Basketball gave Nidiffer a ticket to the world

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

  
Wheeler "Jay" Nidiffer speaks of sports as a test of character as important as any classroom exam.
   "It is a privilege to play, it is not a right," says Nidiffer. "It teaches you how life is going to be."
   Nidiffer went from milking cows on his father's Stoney Creek farm to coaching college basketball on its grandest stage. As an assistant coach at Georgia Tech and Auburn University, he was part of college basketball when Charles Barkley, David Thompson and Chuck Person romped the hardwood of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference.
   The second of Andy and Josephine Nidiffer's four children, Nidiffer entered school at Blue Springs Elementary in Stoney Creek, transferred to Hunter Elementary and went on to Unaka High School. Born in 1933, Nidiffer's childhood was Southern Appalachia during the Great Depression. He remembers studying by the light of a kerosene lamp and rising each morning to milk cows before going to school.
   "My father was the source of discipline and work ethics and my mother was the source of compassion and understanding," Nidiffer recalls. "You combine those together, we had a wonderful family."
   Despite his career in basketball, Nidiffer says his first athletic passion was baseball. "I would have walked to Yankee Stadium just to catch a fly ball," he said.
   After a relative purchased a basketball for him, he took up the sport in earnest. "Basketball became my everyday life just as baseball did," he said.
   After graduating from Unaka, Nidiffer attended East Tennessee State University for a brief time before enlisting in the Army in 1953. While stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., Nidiffer played baseball on an Army team comprised of several professional ball players including several big leaguers. His hitch in the Army convinced Nidiffer that higher education wasn't such a bad idea.
   "When I was out in the field one day, I realized there was a better way to go than crawling around on an obstacle course," he says with a laugh.
   After leaving the Army, Nidiffer searched for his next home. He found it at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate. When two friends opted not to attend LMU, Nidiffer talked with the baseball coach and was awarded a baseball scholarship. Nidiffer said coziness of the smalltown college life gave him the chance to develop his skills athletically and otherwise.
   "They gave us some brochures and there was a picture of the cheerleaders and they were leaning on a big car like they all had," Nidiffer says, "and I told these two fellows, 'I'm going to go over there and marry a cheerleader'; and, well, I did."
   Forty-seven years later, Katie Hodge Nidiffer is still putting up with her husband. "If there was a godsend, she was it, really," says Nidiffer of his wife.
   After graduating from LMU, he turned down a contract to play baseball with the Cleveland Indians to play minor league baseball to accept a job offer coaching basketball at Johnson County High School. The decision came as Nidiffer weighed the unknown of a baseball career and the expectation of his and Katie's first child.
   His own experience with local coaches Claude Holtsclaw, Lynn Goddard and Howard Bowers swayed Nidiffer's decision to become a coach. Each man, Nidiffer remembers, made a mark on the lives of their players.
   "Coach Goddard was a man of discipline and authority, Coach Holtsclaw was a man of compassion and patience, and Coach Bowers was the first one to interject into me the relationship between academics and athletics," says Nidiffer.
   He went on to coach high school basketball and baseball in Virginia and North Carolina. He later moved to Anderson County to become head basketball coach at Clinton High School where he won a state championship.
   Nidiffer also played an unexpected but pivotal role in the civil rights movement in Tennessee. While head basketball coach at Clinton High School in the early 1960s, he met a young student named Raleigh Boulware, who would become the first black Tennessee high school student to play basketball on a previously all-white team.
   Long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, black Americans found little acceptance playing sports at integrated high schools. In the 1960s South, saying the word "integration" was akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater. Shortly before the 1963 basketball season began, opposing high school coaches and boosters called Clinton High School and all but dared Nidiffer to dress Boulware for games.
   The threats were real, but the coach says he finally had enough. He went to the school's principal and explained the situation.
   "The first two or three games, I went along with what they said," recalls Nidiffer. "But I went to the principal and I said, 'my position is this, if he don't come, we don't come.'" The school's principal gave Nidiffer his blessing, and with that Raleigh Boulware made history.
   Today, Boulware is a physician specializing in oncology with four children of his own. His son Peter Boulware starred on the Florida State University football team and is now an All-Pro linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens. Nidiffer remains very close with his former player. "I told him I learned more from him than he learned from me," he says.
   Nidiffer journeyed on to Georgia Tech as an assistant basketball coach in the 1970s. He later coached at the University of South Carolina and Auburn University. He was on the bench when Auburn head basketball coach and Roan Mountain native Sonny Smith led the Tigers to the Elite 8 in the NCAA tournament in 1985. During his years on the plains of South Alabama, he coached future NBA stars Person and Chris Morris while also developing a lasting friendship with 1980s multisport superstar Bo Jackson. He returned home in 1991 as an assistant basketball coach with East Tennessee State University where he remained until retiring in 1999.
   Nidiffer acknowledges that the sporting world has changed considerably from the professional to the high school level in recent years. The discipline paramount to coaches during his era has been effectively replaced by bemused consent. His rules were simple: Proper attire required, no goatees, no baggy shorts, and no showboating. Still, Nidiffer says he never left a player with harsh feelings and always reminded him or her that his guidance came from love and genuine interest in their future.
   "If you do your best, you've won," says Nidiffer. "If you don't practice as hard as you can today, you will never be as good as you could have been because that day is gone forever."
   Now 70, Nidiffer took on a whole new ballgame when he became chairman of the Carter County Republican Party last year. When he's not dabbling in politics, he and Katie are doting on their only son, Toby, daughter-in-law, Carol, and their two grandchildren, Andrew and Kerri.
   Doctors, lawyers, teachers and pro athletes have blossomed under Nidiffer as a coach. He says the memories forged on hardwood courts and classrooms went beyond sports. The success, he says, lays in building the relationships with people.
   "When we get together," Nidiffer says of his former players, "the most important thing is, they start talking about how much fun we had, how much we enjoyed playing ... and how much we enjoyed being together."