Phil McCrary has built a basketball dynasty at Columbia High, leading the Eagles to three state championships and this year’s No. 1 ranking in Class AAA. This past weekend, McCrary picked up his 500th career win at the DeKalb County school.
Not bad for a guy who had no intentions of coaching basketball for a career.
“I never saw it coming,” said McCrary with a laugh. “I always thought I would end up being a football coach. Some of the guys I went to college with, when we get together, we always laugh about it. They say ‘How in the world did you end up in basketball?’
“But strange and unexpected things happen in life, and I feel blessed that basketball has been part of my mine.”
Over the past 24 years, McCrary has posted a 502-183 record at Columbia. His teams have played for the state championship in four out of the last five seasons.
Under McCrary’s tutelage, more than 80 players have signed major-college basketball scholarships, including Georgia Tech’s Lance Storrs and the Georgia tandem of Travis Leslie and Jeremy Price. However, McCrary’s impact on his players goes far beyond basketball.
“When he teaches basketball, he uses it as learning tools for life,” Storrs said. “He lets you know if you turn in a college paper late or show up for your job late, it’s going to hurt you. Then he relates it to basketball, by saying if you’re not executing on the court or remembering plays, it’s like doing the same thing.
“As he teaches basketball, he teaches you about life. He teaches kids how to be men.”
When surrounded by players during a timeout, the 5-foot-8 McCrary is sometimes hard to see. He has a strong presence on the sidelines during games, constantly yelling and motioning instructions to his team. When he really wants to get a player’s attention, he will stomp on the wooden court while wearing a pair of his favorite cowboy boots.
“I believe that before you can do anything with a team, you must have discipline,” McCrary said. “Discipline is a big part of everything we do in our program. When you have discipline, then you can teach and coach. Without discipline, you can’t.”
Jarmal Reid, Columbia’s 6-foot-7 junior forward, said players learn very quickly that it’s “coach’s way or the highway.” McCrary is especially strict with his team on academics and treating others with respect.
When Reid was asked why players stay at Columbia when they could be pampered by another coach, he said, “We all know it’s a win-win situation, and worth it in the end. He wants everybody to go to college and succeed in life, and he’ll always be there to help you long after you finished high school.”
Basketball is a family affair at Columbia. Three of four assistants are McCrary’s former players, including youngest son Clint. His wife of 27 years, Constance, is the team’s self-proclaimed “water girl,” also attending to player injuries and other responsibilities. When Columbia won last year’s state championship, dozens of former players — including Storrs, Leslie, and Price — traveled to Macon in a show of support.
McCrary nearly retired from coaching after Clint graduated in 2003, and he is eligible to retire from teaching at the end of this school year. However, he says he is still not ready for either.
“I enjoy it too much,” McCrary said. “I enjoy the camaraderie of being around the kids. I enjoy having the opportunity to make a positive influence on the future of these young men.
“I’m going to continue doing what I do as long as the good man above continues to bless with me. When He tells me it’s time to get out, I will walk away with no regrets. It’s not that time yet.”