Local Sports

September 25, 2010

Tribute to Coach “O”

DALTON — By the hundreds, the Roadrunners, their friends and their families returned to “Death Valley, GA 30720.” They returned Saturday evening to honor the man who turned them into winners and spawned some of the greatest moments in Dalton sporting history.

Past members of the Dalton Junior College Roadrunners basketball team, local luminaries and the man himself returned to Bandy Gymnasium at Dalton State College to honor basketball coach Melvyn Ottinger. They came from Belgium and from Whitfield County. Past All-Americans, state senators, family men who used to wear Blue and Silver and even a Division II national championship coach who gave most of the credit to the man who gave him a chance to play as a Roadrunner, they all came to celebrate 70 years of a life that still resonates uniquely in the annals of Dalton sports legend.

Coach “O” was not just a coach and not just a teacher at Dalton Junior College. He was also part showman, innovator, promoter, intimidator, recruiter and ahead of his time in so many ways that he put the Roadrunners on the map as a power in Northwest Georgia and also took that act on the road to the main stage of the national tournament.

“It is unbelievable to see all of these people tonight,” Ottinger said before the formal festivities of the evening began. “I never thought that we would ever have anything like this. Some of these guys I haven’t seen in 25 years. I am so excited right now I could get together a team right now and whip anyone we wanted.”

Dalton Junior College had basketball for only a decade. But during that time, Ottinger and the rest of the assembled cast of characters that showed up Saturday night turned the gymnasium into Death Valley for their opponents. In that brief decade, Ottinger’s teams won 20 or more games in seven seasons and finished in the Top 20 in the nation in the final National Junior College Athletic Association poll four times. Twice the team made trips to Hutchinson, Kan., for the national tournament, winning 34 games without a loss in taking the state and regional titles in 1972.

At home, the Roadrunners were the talk of the town with promotions, marketing and a style of play that drew people into the fever of what Ottinger was putting on the floor. The Roadrunners had style. In an age of the American Basketball Association with its red, white and blue ball and its highlight-filled play as a rival to the National Basketball Association, Ottinger found his marketing genius. The team would come out for warm ups to the music of “Shaft.” Dalton would wear not just white shoes or blue shoes, but would often be in one white shoe and one blue shoe. Ottinger would blast the heat to see the opposing teams sweat.

It was that kind of brash behavior from a 27-year-old basketball coach that molded the reputation, the character and the expectations for winning that came to define the Roadrunner program. The stands were constantly packed, and former players said Saturday that if you didn’t get to the gymnasium at least an hour before the game, you weren’t going to get in.

“Whenever Coach Ottinger came into the room, you covered your heart with one hand and your wallet with the other, because he was about to sell you on something,” current Kennesaw State University coach Tony Ingle said. “He was a great example to follow. He really was a leader, and he lit up this town. He gave the people of this town something to remember.”

Ingle certainly remembered and learned from Ottinger. Ingle was a member of that 1972 team, and is the only person in the country to win 35 games as a player and 35 games as a coach in a single season. Ingle’s 2004 Kennesaw State team won the Division II national title.

Players like Jon “Buck” Heath were brought in by Ottinger and he loved his style, his approach and his work ethic.

“I came here from LaFayette, and watched them play, and he played a style of ball that no one else was really playing at college,” said Heath, who would go onto become an All-American and win several titles playing in Europe. “He opened the door and let us play. All of our success, all of it, it was something out of a fairy tale. Today, and the people that are here, show how much passion the people who were involved in it had for the program and for coach Ottinger.”


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