A life in football: Art Baker has quite the story to tell

A life in football: Art Baker has quite the story to tell

At the age of 17 most of us are enjoying our high school years, going to prom, hanging out with friends and deciding what to do after graduation.

For Art Baker, 17 was the age he got his first head coaching job. It's fitting for someone who knew even before that age that he wanted to be a head coach. 

The opportunity to coach came unexpectedly after Baker found out he wasn't eligible to play his senior year of football at Edmunds High School, which is now Sumter High School.

Knowing that his family would not be able to help him get to college, Baker decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enlist in the Army. The only problem with that was that Baker was just 16 at the time. It didn't take long for the Army to figure that out and after completing basic training he was sent back home and told to come back later.

Because he had attended three or four days of school before going into the military, Edmunds counted that as a whole year and Baker was ineligible to play football.

So his coach came to him and asked if he would be willing to coach the newly-formed junior varsity team at just 17-years old. Baker jumped on the opportunity and led his team to a perfect 10-0 record.

"So obviously, I'm thinking, 'well boy, I must be a good coach," Baker recalls.

But Baker said he learned an early valuable lesson as the JV coach and took advantage of the great athletes on his team en route to his undefeated record.

Now 84, Baker boasts more than 60 years of coaching experience. He has been the head coach at three colleges and has been an assistant under legendary coaches Frank Howard and Bobby Bowden.

The journey to Presbyterian College

Even with the successful start to his coaching career, Baker's dream of going to college was still in limbo. He went on a visit to Presbyterian College with three of his teammates who were also interested. Back then, players could spend two or three days on campus, "trying out" for the team.

The coaches liked three of the four players, particularly farm boy Joe Kirven, and offered them full scholarships. Baker was the odd man out. However, Kirven, who went on to be an All-American defensive end at Presbyterian went into the coach's office and told him that they all wanted to go to school together.

So the coach gave Baker a room in the basement of the field house, access to secondhand books and an opportunity to walk on to the football team.

Baker got a job in the dining room to help get him through college but by his junior season the running back had fought his way into the starting lineup and earned a scholarship. He played and started most of the games his final two years at Presbyterian. 

Baker said he enjoyed playing, but his desire was still to be a coach. That would have to be put on hold after graduating, thanks to the Korean War. Baker joined the Army, this time legally, and spent two years training soldiers in basic training at Fort Jackson.

"Probably one of the most beneficial things that happened to me"

While at Fort Jackson, Baker frequently visited George Moore and Charlie Todd, who owned Todd & Moore. One day, they told Baker about a high school coaching job in McColl, South Carolina, right on the border with North Carolina.

So about a week before practice was to start, Baker got out of the Army and brought his brother with him to the little mill town. When Baker arrived he saw he had a lot of work to do.

"The fields had weeds all in it and I had to get a farmer to cut them down and line the field for us," Baker said. "I didn't have any managers, I didn't have any assistants. Right out of college and I'm a head coach and I had to coach every position and every sport."

But a rundown field didn't stop Baker and by his second and final year, Baker's team had a winning record.

He then took the head coaching job at Newberry High School in 1957 where Baker met the person who he gives most of the credit for his successful coaching career. Newberry College head coach Harvey Kirkland, who is now in Newberry's Hall of Fame, began interacting with Baker because Kirkland's son played at Newberry High School.

"(It) turned out to be probably one of the most beneficial things that happened to me," Baker said.

Kirkland took Baker under his wing and started mentoring him. They quickly formed a close relationship and started to hunt together and their families started to vacation together.

"He was such a stickler for details and techniques and fundamentals and he didn't worry about plays until you taught people how to get in a stance and block and tackle," Baker said of Kirkland. "So we spent a lot of time on those things."

"Being with coach Howard was like an adventure every day"

With a newfound appreciation for coaching, Baker took over the head job at Eau Claire High School in Columbia. In its nine previous seasons, Eau Claire did not have a winning record. In Baker's six seasons with the team they had a winning record every year and played for the state championship twice.

That was when Baker caught the eye of Clemson coach Frank Howard. Baker remembers a February morning conversation when Howard, the namesake of the famous "Howard's Rock" at Clemson, offered him the job.

"Hey Al, what I'm looking for is a freshman coach, you want the job?" Baker recalls Howard asking him. 

"Well, first of all coach, my name is Art," Baker replied.

"Aw heck, I didn't have my glasses on," Howard responded.

Baker said that after Howard had kind of "put me in my place" he told the legendary coach that he was interested in the job and wanted to bring his wife up to Clemson to talk about it.

"Now, wait a minute, I'm not hiring your wife," Howard told Baker.

Nevertheless, Baker accepted the job coaching the Clemson freshman and proceeded to lead them to their first undefeated season in around 30 years.

Howard then elevated Baker to quarterback and running back coach the following year and the Tigers proceeded to win three straight ACC championships. Baker credits a lot of that success to talented players like quarterback Jimmy Addison, who is in the Clemson Hall of Fame.

When Howard retired after the 1969 season, Baker wanted to succeed him as head coach. However, the Tigers gave the job to Hootie Ingram.

So with that, Baker decided to move on, but he will always cherish his memories with Howard.

"That was a real experience," Baker said. "I could write a bunch of books on that experience. Being with coach Howard was like an adventure every day."

Finally becoming a college head coach

Baker was prepared to take a job with Paul Dietzel and South Carolina after leaving Clemson. However, the day before he was to start the job he got a call from Texas Tech coach Jim Carlen, who wanted him to take over the offensive coordinator job left vacant by Bobby Bowden. Baker accepted the job and spent three seasons in West Texas. Then, in 1973, the Furman head coaching job opened up. Baker was offered the job and accepted it, taking more than an $8,000 pay cut in the process, but it was a 50-year-old dream come true for Baker.

