By Carey Phillips
Steve Cottrell, who coached Western Carolina’s men’s basketball team for 10 seasons, died Sept. 23 in a Gainesville, Georgia hospital.
The 76-year-old Cottrell posted a 145-133 record at WCU from 1977-87. Eight of his squads had records of .500 or better, including five straight winning seasons from 1979-84. He was named Southern Conference coach of the year following the 1979-80 campaign.
Si Simmons, Smoky Mountain’s former athletic director and basketball coach, played for Cottrell from 1979-83. Cottrell and his staff persuaded Simmons to come to Cullowhee from Macon, Georgia, as part of the coach’s second recruiting class for the Catamounts.
“He was always very honest,” Simmons said. “He was very personable.”
Simmons said the idea of being part of a building process at Western and having an opportunity to play right away helped sell him on the Catamounts.
“He was extremely tough and hard nosed,” Simmons said of Cottrell. “I don’t think I’ve ever met an individual who hated to lose more than he did. He had tremendous attention to detail, and he was relentless in our preparation. He was an innovator. Some of the things we did offensively was ahead of the times. His whole system came from Sonny Smith at SMU. It was extremely fun to play in his fast-paced kind of system.”
Simmons said he played with some great players. Ronnie Carr, Kenny Trimier and Greg Young were in his recruiting class. The class ahead of him included such stars as Greg Dennis and Kevin Young.
“There were some older players who were carryovers from the previous coaching staff who he had the ability to get a lot out of,” Simmons said.
Harry Dolan was one of those players, according to Simmons.
Simmons said Cottrell was a father figure to him and his wife, Cindi.
“I leaned on him when I decided to go into teaching and coaching,” Simmons said. “He gave me great advice. Even now things he advised me on come up. He and (Cottrell’s wife) Kathy were models for Cindi and I as husband and wife. I played a lot of golf with him and had a lot of opportunities to share with him different things that were going on in my life.”
Simmons’ son, Jackson, starred at Smoky Mountain and went on to play at North Carolina.
“He got to see Jackson play,” Simmons said. “He looked at me and said ‘He’s better than you were.’ I felt like that was a tremendous compliment.”
Steve White, WCU’s retired sports information director, recalled that the men’s basketball program was struggling as the Cats entered the Southern Conference in Cottrell’s first season. They were picked to finish last in the league but wound up in the middle of the pack.
“He had a very simple offensive coaching style,” White said. “It was a variation of the flex offense. He always demanded great defense. He did a great job of stabilizing the program. Those early years in Reid Gym were like the old Henry Logan days. Students went to alphabetical seating and crowds were over capacity.”
Cottrell’s last season was the Cats’ first in the Ramsey Center. He resigned just prior to the 1987-88 season.
Cottrell moved to Hayesville, were he became basketball coach and athletic director at Hayesville High School.
His son Michael, who starred at Cullowhee High and Lenoir-Rhyne, is now Hayesville’s coach.
His oldest son, Todd, was a standout in football and basketball at Cullowhee High and played quarterback for Western’s football team.
His daughter, Laura, was a basketball star at Hayesville High and at Clemson.