Basketball to Golf: Durham Enjoys 'Small Ball' Pursuit
Though he was damp with perspiration and a bit bedraggled, the distinguished-looking gentleman walking a fast pace on the treadmill at the Y looked familiar. I asked who he was.
“That’s Mr. Durham,” an attendant answered. “He was a famous coach.”
That would be Hugh Durham, I surmised, and famous he was.
A longtime High Country summer resident, Durham was one of college basketball’s most successful and most popular coaches from 1966 to 2005, and he led two teams — Florida State and Georgia — to the NCAA’s Final Four.
Neither team had been to college basketball’s championship game before Durham arrived, and neither has been since. During his colorful and illustrious career, his teams won more than 600 games.
For the record, FSU lost to perennial champion UCLA in 1972, and Georgia lost to eventual winner N.C. State in 1983. Those losses, Durham recalled, were his most painful.
“I enjoyed my athletic career,” he said, smiling. “It was most gratifying in every respect. But that’s all behind me now except for the great memories that linger on.”
Old coaches seem to like retiring to places with a lot of great golf courses. Former Duke University football coaches Tom Harp and Red Wilson both retired to the Pinehurst area, while Durham chose the North Carolina mountains, as did LSU’s Paul Dietzel and N.C. State’s basketball coach Norm Sloan.
In 2001, Durham, 75, and his wife, Malinda, bought a nine-acre tract on a mountainside overlooking the Elk River between Banner Elk and the Heaton community.
“This is life the way I dreamed it would be,” he said.
The Durhams live in Jacksonville, Fla., during the winter months. They met at FSU and have been married for 53 years. The couple have three sons and six grandchildren.
Since daily recruiting is not his responsibility these days, he works out each morning at the Y, playing golf at Mountain Glen and other local courses, stopping by the River Dog coffee house to catch up with “the boys,” and looking after his attractive mountain home.
He also enjoys being part of the community — a good citizen — and participating in numerous local events.
“I like living in the mountains,” he remarked, “and meeting the people. Malinda and I have made a lot of friends here in the past decade. Our summer stays have been most pleasant and rewarding.”
The Williams YMCA of Avery County hosts the annual Hugh Durham Three-on-Three basketball tournament. It’s a fun event that brings together a lot of young folks in a competitive event.
A native of Louisville, Ky., Durham was a talented high school athlete who earned numerous honors in football and basketball. His skills earned him a basketball scholarship to Florida State, where he was a three-year starter and a stellar performer for the Seminoles.
After receiving his business degree in 1959, the youthful Durham was asked to join the FSU staff as an assistant coach, an assignment he held until he was asked to take over as head coach in 1966 at the age of 29.
FSU’s basketball program took an upward swing during Durham’s second year, compiling a 19-8 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament. After an 11-15 season his first year, he never had another losing season and won 230 games during a memorable 12-year stay.
In 1978, the University of Georgia came calling, and he accepted the top job with the Bulldogs, beginning a successful 17-year tenure that brought 297 victories and five trips to the NCAA tourney, as well as seven to the National Invitational Tournament. He was named Southeast Conference Coach of the Year four times and won two SEC championships.
Durham retired in 1995, but returned to the game two years later, when Jacksonville lured him back to the bench. He engineered a remarkable turnaround for the Dolphins and made them a strong contender in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
After three years Durham was also named athletics director and assumed a dual role of administrator/coach.
He retired for good after the 2005 season, winding up a 37-year career that showed a 634-430 record at the three universities. He coached nine All-Americans, four first-round draft picks and had 31 players selected in the NBA draft.
His two most famous stars were Dave Cowens at Florida State and Dominique Wilkins at Georgia, two of the game’s all-time greats. “Both were sensational players … the best,” he said proudly.
His athletic endeavors today are focused on his golf game, which is smooth and competitive. On a typical day, he shoots between 80-85.
“But I should do better than that,” he moaned.
He sleeps peacefully now because he doesn’t have to think about beating such coaching greats as Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight and others.
It’s just his golf game that worries him now.
Bill Hensley is a Hall of Fame golf publicist and freelance writer who lives in Charlotte.
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