Several years ago there was a T-shirt going around in the East Ridge community and beyond with a silhouette of Coach Catherine Neely's curly head on it, and the caption on the shirt said, "Fear The Fro." It was toward the end of Coach Neely's career as a volleyball coach for the Pioneers. All supporters in East Ridge had one, and so did just about every other volleyball player in the area. Everybody wanted one out of respect for the winningest volleyball coach of all time.....not only in the state of Tennessee but in the nation as well.
Catherine Neely was absolutely the best there ever was.
I first met Coach Neely when I first came to Chattanooga in 1975. I had gone to East Ridge High School to interview head football coach Raymond James and he introduced me to her. We hit it off right away and that started a friendship that would last 45 years. That very day, she was promoting her volleyball program when very few people even knew what a volleyball was. I would eventually return to East Ridge to broadcast a few basketball games but very seldom did I ever walk into the gym when Catherine Neely wasn't promoting her sport. We remained very close through the years as her total of volleyball and basketball wins continued to grow. She stayed on me to join her on the board for the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame and in 2009, I relented.
My good friend, Coach Catherine Neely passed away early on Wednesday morning after battling COVID-19 for several weeks. When I discovered she had the Coronavirus a week ago, I figured that she would beat it, even though her health had been failing recently. I thought like everyone else that Coach Neely would prevail against this terrible virus, but when I realized how sick she was, I was devastated. I knew how very real this threat was and it still angers me when I hear, "Oh it's a hoax. It will go away when the election is over." Or, "I'm not wearing a mask because it infringes on my rights."
I have now lost several friends to COVID-19 and I'm not going to get back up on my soap box to stress the realization of how serious this is. If you can't understand how real it is by now, you never will. I would prefer to talk about Coach Catherine Neely and how much I loved and respected her. She's in every hall of fame around and deservedly so. She influenced so many young student athletes and young coaches in her nearly 50 years in education and administration it's impossible to understand how important she was to so many people.
I would imagine when Coach Neely arrived in heaven this week, one of the first people to greet her was former Lady Vols' basketball coach, Pat Summitt. They were very good friends for many years and boy did Coach Neely ever love the Lady Vols. I can also guarantee that Pat was wearing one of those "Fear the Fro" shirts and I also guarantee they both had a big laugh about it.
Coach, I will miss you greatly as will everyone else who called you a friend. "Fear the Fro..." always "Fear the Fro."
Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org