Audrey Spry hears the whispers and nods. Her husband, Ron, might be getting kinder, gentler.
"As we get older, I do have people who ask me what is happening to him, because they don't see him hollering like he used to," she said of Ron, the men's basketball coach and athletic director at Paine College. "My answer to them is that he's getting older. He's mellowing out in his old age."
In his 21st year at Paine College, Spry has the right to be mellow. He has recorded 426 wins, two Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championships and two NCAA Division II tournament appearances.
"He's probably one of the best coaches in the state of Georgia," Evans High School boys basketball coach Kevin Kenny said. "He has been overlooked for where he is. There's no surprise that he has 400 wins. Other teams have more talented players sometimes, but he gets as much as he can out of his kids."
SPRY, 49, WAS born in Princeton, Ky. He graduated from Campbellsville College with a degree in social work in 1975 and obtained his master's degree in guidance and counseling from Murray State University in 1977. He then became the head basketball coach at St. Catherine's junior college in Springfield, Ky.
After two years, Spry was not certain coaching was the way to go.
"I was really under the impression that I didn't want to coach anymore," he said.
He took two years off to become the student activities director at Paducah Community College, but the coaching bug bit him again.
A friend recommended him for jobs at two schools: Paine and Edward Waters.
"I really came because I wanted to see what Augusta was like," Spry said. "I wanted to see Augusta, have the opportunity to travel and see the place that James Brown had said so much about in his songs."
Spry was offered the job a week after his first interview and accepted.
HIS DEMANDING COACHING style soon developed. Spry expects his players to play hard and smart. When they don't, he sometimes screams at them or quickly yanks them out of the game.
"He does communicate with his players very strongly, especially during game time," said Stillman College men's basketball coach Shawn Parks, who played for Spry from 1989-91 and was his assistant coach from 1991-99.
"But there's so much he does outside of the game for the kids and for the students in general. That's why when he communicated with the players, it was easier for us to take if you knew he was honest. If you were a kid that wasn't really honest to yourself and wasn't ready to be disciplined, then it was hard to deal with."
SPRY MET AUDREY, now an assistant principal at Glenn Hills High School, through Keven Mack, who is now an official with the National Football League.
"That's the one time that I can truly say that I thought the official made a good call," said Ron Spry, who married Audrey in 1984.
It's been 17 years of wedded bliss for Audrey Spry. She said she's had no problems living with the basketball coach known for his strict on-court discipline.
"He doesn't really bring it home," she said. "A lot of people ask me how he handles the losses. But he's very good about not letting it interfere with the family. But you do feel the same hurt, because when you love someone and they hurt, you hurt, too."
It's that kind of love that has kept Spry at Paine.
WHEN HE MADE the decision to leave Augusta for Winston-Salem, N.C. in 1993, his daughter ShaRon, now a sophomore at A.R. Johnson, wept at the dinner table. The lure of coaching at a larger school in a larger conference made Spry go to Winston-Salem State, where he replaced legendary coach Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines. Gaines retired with an 828-446 record in 47 years at the school.
"I had been at Paine for 13 years and decided that maybe it was time for me to go," he said. "I knew that my daughter didn't want to go. Also, Dr. C.S. Hamilton, a good friend and supporter of mine, had a meeting with me along with some other people in the community. They asked me if I would consider coming back.
"It was good to know the people in the community and the people at the college who supported me during my tenure there wanted me to come back. It was just God's will that I had the opportunity to return."
So after seven weeks on the job, Spry called his Realtor in North Carolina and halted the search for a house. Augusta wanted him back. So did ShaRon.
"That's when it really hit home to us that we really have to involve her in all of our decision-making," Audrey Spry said. "One thing that she said when that came up was nobody asked her. And we didn't, we just talked among ourselves."
AFTER SPRY RETURNED to Paine for his 14th season, he led the Lions to their first SIAC tournament championship and first Division II tournament appearance. Under Spry's tutelage, Marcus Allen was named to the All-America team.
"So many things happened at the end of that season, and you don't know what is going to happen when you return," Spry said. "It could've been a disastrous year."
Spry has continued to be a sort of miracle worker at Paine. The Lions won a second SIAC tournament title and made another Division II Tournament appearance in 1999 - with just 4 1/2 scholarship players. The NCAA Division II limit is 10.
"If you look at the way we go out and approach a game, you wouldn't know it," Spry said of his lack of scholarships. "If one school has 10 scholarships and another one has five, once they toss the ball, and you're playing against each other, it doesn't matter. Some teams will have more talent because, naturally, if you have more money, you're going to get a better athlete. They might get five, and I might get four, but maybe they won't play well that night. And the interesting thing is, in 400-plus games, they didn't."
SPRY HAS MOLDED several college coaches. Former players Terence Palmer and Shawn Parks coach at Lane and Stillman colleges, respectively. Former assistant Robert Skinner is the women's coach at Albany State.
Even Evans' Kenny, an Augusta College graduate, drew wisdom from Spry. The two met at an intramural basketball tournament at Paine. Interested in coaching, Kenny spent two years volunteering with Spry.
"He's probably the main reason I'm into coaching," Kenny said. "A lot of my philosophy does come from him. We do a lot of the same drills I learned down there."
SPRY HAS HELPED transform boys into men, sometimes even with fits of anger on the basketball court. Spry said he's just giving the players a taste of the future.
"A lot of times, life is tough," he said. "Cicely Tyson recited a poem by Langston Hughes (Mother to Son): 'Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.' I think it's important for young people to understand that life beyond basketball will be their most challenging experience they will have.
"A lot of times, most athletes will look beyond my hollerin' and screamin' or whatever I may say or do. They know I'm committed to them; I'm supportive of them. I want them to graduate from Paine College and then do what all the players that leave Paine College do and call and ask how Paine College is doing."
Spry, who is one dissertation paper short of a doctorate degree at the University of South Carolina, has no thoughts of retiring anytime soon.
"I don't have any timetable," he said. "It's like getting married. You'll just know when the time comes. Sometimes, after I'll lose a ballgame, I'll think it's then."
|Name: Ron Spry|
Occupation: Paine College athletic director and head men's basketball coach
Family: wife Audrey, daughter ShaRon
Born: Princeton, Ky.
Milestone: Picked up his 400th win against Georgia College & State in the 2000-2001 season
Notable: Led the Lions to Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament titles in 1994 and 1999
What you might not know: Listens to country music artists such as Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks