AIKEN - In the long line to say goodbye to former Clemson basketball coach Bobby Roberts, the highest tribute of all came from a South Carolina Gamecock.
"He was the greatest guy to ever coach at that God-forsaken place," said Aiken County magistrate Max Meek. "In spite of that, he was a very, very fine man."
Coaching colleagues, former players, golfing buddies and family gathered Tuesday morning at the First Baptist Church and the Palmetto Golf Club to pay respects to Coach - "a friend to everyone, including those who didn't have any friends." Roberts died Saturday at his home in Aiken. He was 74.
They said goodbye the way Coach Roberts would have done it - through stories accumulated over a life well spent.
"He had a unique laugh - he'd tell jokes and laugh harder than anyone else," said former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins.
Cremins was a Gamecock guard when he closed the book on Roberts' coaching career on March 5, 1970 in the ACC Tournament. Guarding Butch Zatezalo with the clock running out and the Gamecocks clinging to a one-point lead, Cremins stole the ball only to fall out of bounds. The official gave the ball to Carolina anyway, and the Gamecocks eked out a 34-33 win.
"Coach Roberts should have gotten that call," Cremins said at the funeral service. "I know I wouldn't be here speaking if he had."
Former South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler remembers his North Carolina boss Dean Smith seeking Roberts' coaching counsel whenever the Converse rep passed through Chapel Hill. But like most folks who got close to Roberts, Fogler's lasting memory came from the golf course.
"For nine straight Aprils I played golf with Bobby at Palmetto," Fogler said. "It was my favorite day of the year."
This April 17 stood out more. Fogler aced the par-3 7th hole, and he pulled out the Maxfli to prove it. The ball sits on Fogler's desk.
"It's more special to me because it's at Palmetto and I did it playing with Coach Bobby Roberts," he said.
Cremins, Fogler, Clemson coach Larry Shyatt and Roberts' son Mike, the head coach at USC Aiken, all spoke at a service so large it had to be moved from the funeral home to the big church. Some of the dignitaries in attendance included former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, retired Greenville (S.C.) News columnist Dan Foster and a host of ex-college players including Clemson's Randy and Richie Mahaffey and David Angel.
The service moved from the church to the back porch at Palmetto, where Roberts spent almost every day of the last 10 years holding court with his friends. To reach him, you called the pro shop, not his house.
"Personally, I could sit and listen to him tell stories all day," said Randy Warrick, the athletics director at USC Aiken, where Roberts served on the board of the Pacers Club.
When Mike Roberts invited everyone to Palmetto for a celebration of his father's life, he said Coach would be disappointed if anyone wore neckties.
"If you have any bets that haven't been taken care of," Mike said, "I'll cover them. If you owe him some money, we'll be passing the plate."
To meet Roberts for only a few minutes was to know him. He had a knack for making people feel like a friend the instant he met you.
"He was down-to-earth and didn't put on airs," said Lefty Driesell, the Georgia State coach who first met Roberts at a Campbell College basketball camp. "If my sons turn out like him I'll be happy."
As a coach, Roberts deserves more credit for what he was able to accomplish at a football school. Clemson never had a winning ACC record until Roberts led them to three in eight seasons, including the only consecutive winning ledgers in school history. He still shares the Tiger record for ACC road wins (14) and is the only coach to beat UNC twice in the same season (1964) or sweep the Tobacco Road schools - UNC, Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest - in one eight-day span of 1966-67. That team, which finished 17-8, is considered one of the best in Clemson history.
But what made Roberts stand out was the man, not the coach.
"He was a man who made everybody around him feel better," said Shyatt.
Particularly at Palmetto, where he'd win his share of daily dogfights and dish out good-natured ribbing to anyone who ventured upon his course.
"You didn't find any ego with him at all," said Warrick. "To me, the toughest thing is going to be not having him around."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.