April 4, 2012

Return of the Roadrunners

Dalton State College seeks to reclaim exciting, winning basketball program

Adam Krohn

— In an area known more for carpet weaving skills and the success of its high school football players, there was a time when Dalton was also known as the home of one of the most colorful, successful and mythic basketball programs in the state.

Like a shooting star blazing through the sky, the Dalton Junior College Roadrunners energized

the community and the college, winning state and regional titles and competing for national titles with a style of play that kept the tiny gymnasium at the school packed and THE place to be. And also like a shooting star, the Roadrunners of coach Melvyn Ottinger didn’t last long. With just a decade of basketball excellence, the program faded out as quickly as it appeared.

The school is looking to its past to stake out its future as the now four-year Dalton State College recently announced the hiring of Derek Waugh as its first athletic director since Ottinger was the do-everything athletic director who also coached the golf and tennis teams.

This time around, Waugh will be looking to start an athletic program that will have the return of men’s basketball as a priority, while at the same time staying within federal guidelines, becoming Whitfield County’s biggest fundraiser and taking over the top cheerleader position — even though the college doesn’t even have cheerleaders as of yet.

“There are so many things that we are looking at, and there are some things that I could sit here and say that there is a 97 percent chance that it will happen, but I would hate to have it not happen,” said Waugh, 40, who was hired away from Florida’s Stetson University, where he was men’s basketball coach and assistant athletic director. “We want to take the time and make sure that we do this in the right way.”

Already, the hiring of an athletic director with an eye toward building some sort of program has boosters and supporters of the college buzzing. For many, the re-starting of athletics is long overdue.

“I thought they should have done it long before now,” said former Roadrunner and Dalton native Gary Smith, who played on the school’s first basketball team in 1968. “I know (basketball) would be competitive. It might be a challenge to compete at first, but I think with the right person, they could be great again.”

The dawn of the Roadrunners

Ottinger was definitely the right person at the right time when the school opened in September 1967.

Hired from Shorter College in Rome, Ottinger wasn’t much older than the players that he would bring to the school. Coming into a particularly strong area to begin with featuring traditional junior college powers such as DeKalb and South Georgia, Ottinger knew he had to stand out from the crowd in the way that he recruited and the way that he sold the program to the community. He had a lot of inspiration, a lot of enthusiasm and a little money.

“We had a $5,000 budget our first year, and that was a lot of money for the time,” Ottinger said. “But I was the only one here. We didn’t even have a gym that first year. I was pretty young, but I knew what work was like and I loved the challenge.”

Coach “O” immediately hit the recruiting trail, looking for a mix of local talent that could enthuse the area’s fans as well as bringing in top players from around the state to play his fast-paced style of basketball.

“If you lived north of Atlanta and could play basketball, I knew who you were,” he said. “As far as all of the schools that we played, I had all of northwest Georgia all to myself. I spoke to just about every civic club from Marietta to Chattanooga just trying to get the word out.”

The basketball fans of the area had few outlets. While they may have followed the programs at Georgia, Georgia Tech or maybe even Chattanooga, there was nothing local except for high school hoops.

“The people were ready,” Ottinger said. “We were the only big basketball in this part of the state, but it was a 24/7 job and I married a woman who understood that. I was bound and determined to be a success.”

From the start it wasn’t easy, and Ottinger and the Roadrunners weren’t exactly met with open arms from their competition.

“When I started recruiting, one of the first games I went into all of the other coaches were there,” Ottinger remembered. “Bill Travis was the coach at DeKalb College and I walked in and heard him say, ‘Here comes our fresh meat.’ I decided right there I wasn’t going to be anyone’s fresh meat.”

Dalton Junior College went 12-12 its first season, but that was just a preview of what was to come, and already the mystique was building.

“In our 10 years, we only lost to DeKalb twice,” Ottinger said.

Winning and standing out

The basketball program didn’t have much to offer, at first, but the school definitely stood out from the crowd, largely thanks to Ottinger’s machinations, and Coach O usually got what he wanted.

The student body was set to vote on a mascot and had it narrowed down to Eagles and Mountain Lions. Neither seemed distinctive enough to Ottinger, and he orchestrated a write-in campaign for the Roadrunner. He was a fan of the Oakland Raiders’ silver in the color scheme, so when it came time to choose school colors, Ottinger told the decision makers he had already bought navy and silver uniforms. Navy and silver became the school’s official colors.

