Greg Keith Was Sharp-Shooting Guard For McCallie In The 70s

Thursday, March 06, 2014 - by John Shearer

In recent years, Greg Keith has become known as the chairman and CEO of The Keith Corporation, a large, full-service commercial real estate company based in Charlotte, N.C. 

Other people also know him as the father-in-law of 2012 U.S. Open golf champion Webb Simpson.

But for those who followed high school sports in Chattanooga in the 1970s, he will always be remembered foremost as the sharp-shooting basketball guard for some successful McCallie School teams. 

He averaged more than 30 points a game his senior year in the pre-3-point-shot days and was named the local “Player of the Year.” He also made all-state two years and all-city three years, and even made some high school All-American teams. 

In fact, well before his son-in-law was even born, Mr. Keith was used to being surrounded by well-known people in the form of major college basketball coaches wanting to sign him to a scholarship. 

In connection with the 40th anniversary of his senior season at McCallie, which was possibly the best by anyone ever to wear the blue and white, Mr. Keith recently looked back on that time.

“Those were some very special days with some very special people,” he recalled over the telephone. 

Mr. Keith had grown up in Charlotte and initially developed his basketball skills at the Central YMCA there with the help of his youth coach and father, Graeme Keith Sr. As he neared high school age, he began looking at attending a college preparatory school as a way to develop his game and get a good education.

He looked at a number of boarding schools around the South, but knew he had come to the right place when he arrived at McCallie. The reason, he said, was basketball coach Bill Eskridge. 

“I knew when I met Coach Eskridge, I had met my kindred spirit,” said Mr. Keith. “When I met him, it was like a man who loved basketball as much as I do.”

Mr. Keith said the late coach Eskridge was a passionate motivator. He also knew how to prepare his teams and could make good adjustments during a game. 

“He was by far and away the best coach I ever played for,” said Mr. Keith of coach Eskridge, who died in June 1995 in a car accident while trying to turn into the McCallie entrance for a basketball camp well after his retirement.

Mr. Keith arrived at McCallie as a sophomore in the fall of 1971 and became a starter in the only sport he played at the school. In the style of the flashy Pete Maravich, he had a deadly outside jump shot, was a skilled ball handler and dribbler, and knew how to drive to the basket. 

This was especially true his senior season of 1973-74. 

“I drove a lot, I got fouled a lot,” he said. “Everybody has his role, and my role on that particular team was to be a scorer.”

Among his starting teammates that year in the era of short shorts, tube socks and low-cut shoes were Will Fanjoy, Preston Smith, multi-sport athlete Bobby Goodrich, and Carl McPhail. Jack Webb, a skilled tennis player as well, was the main sixth man. 

Although McCallie at the time played on the artificial Tartan rubber surface in Davenport Gymnasium, the team unity was all natural. 

“It was really a wonderful, close and cohesive group of young men and a coach,” he said. “There was a tremendous amount of team chemistry on that team.”

During his three years, his McCallie teams had a 9-0 record against Baylor, despite some very close games and some good Baylor basketball players who were also in the same class as Mr. Keith. They included the tall Stewart Zane, Harry and Larry Cash, Randy Levi, Jack Latimer, and football players Cal Jumper, Scott Price and Andy Rutledge. Future Baylor headmaster Scott Wilson was an 11th-grade member of the B-team that year. 

All three games against Baylor and coach Jimmy Duke his senior year were decided by three points or less.

“Baylor had some great teams, and we were really fortunate,” said Mr. Keith, who never visited Baylor as a potential school after realizing he wanted to be at McCallie with Coach Eskridge. “Baylor had a bunch of really fine athletes.” 

One Baylor player who would warm up with those seniors before the games by doing some Harlem Globetrotter-like ball-handling drills was seventh-grader Jimmy Braddock. Mr. Keith said he and Mr. Braddock – who went on to start at North Carolina -- never crossed paths elsewhere, despite their similar styles of play and basketball success.

While many eyes were on Mr. Keith his senior year as the team reached a No. 2 ranking in the state behind Memphis Melrose, a McCallie reserve would find himself unfortunately in the spotlight at the end. 

Just as McCallie was advancing in the 1974 playoffs and had defeated Soddy-Daisy in the first round of the region tournament for large schools on March 4, some bad news was learned. It was revealed that senior substitute Kenny Dyer the previous weekend had innocently been involved in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ charity basketball event for multiple sclerosis at McCallie.