"I wanted to be a head coach in college and I especially wanted to be a head coach in South Carolina," Baker said.

Baker brought Steve Robertson, Jimmy Satterfield, Dick Sheridan and Buddy Sasser with him to Furman. All were assistants under Baker at some point in his career and all four later became college head coaches.

Sheridan and Satterfield are both South Carolina graduates and Satterfield would later lead Furman to the NCAA Division I-AA national championship in 1988. Current Furman head coach Bruce Fowler played for Baker at Furman. 

The year before Baker and his staff arrived, Furman went 2-9. In Baker's first year, Furman posted a 7-4 record and was named the most improved team in the country.

Baker spent five total years at Furman where he posted a 27-24-4 record.

"Took a lot of prayer on my part and my wife's part"

In 1978, Baker and his wife faced an important decision. The Citadel had offered him its head coaching job and it included a healthy pay raise and housing. However, it would be a lot harder to recruit at the military school and it was very unusual for someone to go to The Citadel from Furman.

"That would be like going from Carolina to Clemson," Baker said.

While it "took a lot of prayer on my part and my wife's part," Baker decided to make the move to The Citadel.

He overcame the difficult task of getting teenagers to attend a military school to post a 30-24-1 record in five seasons. There were a lot of people who quit school at The Citadel once they found out what it entailed. That was a problem for Baker because those kids would go back home and tell their friends how bad their experience was, turning them off to the school as well. Because of that, Baker was forced to use a nationwide approach when it came to recruiting. 

Baker was fired from The Citadel after his fifth season despite having a career win percentage that is still unmatched by any coach in the last 60-plus years. 

It was internal issues that eventually lost Baker his job, including his choice of a starting quarterback one year.

That didn't slow down Baker's career however and he landed an offensive coordinator and assistant head coaching job at East Carolina in 1983. He turned down head coaching jobs from smaller schools like Gardner-Webb and Elon and was glad he did.

"That was probably the best group of players that I had coached all those years," Baker said of the 1983 East Carolina team. 

The Pirates posted an 8-3 record that year and the three losses were a one-point defeat to Florida State, a three-point defeat at the hands of Florida and a five-point defeat to Miami, who won the national championship that year.

Baker's team led the Hurricanes for most of the game before a late touchdown downed East Carolina.

"Not going to hire anyone else until you tell me you won't take the job"

After East Carolina's narrow loss to Florida State, Seminole head coach Bobby Bowden called Baker and told him that he was going to hire a new quarterback coach the next season.

"I know this is a bad time to talk to you, but I'm not going to hire anyone else until you tell me you won't take the job," Bowden told Baker.

After the Pirates' season concluded, Baker went down to talk to Bowden, who offered him an offensive coordinator and assistant head coaching position. Baker accepted the job.

Florida State went 8-3 that year and tied Georgia in the Citrus Bowl. Baker implemented his option-oriented offense he had at East Carolina and thrived that year with Bowden.

"It was the best job I ever had, really," Baker said. "He was just a great guy to work for. He gave you responsibility."

Baker said that Bowden, who was usually in his underwear and chewing on a cigar, would bring him into his hotel room the night before a game to go over the plan for the game.

"I studied football harder than I had ever studied it because I wasn't going to go in there and have him ask me a question (and get it wrong)," Baker said. "It was good for me. I got a chance to study a lot. He's exactly what he claims to be. He's a great guy, very knowledgeable."

While he was preparing for the Citrus Bowl, Baker got a call from East Carolina, who wanted him to come back to take the head coaching job. After the bowl game, Baker accepted the job despite the ECU program being in disarray. They were facing 18 NCAA violations and were in the red financially. Because of that, the Pirates were forced to play teams that were a lot more talented than them every year in an effort to make money. Baker never had a winning season in four years and posted a 12-32 record.

The transition

Toward the end of his fourth year at East Carolina, the school’s athletic director and president began debating whether to renew Baker’s contract. While that was going on he got a call from South Carolina athletic director King Dixon, who wanted Baker to come to the University and be the associate athletic director.

While Baker wasn’t ready to end his coaching career he would make more money at South Carolina than as head coach of East Carolina.

So while the president and AD were still trying to decide whether to keep Baker he decided to resign from the school and come to Columbia.

Soon after he arrived then football coach Joe Morrison came to Baker with a proposal.

“Wouldn’t you rather be the offensive coordinator here at South Carolina than work with the Gamecock Club?” Morrison asked.

“Yeah, I would,” replied Baker.

However, after discussing it with Dixon, Baker decided to stick with being associate athletic director. 

Morrison died soon after that conversation and Baker was part of the search committee that looked for Morrison’s replacement.

After spending seven years with the Gamecock Club, Baker retired. Mike McGee succeeded Dixon as athletic director and he asked Baker to stay and mentor Brad Scott, who was entering his first head coaching gig with the Gamecocks. Baker advised Scott and then Lou Holtz, who asked Baker to stay on with him and his coaching staff.

It wasn’t until Steve Spurrier arrived in 2005 that Baker decided it was officially time for him to step away so he could see his three grandsons play high school football.

“I didn’t want to miss them because I had missed my sons playing when I was a head coach,” Baker said. 

Baker and his wife just celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary and have four children together along with four grandchildren.

Baker can still be found at South Carolina games. However, instead of prowling the sidelines or working from the coach’s box he sits on the back row of the press box out of the way of everyone else, watching the game he’s dedicated his life to.

“I have a better seat now,” Baker said.

**Story by Kyle Heck/Photo courtesy of East Carolina Media Relations**