In a time of the American Basketball Association with its red-white-and-blue basketball and the stylings of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Ottinger wanted his team to stand out. His players wore one blue and one white shoe. He dubbed the one-sided Bandy Gymnasium as “Death Valley GA 30720” and had that painted on the bleacher-less wall. His team warmed up to the pulse-building theme of “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes. He turned the heat up as high as it would go to make the other teams uncomfortable.

But it was the style of play that brought people to Bandy two hours before tipoff to guarantee they had a seat. With several All-Americans dotting the roster, the Roadrunners lived up to their fast-paced nickname, charging up and down the floor; 100-point games were the norm.

In the second year, DJC went 30-4 and claimed the state championship and finished ranked No. 12 in the nation. It was just a preview of things to come. In the 1971-72 season, the Roadrunners become a national power with a 35-2 record, making their first trip to the national tournament and finishing second in the final poll of the year. In 1972-73, DJC was 28-7 and placed 10th in the national tournament.

During a 10-year span, the Roadrunners were 120-11 at Death Valley, and midway through the 1977-78 season, DJC was 12-2 when it was announced the program was going to be disbanded.

“It was so abrupt,” Ottinger said. “We finished that year 14-14 because it was like there was nothing left to play for. They said it was financial, and it just melted away.”

For everyone involved in the program, it stung.

“It really bothered me,” said Randy Beckler, a member of the 1968-69 and 1969-70 basketball teams. “We didn’t have the funding at that time, and it broke our heart. Things don’t last forever, but it would have been nice to have the Roadrunners dribbling all this time.”

Roadrunner revival

Waugh was hired this year by college president John Schwenn as the school’s first athletic director since Ottinger. The school will have sports again, and Waugh has said that bringing back the sound of bouncing basketballs to the school will be a priority.

But it is a job that requires building from scratch; Bandy Gymnasium can’t be used for basketball games because the old locker rooms have been converted to classrooms. Another facility in the area — namely the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center — would have to be used by the college. The plan for athletics is forming, but Waugh says it is still too early for sure to tell exactly what will be the program for the school.

The restart of athletics isn’t expected to occur until the 2013 school year, so for now Waugh’s job is part administrator, part inventor, part cheerleader and a big part fundraiser.

“I would say right now the main part is enthusiasm builder,” Waugh said. “As fundraising comes into it, I want people to see that we have a plan and a goal so they can contribute to the college and the community with a clear plan of what we intend to do. And we intend to do it in the right way.”

Waugh will have plenty of help.

“We are really looking forward to helping out as much as we can,” Beckler said of himself and fellow past Roadrunners. “I think with the help of coach Waugh — and they did a great hire — we are looking to put a plan together to help with the funding. We have to have not just basketball. I will be involved. I want to see that program dribbling again.”

He isn’t the only one.

Nancy Stone Whaley graduated from DJC in 1974, and her memories of winter nights on campus revolved around the hoop highlights from Ottinger’s high fliers.

“My word, I am so excited,” said Whaley, who serves as chair of the Alumni Association Advisory Council. “If I could be a cheerleader again, I would. I am so excited and thrilled with the hiring of Derek.”

Beckler said that kind of enthusiasm is throughout the community.

“The older generation remembers and will support it. If we can recruit well and play at that level, people love a winner,” Beckler said. “That is the goal, and be able to compete on a national basis. A lot of the money people in Dalton were around when we were playing and getting national recognition. The whole community can get behind this.”

Dalton Mayor David Pennington agrees.

“This is really going to catapult Dalton State College into the first tier of senior colleges in the state,” Pennington said. “What this will do for Dalton and the college and the rest of the community will be fantastic, and I have no doubt of that.”

Waugh has seen that kind of enthusiasm wherever he has gone in Dalton — from the students who agreed to a $50 per semester athletics fee to the members of the civic clubs he has addressed in his short time here.

“I am genuinely excited,” he said. “I have found such a receptive audience, a combination of not only the success, but also the fact that Dalton is such a great sports town. So many parks and such an athletic, friendly place. To bring athletics to the local college is a nice fit.”