By Steve Williams
Jody Wright came back up to the court, finishing off a doughnut and wet from head to toe.
The Fulton basketball coach had been down in the locker room talking to his team after notching his 800th career win in the Falcons’ 69-61 victory over Page High in a Class 4A Sectional game on March 7.
The water splotches on his clothes revealed there had been more than just talking going on.
“Yeah, they got me pretty good,” he confirmed.
While Jody is a youthful 60-year-old who enjoys celebrations, the truth of the matter is he was more concerned about winning the sectional game than winning No. 800.
During the day of the game, “Number 800 never entered my mind,” said Wright in the gym that bears his name. “The impact of the game is what had my attention.”
It’s that kind of focus that has helped make him a highly successful coach over the years. That and a lot of talented players and an emphasis on the defensive part of the game.
After the referee tosses the ball into the air on the opening tip, one rarely sees a smile on Coach Wright’s face. Instead, it’s usually a stern look. And sometimes it can be an angry look.
Away from the game though, Jody can be a lot of fun to be around. He laughs and jokes and can make you laugh, too.
When I began interviewing him after the victory over Page, I mentioned I had heard UT Coach Rick Barnes got career win No. 750 two days before against Arkansas and how I thought that was kind of neat that the two had reached milestones only 50 wins apart.
I also light-heartedly asked Jody if he thought Barnes might catch him in wins someday.
“That’s very rare company,” began Wright. “There are not too many coaches that I respect more than Coach Barnes; and not just as a good basketball guy, but the kind of man he is. He’s a good friend, a good man and a good coach.”
Again I asked Jody: But do you think Barnes can catch you in wins?
Jody thought for a second or two and then replied: “Well, he might. They play more games than we get in.”
I laughed. That’s Jody. He can be serious as heck at game time, yet so quick-witted away from the court.
With Wright at age 60, I thought it was an appropriate enough time to ask him how long he planned to coach.
“I still enjoy what I do,” he said. “My passion is still there. I don’t have an end game. But I don’t want to be one of those guys that stay too long.
“I ask myself every year, do you still enjoy it, are you still effective and I think the answers to those is yes. So, I’m not planning to go anywhere soon.”
That certainly will be good news for Fulton fans to hear.
The TSSAA currently lists eight coaches on its site for most all-time wins in boys’ games. Walter “Buck” Van Huss, who coached at Hampton and Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett (1953-1989), is No. 1 with 1,023 wins.
Wright ranks No. 9 on the current list and has a legitimate chance to top Van Huss’ total if he coaches another 10 years.
And that’s with having had a slow start in his career. He won only two games in his first season (1984-85) at Horace Mayard High School in Maynardville and just 13 games in his first three years combined at Fulton after that.
Jody said his dad, the late Gene Wright, and Fulton’s Bob Black had influenced his coaching career the most.
I remember Jody’s dad and how I enjoyed his company each time we met. He was the principal and head basketball coach at Lake City when Jody played in high school and an assistant principal when Anderson County High opened in 1982.
“I’m the competitor I am today because of my dad,” said Jody.
“Bob Black hired me at Fulton when I was 23 and mentored me and taught me so much. He stuck with me when times were lean and we were struggling to win those first three years.”
Jody hasn’t set any goals for the rest of the way.
“Those are things to look back on when you’re done,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking in a rearview mirror. That’s a dangerous thing to do as a coach. You spend time looking in a rearview mirror, you get a little complacent, you lose your edge. There will be a time for that someday when I’m done.”
Wouldn’t it be something if that view is from the top of the list someday?