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Dodgen career: From ‘snotty-nosed kid’ to ‘Mr. hoops’ and 500-plus wins


Just before Michael Jordan started on his journey to be known as the greatest basketball player of all time, he met coach Dodgen in 1984 at a University of North Carolina hoop camp.- Photo Submitted
Donald Dodgen described himself as a “fat, snotty-nosed kid” before he discovered basketball in the early 1960s. Then a Gatlinburg Elementary School basketball coach, perhaps having a sharp eye for unpolished talent, just happened to flag down young Dodgen one lazy afternoon.

“They were headed to Townsend and they didn’t have enough to play, and I was walking by the gym and coach LeRoy Maples stopped and asked, ‘do you want to go play?’” remembers Dodgen, in his eighth-season as boys varsity head coach at FHS who has surpassed the 500 career win plateau in 26 total years as a head coach. “And I said: ‘well, I’ve never played.’ He said: ‘well, come on and try, you’re a little fat but you’re big. Let’s go. I said, ‘okay.’”

That “okay” was the start of something special: By the eighth-grade Dodgen was averaging more than 25 points per game. Apparently born with a natural shooting touch, Dodgen was a four-year starter at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School, a three-time All-state honoree and a high school All-American as a senior.

Under the guidance of G-P coach Eugene Huskey, Dodgen ended his senior season leading the state with a whopping 36-point-per-game average, earning the coveted Mr. Basketball award in 1969 as the state’s top high school player.

This 6-foot-5 sharpshooting phenom' was then wined and dined by several of the nation’s top college basketball programs, including the legendary Adolf Rupp and his basketball machine at the University of Kentucky. That’s not to mention the other famous coaching names coming after Dodgen, including “pre-Indiana” Bobby Knight when Knight was head coach at Army, and Dean Smith at North Carolina.

Those connections have carried over into Dodgen’s coaching network — largely through youth camps — forming relationship with Knight, Smith and former Kansas and new UNC head coach Roy Williams among many famous and ultra-successful college and NBA coaches.

As for NBA players, Dodgen’s relationship highlights have included playing two rounds of golf with Michael Jordan and spending a day with his boyhood idol, L.A. Laker great Jerry West.

KENTUCKY COLONEL

As Donald Dodgen, 18, shopped for the right college in late 1968, he was overwhelmed by the “blue carpet” treatment by the Kentucky brass.

“I flew in from Knoxville on Delta, and I land at Lexington and I look out and there’s a big blue carpet rolled out and there’s the governor, Happy Chandler,” Dodgen said. “And we’re all sitting on the plane looking around saying, ‘there’s somebody on this plane important, I wonder who?’ So we start getting off and next thing I know here comes coach (Joe B.) Hall and Harry Lancaster (UK assistant coaches) and the governor.

“I was an 18-year-old kid walking off the plane and I see coach Hall and the governor comes to see me,” Dodgen added. “They make me an honorary Kentucky Colonel (the certificate is still hanging in Dodgen’s office at FHS), and I got the key to the city of Lexington. I get in the car with Happy Chandler, Joe B. Hall, and Harry Lancaster, and I’m still in awe.”

It was then time to meet coach Rupp at UK’s famous Memorial Coliseum.

“I walk in, and you open the door up and it’s a long runway, and all the way back at the end is coach Rupp’s office,” Dodgen said. “And you walk down there and you’re scared to death. And you walk in and you open up the door and there he sits, a dang legend. And he doesn’t say a word. Coach Hall introduces us, and he shakes my hand ... we sit down and we’re talking. And (Rupp) says, ‘son, if you want to come to Kentucky we’d like to have you. If you don’t want to come, that’s fine too, we understand that too.’”

Coming “very close” to signing with UK, Dodgen instead chose coach Ray Mears and the UT Vols. But one year later he transferred. “It was a good experience but it wasn’t the place for me,” Dodgen said of UT. “I came from Gatlinburg-Pittman with 350 students total, into a situation at UT with I don’t know how many.”

Dodgen chose the smaller environment of Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens under coach Dwain Farmer.

“That was the best move I ever made, Tennessee Wesleyan College was the place for me,” Dodgen said. “I had a great three years at Wesleyan. We played well, we had good teams.” Dodgen earned All-Region honors at TWC.

DODGEN FAMILY

“We’re just a basketball family,” Dodgen said of his wife, Mary Ann, and three children who have all excelled either at the high school and/or college level: daughters Brianne and Whitney, and son Michael.

Dodgen’s parents, the late Rellie and Jewell Dodgen, helped make Donald’s hoop dreams possible. “They sacrificed a lot to give me an opportunity to play basketball,” Dodgen said. “They probably did without things they wanted to give me things that I needed to go play basketball with.”

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