By Jamie Combs
One of coaching’s longtime gym rats is through beating traps.
Earlier this month, Tony Hardin retired after a 30-plus year stay in the profession. The final six were spent atop the Heritage High boys basketball program in Maryville.
“I was considering retirement strongly,” Hardin said this week. “Some family issues pulled my time away, so I decided to go ahead and retire.”
Combine years spent on the middle school, freshman and prep varsity levels, and the former Elizabethton High coach walks away with slightly more than 1,000 games to his credit — and a record of 552-450.
“Coach Hardin is someone that I learned a tremendous amount from both as a player and coach,” said former Cyclone standout Michael Morrell, now the director of men’s basketball operations for Virginia Commonwealth University. “The memories I made playing for him are ones I still carry with me today. He always took a tremendous amount of pride in developing those he led into better players and people.
“Knowing Coach Hardin, it will not be the wins or championships he is most proud of — but rather the relationships and impact he made on his former players.”
Relationships and impact? Indeed.
“I’ve always felt like in coaching,” Hardin said, “you never know whether you’re a success or not until about five to seven years down the road, because that’s when the people you coach become adults. And then you kind of know if you had any effect on them or not.
“I really hope that at some point I positively affected some lives, and that’s kind of what I will miss — watching boys grow into young men.”
Hardin began his career in 1979 at Hunter Elementary, remaining there through the 1983-84 campaign. Leading the Tigers to an astounding 133-36 mark, including the ’84 Class AA state championship, he worked with the girls team as well — inducing a 70-46 mark.
From there, he served as the freshman coach (70-36 mark, two district titles) and a varsity assistant at EHS before reigning over the Lady Cyclones for a five-year span (1990-91 to 1994- 95).
His high school varsity debut, a 57-16 loss to Hampton, was an inauspicious one.
“On the nights when we were bad like that or the seasons you weren’t as good as you’d like to be,” Hardin said, “I just leaned on the process — that if you do things right, in the long run things are going to come.
“I remember that girls game, though.” (laughter)
Enduring a tough rookie campaign (6-21) and losing 36 of his first 50 contests with the Lady Cyclones, Hardin then started to turn things around. He averaged 19 wins a season over his final three years with the team — lifting him above the .500 mark (75-72) — and took the girls to their first substate appearance in ’94.
Then handed the Elizabethton boys job, he fashioned a 10-season stretch that, most notably, encompassed the program’s last trip to the state tournament. The 2002-03 Cyclones made it to Murfreesboro in Class AA, finishing with a glistening 30-5 mark.
Going 163-138 with the ’Clones, Hardin was a three-time 20-game winner. Some additional highlights include two Watauga Conference championships, two district crowns (one in 1-AAA, another in 1-AA), a pair of Region 1-AA titles and halting Science Hill’s 47-game win streak in January of ’96.
“That’s probably the best game I’ve ever been associated with,” said Hardin, referring to the 57-50 double-overtime victory at the Topper Palace. “It was a very high level (of play) from both teams. With the hype and the excitement and everything, it was a really fun night.”
The accomplishment that supplied him the most satisfaction, however, was recording a 28-0 league record en route to back-to-back Watauga crowns (2001-02, 2002-03).
“Consistently playing at a high level every night is very difficult to do, especially with teenagers,” he said.
An assistant coach for Hardin with the Cyclones, Rick Wilson gave his take on the T.H. touch.
“Tony’s always been a special friend to me, just growing up and so forth,” Wilson said. “We competed against each other when we played in elementary school, and then later on of course we competed against one another when we coached (middle school ball) in the county. Fortunately, I was able to help him coach there at Elizabethton for a while.
“I guess the one thing that sticks out to me about Tony is his patience and his love for every kid, and never giving up on any of the kids. He was always so positive with every kid and a big believer that they would be able to do something to contribute to the team in some form or fashion. That’s always stuck with me.”
Seven-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten was on the 1999-2000 Cyclone squad that played in a sectional game at the University of Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena.
Witten, of course, would soon be playing football for the Vols.
“Coach Hardin was a tremendous coach and will always hold a special spot in my life,” said the Dallas Cowboys tight end. “He had a unique way of reaching young men, like very few I have ever been around. On the court, he taught me so many great qualities that I still use today, such as strong work ethic, a deep understanding of mental toughness and how to have discipline in every phase of your life. He taught that in order to have success, you must first be willing to put the work in every day.
