Hall of Fame: Catawba inducts four
By Mike London
SALISBURY— North Carolina Sports Hall of Famer Billy Cox graced the covers of national magazines as the triggerman for Duke’s single-wing offense in 1951, but Cox was a receiver at 1946 Class A state champ Mount Airy High because the Granite Bears had a guy running the show who was even better.
That fellow’s name was Johnny Coble. He passed away 18 years ago but hasn’t been forgotten. Coble took his place in Catawba’s Hall of Fame in ceremonies on Saturday, alongside deceased Clemson coaching legend Bill Wilhelm and two stars from the 1990s — record-setting women’s soccer goalkeeper Scherrie Dalton and football/baseball legend Greg Payne.
Coble, who also led Mount Airy to the 1947 basketball state title, was pursued by big schools, but Mount Airy coach Wally Shelton, whom he looked up to, advised him to go to Catawba to play for Gordon Kirkland.
“Go there and if you get hurt they won’t take away your scholarship,” Shelton told him.
Catawba wasn’t shut out in a lengthy stretch from late in the 1939 season to early in 1949. It was a celebrated streak, the nation’s longest, and on more than one occasion, it was extended by personal heroics on the part of Coble.
In 1950, Coble spearheaded the Indians in a stunning 14-13 upset at VMI. Steve Shaughnessy, Coble’s son-in-law and a former Catawba head football coach, spoke for the family and pointed out, “VMI beat Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech that year — but it couldn’t beat Catawba.”
Coble’s coaching, teaching and administrative career in Cabarrus County, was equally auspicious.
“He was a Hall of Fame athlete — and a Hall of Fame person,” Shaughnessy said.
Karl Hales, who introduced each honoree, read a letter from former Catawba soccer coach Kevin Dempsey, with regard to Dalton’s career.
Among other things, Dempsey wrote, “You saved our butts.”
Glancing at the record book, Dalton saved about everything from 1993-96. A four-time All-SAC performer, she’s No. 1 at Catawba in career saves (343) and saves in a game (18).
Dalton recalled her recruiting visit to Catawba came on a dreary, rainy day, but she was still sold on the school.
“I took a piece of a lot of the people I met at Catawba and have applied it to my life,” Dalton said.
Dalton is head women’s coach at Martinsville High in Virginia — her hometown.
Payne has arguably the most interesting profession of any Catawba Hall of Famer. He’s guitarist, vocalist and manager for a country rock band — the Piedmont Boys.
“When I’m driving in my truck, I’m listening to Greg play,” Catawba athletics director Dennis Davidson said.
Besides his musical talents, Payne was one of the top multi-sport athletes in Catawba history and could’ve been selected for the Hall on the basis of either his football or baseball exploits.
The bar continually rises for Catawba baseball records because the program plays more games now than it once did, but when Payne finished in 1998, he owned seven marks, including career total bases (670). A third baseman, he batted .313 for his career.
In football, Payne was a standout punter and placekicker and an All-American in 1996. His prodigious feats included a streak of 17 consecutive made field goals.
“But I missed some too,” Payne said modestly.
Then he nodded at a table at which fellow Hall of Famer and former football coach David Bennett was seated and cheerfully quipped, “I missed one at Wofford in 1995 and won’t ever forget that one. I still have a sore neck from Coach Bennett grabbing my facemask.”
Randall Wilhelm, an English professor at Clemson, accepted the award for his father, one of the great coaches in college baseball history.
He spoke with tears glistening in his eyes and had his audience in the same state not long after he began recounting his famous father’s story.
Bill’s father died when he was 2, and he grew up painfully poor in the 1930s on the China Grove-Landis border.
He pursued baseball with a passion that made neighborhoods kids run away when they saw him coming because he’d insist on playing until dark. When he couldn’t find anyone to play catch with, he settled for whacking the rocks that lined the railroad track.
He became good enough to play for N.C. State, but when money got even tighter, he signed a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950.
Minor league stops in Goldsboro and Allentown, Pa., followed before Uncle Sam called. When he got out of the service in 1953, he played for Paducah, Ky., Albany and Columbus, Ga., Jackonsville, Fla., and Double-A Atlanta.
After batting .194 for Atlanta’s Crackers in 1956 when he was 27, he was smart enough to know he wouldn’t reach the majors. That’s when he enrolled at Catawba, taking classes by day, working in the textile mills at night.
His new dream was to earn a degree and teach biology, but life had a different plan.
After he finished at Catawba, Wilhelm was working on his masters and helping with the baseball team at North Carolina when head coach Walter Rabb recommended him to Clemson AD Frank Howard to head the Tigers baseball program.
The rest of the story you may already know. In his rookie season of 1958, Wilhelm took his 15 Tigers to Omaha, and he would go back five more times in a legendary, 36-year career in which he never had a losing season.
He coached 1,161 wins. He started the ACC tournament, coached 27 future major leaguers and piloted 19 ACC regular-season champs.
Catawba wanted to induct Wilhelm earlier, but he declined all Halls of Fame, even national ones, while he lived.
“He was humble, and it was difficult for him to accept personal honors,” Randall explained. “He refused them with a vengeance.”
Wilhelm’s widow, Sarah, and his sons have accepted those overdue honors since his death in December, 2010, and that’s what brought Randall back to Salisbury on Saturday.
“I know there’s no crying in baseball,” he said, blinking away a stray tear. “But that bachelor’s degree from Catawba led to everything for my dad. Catawba gave him a second chance at life.”
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