The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Buddy Pough is a legend in South Carolina. He should be a legend everywhere.

South Carolina State Coach Buddy Pough led the Bulldogs to the 2021 HBCU title with a win over Deion Sanders and Jackson State. (Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
11 min

ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Man, that face. That was some face now, Dec. 18 in the rowdy spaceship of a stadium in downtown Atlanta. That face, 68 years old as the game clock struck 0:00, could reach right out of a TV screen and lasso your whole damned heart with all its disbelief and striving and pinnacle. Even the tears, so rare on that face, got out of the ducts and roamed.

Now here’s the same face nine months on in a golf cart parked at the 35-yard line at unpretentious Oliver C. Dawson Stadium just after a practice that ended at 8 a.m., like always, and if there’s a better place around the psychedelic trail of American college football than the passenger seat of Buddy Pough’s golf cart, please do alert. There’s a train whistle in the distance and a fine rasp of a voice up close, a voice in season No. 21 of helming the South Carolina State Bulldogs, a legend around here who ought to be a legend around everywhere.

Pough’s 20th team spent Dec. 18 kicking the shiny behinds of Deion Sanders’s wildly favored Jackson State all over the Celebration Bowl, and a green sign just off Interstate 26 entering this town of 13,563 — between Columbia and Charleston — boasts of the 2021 historically Black college and university national champions. But it’s September 2022 by now, so the voice tells of a team “finding itself,” of 18 starters returning but stalwart corners Cobie Durant and Zafir Kelly gone to the NFL and a deathless menace: “Depth always worries you.” He says: “You know, we had all these plans of grandeur. And we might fall flat on our face. And that worries me.” Then he laughs that deep laugh people know from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, the one that makes Brad Scott, who hired Pough as running backs coach in 1997 at South Carolina, stop mid-thought and say, “That little laugh, that little smile of his, is pretty dang special.”

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Yet it’s a Thursday morning, and the Bulldogs must play up at rival North Carolina A&T on Saturday, so this walking, cycling library of a man steeped in verve and intelligence and wit and two replaced hips and one replaced knee says, “I’m as nervous now” as back in 2002 when he began in a whole different generation and felt he could outrun half his roster.

It’s a Thursday morning, so he also has the meeting of the local Touchdown Club he helped to found, honoring local high school players among other endeavors. He’s also in Rotary. He’s also on at least one hall of fame committee. He also arranges speakers for various local clubs. He also gets up at 3 or 3:30 or 4. He also says he hasn’t had a good sleep in 20 years and can’t go to sleep until he has learned the nightly fate of his cherished Atlanta Braves. He also has battled the durable strain of stretched resources, spearheading scholarship drives and whatnot.

He also has eight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles, one HBCU title, a 144-83 record, a trek through at least six athletic directors and at least 11 presidents (counting acting and interim), and a passage through some bumpy rapids of the past decade when some around here craved his exit. He also has a 48-12 record in the past 19 Novembers, which tells a whole lot about a whole lot. He also has a giant heart. He’s also an artful cusser. He’s also a presence standing before his team and introducing a pastor at a voluntary team chapel on a game eve.

“He’s a community guy, and if it were not for him, his church would fold,” says Willie Jeffries, the fellow legend who preceded Pough and coached Pough when Pough was a Bulldogs math major and offensive lineman who could pull like pure hell.

“We have a little radio network,” said Ernest Robinson, the Bulldogs’ play-by-play voice, “and we have a coach’s show. Up until two years ago, you know who our number-one sales person was?”

He’s also something of a genius in the area of human relations, mandatory humility included.

Los Angeles Rams rookie cornerback Cobie Durant says, “It was an honor playing under him.” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney calls Pough “just one of the better people you’ll ever meet.” Former Clemson assistant and current Virginia head coach Tony Elliott, who assisted Pough in 2006-07, tells of “the biggest heart you’d ever be around.” Another former Pough assistant, Florida Coach Billy Napier, begins a paragraph of plaudits as follows: “There’s only one Buddy Pough.” Local businessman Rob Hibbits, who helped found the Touchdown Club where the remarkable Jeffries, nowadays 85, throws a penalty flag at any rambling speaker, says of Pough, “He’s quite a fellow.” Scott sees “an overcomer” and “a survivor.” South Carolina Coach Shane Beamer likens Pough to Beamer’s father, Frank of Virginia Tech, in terms of longevity and goodness.

Jeffries notes Pough’s sense of people — “The kid from a two-parent brick house, he knows how to talk a little more softly to them” — and says, “He can go to England and talk to the Queen and he can go right down to the basement and start a craps game, and he can be at home in both.” Jamie Scott, who owns fitness centers in Columbia and played running back for Pough at both South Carolina and South Carolina State, says: “What’s interesting about these relationships, that Coach Pough has fostered, he does this effortlessly. You want to stay in contact with him.” He recounts the vividness of a running backs film session from way back in 1998, when Pough said to a player of a missed block, “Steve, it’s just like you were in the woods, and you and the running back were being attacked by a bear, and you turned around and helped the bear.”

