seasons and football for four as a two-way lineman on a conference championship team.

Football suited his demeanor and values as one of six children of a Lowcountry sharecropper and maid. Golden delivered newspapers as a youngster, caddied at golf courses and traveled during high school summers picking tobacco as far north as Connecticut.

"Coming up poor and working, I liked the money," he said. "I always liked working because I didn't mind putting in the time."

After college, Golden accepted a job teaching math and coaching at Sterling High School in Greenville. Football coaches made the most money, but Sterling offered only an assistant football and assistant track job.

Two years later he was transferred to Beck, another of Greenville's historically black high schools, but was aced out of the head football job so he became head basketball coach. Golden was blessed with talent at Beck. The team reached the state final in 1968. In the school's final full season, Beck won the 1969 state championship. It would be Golden's only undefeated team in 36 seasons.

Integration closed the black schools in the middle of the 1969-70 school year to minimize the potential for unrest. Beck's championship basketball team, which returned essentially intact, was split and sent to J.L. Mann and Wade Hampton.

Mann won the state Class AAA basketball title that season, and Wade Hampton the Class AAAA title the next year.

Golden finished 1970 at Mann and was offered a job at Carolina High as head basketball, head track and assistant football coach. He was still holding out for a football job when the principal at a new school between Greenville and Greer offered him the job as basketball coach.

"I didn't want to leave. I tested him," he said. "I said I might come as athletic director. I knew he wouldn't do that, and I didn't want to go to Riverside."

The principal called his bluff.

"The next week he called me," Golden said, "and said, 'You got it.' "

A policy in the Greenville School District prevented athletic directors from coaching more than one sport. Golden helped coach the ninth-grade football team without pay his first year at Riverside in 1976. The team went undefeated. It was his last season as a football coach.

Coaching at Riverside turned out to be a sweet deal despite Golden's reluctance. He and his wife, Betty, a teacher and administrator at Greer, lived in Taylors five minutes from the school, the only house they've lived in for more than 40 years.

Riverside basketball teams under Golden were tough, disciplined and calculating - almost painfully patient. Golden studied the best coaches - John Wooden for his principles, Bob Knight for his toughness and defense, and Dean Smith for his innovation, he said.

The best years were the eight seasons from 1983 to 1991 when Riverside reached the Class AAA state championship game seven times, winning three championships. His son Shaun was a point guard during that period, and Golden was harder on him than any player he's had before or since. Betty banned basketball talk at home to preserve the peace.

"I rode him," he said. "Sometimes we're harder on our owns kids because we want them to do well. I'm proud to say he turned out to be a pretty good boy."

Golden retired as Riverside coach in 1996 but remained as athletic director. A frugal administrator, shaped by his background and the times, he left after a few years on less than cordial terms when his philosophy ran upstream to that of some of the school's boosters.

For several years, he busied himself tutoring kids in math and running an after-school program in Greer. Most evenings during the school year he could be found at a ball game, track meet or soccer match.

When Southside High asked him to coach the girls basketball team, Betty nudged him out the door.

Taking a team that had won five total games the previous five years, Golden squeezed five out of them the first year and they made the playoffs. When the boys coach left after that season, Golden took the team. Two years ago, the Tigers played for the state championship, Golden's sixth runner-up.

Last year, he won his fifth state title.

At nearly 69, Golden says he's at peace with the decision. He denies it's about going out on his terms, though he admits he wanted this one. It was his 699th, the third-highest total in South Carolina high school history, according to the South Carolina High School League's count.

Golden knew a while ago it was time. It's tougher to communicate with kids and to coach the game as rigidly as he's accustomed.

Greer coach Jeff Neely was Golden's first point guard at Riverside. "One of his strengths is that he's coached all kinds of different players," Neely said. "He doesn't change a lot.

"He makes them change to his way. He's going to do it his way."

Shaun Golden, who went on to be an all-Southeastern Conference guard at Georgia and coached there and at Winthrop and Newberry, spent a day each week this year working the team with B.J. Jackson, Golden's handpicked successor at Southside.

"The kids related to him better than they related to me," Golden said. "I want them to accept me as part of their family. Some of them will and some of them won't. Some of them look at me like I'm the enemy."

Shaun said he's seen his father age during this stretch at Southside, where he also serves as athletic director, but Golden said it's because he's invested so much in the kids.

"You go home sometimes thinking, 'How can I help his kid?' You've got kids coming to you with so many different problems now," he said. "In the old days, if the kids didn't have a daddy they accepted you. They listened to you. Trust you fully, believe in you."

Golden said he sees himself as neither an icon nor a pioneer.

"I really think I'm a lucky guy," he said. "Someone was watching over me.

"I was blessed to get this far."

Ed McGranahan