Art Baker was born to coach foot­ball

The State (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BOB SPEAR

Fol­low­ing the “Born to Be” themes from ti­tles pop­u­lar­ized by Step­pen­wolf and Spring­steen, Art Baker found his niche in foot­ball.

In­deed, if any­one were born to coach foot­ball, Art Baker would be the poster child.

From tak­ing com­mand of the ju­nior var­sity team dur­ing his pre-col­lege days in Sumter to hop­scotch­ing through the high school and col­lege ranks, he left a trail that touched lives both on and off the field in spe­cial ways.

And even to­day, at age 88, he looks for all the world like he would teach that freeze op­tion of­fense that hung 46 points on No. 7 Florida State in 1983 or, in an in­ter­est­ing twist of fate that found him the Semi­noles’ of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor a year later, shred­ded No. 4 Mi­ami for 38 and rid­dled No. 16 Auburn for 41.

Art Baker has been out of the head­lines for 30 years now, since his last head coach­ing gig at East Carolina. But he han­dled ad­min­is­tra­tive and con­sult­ing du­ties at the Univer­sity of South Carolina un­til fi­nally re­tir­ing in 2005.

His legacy is more than wins and losses. More than 20 who served on his staffs later be­came head coaches at the col­lege level. On top of that, “he kept foot­ball in the proper per­spec­tive,” said for­mer USC coach Brad Scott, who worked with Baker at The Citadel, Florida State and USC.

The strength of his char­ac­ter is such, Scott once noted, that he pulled off the rarest of achieve­ments: He might be the only per­son who coached foot­ball at Clem­son and USC and re­mains ad­mired on both sides of the ri­valry.

Baker chron­i­cles his jour­ney through life — from grow­ing up in the De­pres­sion to his days at Pres­by­te­rian Col­lege to high school coach­ing jobs at Mc­coll, New­berry and Eau Claire to col­lege po­si­tions at Clem­son, Texas Tech, Fur­man, The Citadel, East Carolina and Florida State and his ad­min­is­tra­tive work at USC — in his re­cently pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. He calls the vol­ume “A. Baker Who Coached Foot­ball: An­gels on My Shoul­der” and the ti­tle is apro­pos.

“An­gels on My Shoul­der” is a ti­tle of a Claude Rains-anne Bax­ter movie from 1946 and Baker says the ti­tle is per­fect to de­scribe his life. Thanks to co­pi­ous note­books he kept through­out his ca­reer, Baker and co-au­thor Jack Evett pro­vide a look at chal­lenges grow­ing up in ru­ral South Carolina in the De­pres­sion and take the reader be­hind the scenes in col­lege foot­ball.

Evett, a re­tired univer­sity civil engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor, crossed paths with Baker at Eau Claire High and Col­lege Place United Methodist Church in the 1960s. “He kept af­ter me to ‘write a book’ and I fi­nally agreed,” Baker says.

Many of the tales are fa­mil­iar to long-time Baker afi­ciona­dos, rang­ing from the 6 a.m. call from Frank Howard to of­fer “Al” Baker a job on the Clem­son staff to his hir­ing an all-world coach­ing staff at Eau Claire High.

The all-time fa­vorite in­volves the call the sent Baker into the col­lege ranks. He told Howard he wanted to dis­cuss the of­fer with the love of his life, wife Edie, the Tigers’ coach re­sponded, “I ain’t hir­ing her; I’m hir­ing you.”

Pre­vi­ously un­told sto­ries deal with some con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions to a head coach who gave a player a then-il­le­gal pay­ment for air­fare to at­tend a fu­neral. At East Carolina, Baker says he called Ed Emory on the sit­u­a­tion, only to be told, “Art, you coach the of­fense; I’ll take care of my play­ers.”

That night, he told Edie, “Based on what I saw at the of­fice to­day, don’t un­pack any more boxes; we’ll be leav­ing in Jan­uary.”

And there is the me­mory of Dec. 24, 1949. Back in Sumter from Pres­by­te­rian for the hol­i­days and work­ing at the post of­fice for ex­tra money, he ar­rived home to shock­ing news: his mother had shot and killed his fa­ther dur­ing an ar­gu­ment. He later dis­cov­ered his mother had been suf­fer­ing for years from schizophre­nia and “she fi­nally snapped.”

Af­ter he got his first post-col­lege job, he would be­come the le­gal guardian of his brother Bobby, who had been placed in an or­phan­age af­ter his fa­ther’s death.

So many sto­ries — he came oh, so close to be­com­ing head coach at Clem­son, North Carolina and Wake For­est, for ex­am­ple — bear re­peat­ing and hereto­fore un­known de­tails emerge. Maybe the big­gest in­flu­ence on his life, be­yond his fam­ily, was Har­vey Kirk­land, head coach at New­berry Col­lege.

“When I coached at New­berry High, Coach Kirk­land took me un­der his wing and taught me Foot­ball 101,” Baker says. “His men­tor­ing was the most im­por­tant part of my coach­ing ca­reer and life.”

He can look back and, with mis­chief in his eye, tell about his base­ball prow­ess. In their youth days in Sumter, he says he struck out fu­ture New York Yan­kees star Bobby Richard­son four times in one game. Pressed for de­tails, he sheep­ishly ad­mits, “I was 12 years old and he was only 8.”

But make no mis­take; base­ball was not his game. Art Baker was born to coach foot­ball.

INFO: “A. Baker Who Coached Foot­ball: An­gels on My Shoul­der” is avail­able on­line at www.ama­zon.com.

TIM DO­MINICK tdo­[email protected]­tate.com

Art Baker, who now lives in Columbia, has coached at many of the col­leges in S.C. — in­clud­ing USC, Clem­son, The Citadel and Fur­man.

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