“Off the court, he had a huge impact on my life as well. I remember struggling during my (college) recruiting process for football and feeling as if the weight of the world was on my shoulders. Coach would simply put his arm around me and reassure me that I could not make a wrong decision during this process. How great that felt. He would constantly remind me of how much he cared for me and my family. Although I am many years removed from playing for Coach, I will always cherish our relationship and the lifelong lessons he taught me both on and off the floor.”
Vince Redd, who helped the Cyclones reach the ’03 state tournament, spent time with the New England Patriots in 2008.
“I’ve been blessed to have coached the people I’ve coached and had the success I’ve had,” Hardin said. “I’ve coached two NFL players, and I’ve got an awful lot of guys in coaching who played for me at different levels.”
One of those guys is his son Steve, a Lees-McRae College men’s assistant and former Appalachian Athletic Conference women’s coach of the year at Bluefield.
“I was lucky because I got to play for Coach Hardin and also got to grow up as his son,” Steve said. “I know he taught many players the game of basketball and I know I’m biased, but I have always thought he was the best coach at getting good players to be great and teaching players how to succeed in life. It’s hard for the fan to see those key things that dad did extra. I have so many examples of dad going the extra mile to just help a kid out.”
Having coached all three of his sons — T.J. and Ben came along after Steve — during his years at EHS, Tony Hardin considers the experience a treasure.
“I feel very blessed to have done that,” Hardin said.
A one-year break followed Hardin’s final season (2004-05) at Elizabethton, then he accepted the job at Heritage — where the situation was less than ideal. Inheriting a program with a downtrodden background, Hardin won just 41 games with the Mountaineers.
“It’s an agricultural school,” he said. “Probably 50, 60 percent of the people there are in the farming business, so basketball’s not really a very high priority.
“It’s a very tough place to coach.”
There was a first-place finish in the ’07 Midway Christmas Classic, and a conquest of Alcoa the season before. Conference play, however, has long been a monumental challenge for Heritage.
“We actually had some good teams,” he said. “It’s just that this league down here is so tough. I thought coaching at Elizabethton when we were 3A was the toughest thing I had ever seen, but I was absolutely wrong. I mean in this league down here, every year there are five teams that are capable of going to the state tournament. You’re looking at West, Bearden, Farragut and Maryville, Lenoir City — I mean you’re looking at some high-level talent. And then, too, because you can travel only so far, you don’t get much let-up out of your conference. The double-A teams are good, too.”
Despite the tough go of it from the Mountaineers’ bench, Hardin is thankful for the time he’s had in the Heritage community.
“It’s been very good to me,” said Hardin, who resides in Blount County with his wife, Linda. “It’s a good place. I love living here and financially it was a really good move.”
And he plans to remain there as a teacher for a good while.
“There are some financial reasons to do that, so I’m just going to stay there and teach,” he said. “And I’m actually really enjoying the classroom. I have a very high-tech classroom. I’ve got a computer for every student. I’m on a 9-weeks program — every nine weeks I get new kids.”
From the coaching end of the spectrum, Hardin conveyed that every job had its rewards.
“I really think, too, if you do your homework as a coach, you learn from every situation,” he said. “Starting at the middle school level, fundamentals were ingrained in how I coached. I think coaching girls made me a better communicator. You can’t berate them like you might a guy.”
Moreover, the profession has enabled Hardin to form a tight bond with Wilson. The two men first connected as middle school basketball players (Hardin for Unaka, Wilson for Central), and they continued that competition on the high school level (Hardin, Unaka; Wilson, Happy Valley).
They would match wits as middle school coaches — Wilson was at Central — before eventually pooling their knowledge of the sport for the Orange & Black.
Since then, the road of life has led both individuals to Blount County. In fact, Hardin and Wilson, who’s the principal at Maryville’s John Sevier Elementary School, live roughly a mile apart.
“It’s funny because we live real close, then we won’t even see each other for a while,” Hardin said. “But we kind of keep in touch, then the next thing you know we’ll be back together again. It’s been nice; he’s a very good friend.”
Wilson recalls coming upon an important career matter during his Carter County years, and how Hardin responded to the situation.
“When I was coaching with him, the principal’s position came open at West Side Elementary,” Wilson said. “It always meant a lot to me that Tony encouraged me to go after that, because you work and stuff to get yourself in a position to be in a really good situation, I think, like we were at Elizabethton.
“From a coaching standpoint, when that position came open, he was a hundred percent supportive and never one time encouraged me to do anything other than just to look at it — and if that’s what I thought was best for me and my family, to take that.
“And not everybody will do that.”