Stereotyped or not, my father relished his return to his alma mater, where he had starred in basketball before graduating in 1942. But Sharpe, who had played football at Alabama from 1929 to '31, explained where basketball stood among his priorities. "We don't have a 'basketball coach,' " Sharpe said. "We're hiring you as an assistant football coach."
The basketball team Daddy took over had been nothing special, because nothing special had been demanded of it. He "changed the whole atmosphere," says Jackson.
The players sensed that my father had none of the traditional coach in him. Although he was 27, had been wounded as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, and was married and had a baby, he didn't seem much older than the Panthers. "Coach Maisel was different," says Stanley Moore, a guard on the 1955-56 team. "He was not the good-ol'-boy coach. He was more sophisticated, more intelligent. He had the ability to be a little bit amused, a little bit detached."
Jackson, who took his share of helmet slaps from football coaches, adds, "Your dad didn't talk down to me. He talked to us like we were adults."
Murphy raced through the 1952-53 regular season with an 18-4 record and reached the semifinals of the state tournament, where it lost to Dothan 41-37. The Panthers won the consolation game to finish the year 21-5. The 1953-54 team, Daddy's second, finished with the same record, although it failed to reach the state tournament. Smith missed the team's yearbook photo shoot because his father had dropped dead from a heart attack that morning. When Smith came to school a couple of days later, he told Daddy that he thought he would have to drop out. "My father didn't have much insurance," Smith told me later. "He was a retired fireman, and my mother hadn't worked. It was just going to be my mother, my younger sister and me. Your dad said, 'Let me check around and see if I can do something.' "
My father called Ray Bridges, the county sheriff, who owned an all-night grocery. Smith became a weekend overnight stock boy. He would play a game on Friday night, go to work, go home Saturday morning and work again Saturday night. "That gave me enough money to stay in school," Smith says. After Smith's senior season Daddy got him into the North-South All-Star game, where a junior college coach saw him and offered him a scholarship. Smith went on to graduate from William Carey College in Mississippi and went into coaching and administration. He retired as principal of Huntsville ( Ala.) High in 1995. "I guess I went into [education] because of your father," Smith says. "He became a father figure for me."
In 1954-55, the senior season for Smith and Jackson and two other starters, Murphy went 21-1 and went into the state tournament in Tuscaloosa as a favorite. But Eufaula High, led by future Auburn star guard Henry Hart, upset the Panthers 71-65.
The 1955-56 team had only one returning starter, but that was Cochran, a 6'2", 170-pound guard. He averaged 19.2 points in his senior season, then scored 21.3 per game in the state tournament. To this day my father maintains that Cochran was the best player ever to come out of Mobile. Granted, anyone listing the top five Mobile basketball players would start with Golden State Warriors forward Jason Caffey and then pause awkwardly. But Cochran's former teammates gush when they speak of him. "He had a quick first step," says Henny Bolton, a scrub on the team who also went into coaching. "Naturally, he was a good shooter. He was strong to the hoop. He'd go to the hole."
The championship season began like the others: My father didn't cut anyone. He carried up to 23 players. The Panthers didn't have many plays. The ones they had, they practiced over and over. The offense depended on the pick-and-roll. Daddy's teams also loved to fast-break.
To keep practice interesting, Daddy used innovative drills. He would put a cover over the basket to get the boys to practice rebounding and tap-ins. Rather than have his players go out before a game and stand in layup lines, my father taught them a five-man weave. The ball never touched the floor, moving from one player to the next, no collisions, no awkward movements, just a glide downcourt until whoever got the ball under the basket made a layup. Even opposing teams would stop and watch. "We'd come out and do that in warmup, and the students would get kind of quiet," says Cochran, his eyes aglow with the memory.