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