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The players roared.

“I feel like his name has a big meaning behind it,” Durant says, but you know that old warning about not meeting your heroes? Here’s an antithesis. “What I’d want people to know,” said Robinson, the play-by-play man, “if there is a person that you look to from afar and you admire or you would like to get to know and you said, ‘Man, if you can get to know that person, I’d want them to be like this,’ he is the kind of person that when you meet him, he’s just as if you hoped he would be from the standpoint of appreciating your company, acknowledging you and making you feel better when you talk to him than you did before you talk to him.”

He’s also a roving font of stories, such as the one about the time Lou Holtz kept him on at South Carolina in 1999 but referred to Pough errantly as “Bubby” in a coaches’ meeting, and Holtz had to leave, and Pough had to announce to the other coaches that if any one of those four-syllable words ever called him “Bubby,” he would have to kick somebody’s one-syllable word.

He also, okay: “I was a single-digit handicapper back before I started getting my body parts replaced. My hips, the knees — I’ve got two hips and a knee. And see that knee [the left one] right there? I would do that knee there, too, but after I got three of these things I couldn’t figure out how to get them all to work together. I figured you just got to keep this one because that’s the only thing that keeps me from falling apart, I think. I think that might be the last piece of the puzzle. If I get that fixed, I won’t have any coordination at all. I used to be really be able to swing the golf club, and now I can’t. Something about, I can’t. I’m a hundred golfer now. And there might not be any more frustrating a process than going from being a 70-something, low-80s golfer, to being a hundred.”

Asked to describe Pough’s significance, Elliott began, “Oh, man,” which might have covered it somehow.

Yet it’s still college football with all its demanding rhythms, so picture the face in the ruthless darkness along Interstate 85, three nights after the morning light on the field. He’s driving back from Greensboro with his wife, Josie; director of operations Gerald Harrison; and Harrison’s wife, Valerie. The Bulldogs have just lost, 41-27, at North Carolina A&T at the latter’s home opener in an exhilarating setting. They have been unable to stop the run. There has been some sort of mix-up near halftime in which the Aggies might just have benefited from getting a fourth timeout.

He’s driving along in the silence, mulling “every kind of thing you can imagine,” he said.

Asked four mornings later whether losing feels the same in 2022 as in 2002, he hurriedly answers: “It’s worse. It gets worse. It gets worse now because I don’t have as many left,” and there he lets out that laugh. Soon: “And it’s just all the other stuff, and my university is kind of, sort of dependent upon us. We feel a responsibility to go out and be kind of the bell cow for the [renown] of this university. Between our group and the band — you know, our band went out and played in Indianapolis [at the Colts game] this past weekend — you know, we do a lot of goodwill for this university. Athletics, maybe in general. So you know, you just kind of feel this kind of responsibility for it all to go well, and if it doesn’t, you feel just that much more hurt.”

Take that lurk of hurt, then, and take it all back to Atlanta, where Jackson State (11-1) clearly would whomp South Carolina State (6-5), which once had been 1-4. Hear Jeffries say, “They were leading the cows to slaughter.” Hear Jeffries say: “They didn’t know the little school that was playing Jackson State. ‘What are you, the Tigers?’ ‘Or the Wolves?’ ‘No, we’re the Bulldogs.’ ” Picture the NFL alums of a small school with four Pro Football Hall of Famers — Marion Motley, Deacon Jones, Harry Carson, Donnie Shell — dining that week, with Carson and fellow former NFL mainstay Robert Porcher vying to pay a check.

See the slighted South Carolina State players forge their 31-10 upset romp. See a 6-foot-5 wide receiver luring NFL eyeballs, Shaquan Davis, hoard three touchdowns. See the seconds run down and the camera zoom in on that face, and know Pough rarely cries unless you count the time in 1996 he won a state title at 15-0 at Fairfield Central High.

“I couldn’t, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. I really couldn’t. I mean, I knew that we could play with them, and I thought that we had a good shot, but I didn’t see that coming,” as the dominance “added to the disbelief.”

Think of young Durant, observing that: “It was really shocking to me because I had never seen him break down like that, and it wasn’t like he was ‘breaking down.’ But I knew, This really means something to him.”

And think of Jeffries in that audience, then still a robust 84, taken back to his win over Delaware State in 1974 for his first MEAC title. “And I know how Buddy felt,” Jeffries says of that face. “It was time to cry.”


A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a local businessman. He is Rob Hibbits, not Rob Hibbens. The article has been corrected.