Originally planning just to be a referee, Mr. Dyer ended up playing in a game when one team had only four players. As a result, he unknowingly violated TSSAA rules, and McCallie was disqualified from the playoffs. 

“That was an abrupt ending to a dream season,” said Mr. Keith.

As then-assistant sports editor Roy Exum of the Chattanooga News-Free Press documented in a heart-felt column, however, a silver lining was found. 

On March 6 – in one of the rare times when 10 bells were rung at McCallie to call the students to the chapel for an important announcement – Dr. Spencer McCallie broke the startling news about the tournament forfeiture.

While hurt and disappointment could be seen on every student, the gathering also turned into a salute for this team that coach Eskridge said was his best ever. And no one received a greater cheer than the young Mr. Dyer, who at the beginning of the season was told he would probably not play much but wanted to continue because he loved to practice.

As Mr. Exum wrote of the future Chattanooga banking executive, “Yet Dyer’s season, as hard as it has surely been, didn’t end until about 1:30 yesterday afternoon. For it was then that the McCallie student body – in startling class – gave a tearful boy a thunderous standing ovation.” 

Although basketball was over for that McCallie team, it was just getting started for Mr. Keith. With dreams of one day playing in the NBA, he entertained serious interest from such schools as Tennessee under coach Ray Mears, North Carolina under Dean Smith and even UCLA under the great John Wooden.

He ended up selecting Georgia, which at the time had enjoyed minimal basketball success. The reason, he said simply, was that he figured he might be able to play and contribute to the Bulldogs under John Guthrie more quickly than at one of the traditional powers. 

Although he had a slow start at Georgia, the Keith magic with which Chattanooga basketball fans were familiar soon asserted itself during his freshman year in 1974-75.

“I played sparingly the first 10 or 12 games of the season, and then I started against Vanderbilt and scored 21 points and started the rest of the season,” he said.  

While the confidence he had enjoyed on the court continued at Georgia, the emotional fit off it was not like it had been at McCallie.

Although he said he loved and still loves Georgia as a university, the basketball atmosphere was not what he wanted, so he left after his freshman year. 

“There were a number of things wrong with the basketball program, and I thought I would be a better fit somewhere else,” he said.

So he transferred to Wake Forest under coach Carl Tacy in the basketball-crazy Atlantic Coast Conference. 

Unfortunately, while it was a better fit emotionally, it turned out to be a bad place for him in terms of luck. He ended up suffering three basketball-related knee injuries there and never played in a game for the Demon Deacons.

“It was pretty discouraging,” he said. “Basketball had been such a major part of my life. For awhile, it kind of left a hole.” 

However, Mr. Keith said he realized God had a plan for him, and he came to the conclusion that life has other paths to fulfillment other than one that goes up and down a basketball court. He finished his business degree work at Wake Forest, went to law school there, eventually became involved in real estate development, and formed his current company in 1989 with his father.

“I’m a big believer that when God takes something from your grasp, he’s not punishing you, but he’s merely opening your heart to receive something better,” he said. “He knew what was best for me. I started studying harder and the grades got better.” 

He is still literally looking up, but at his buildings instead of a basketball rim. However, his basketball experience has still aided him in the business world, he added.

“Being a part of a team and understanding what role you are playing on a team and playing high school and college athletics have been helpful in the business world,” he said. “There have been a number of lessons that have been beneficial in my professional career.”            

Mr. Keith keeps a busy schedule with several sub-companies within his business, but he also takes time to enjoy life as a husband, father and grandfather. That area has enjoyed a little more attention since son-in-law Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open two years after marrying Mr. Keith’s daughter, Taylor Dowd.

"He’s a very good player,” said Mr. Keith. “But the greatest thing about Webb is that he is a better person than golfer. He’s an outstanding young man, and we feel blessed to have him as a member of our family.”

Mr. Keith also still takes time to be involved in civic and church work, including formerly being on the McCallie board of trustees. 

Part of his business’ mission statement – “Our mission is to glorify God and honor Him forever” – is similar to the McCallie motto taken from the historic Presbyterian catechism.

While Mr. Keith gave McCallie many points on the basketball court, he feels that the school taught him many important points in return in all the valuable lessons he learned there 40 years ago. 

“I feel privileged and honored to have been a part of it and to have attended such a fine school,” he said.

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