Rhea, Craycroft inducted into Milligan HOF

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF

   Record-setting pitcher A.R. Rhea and NBA draft pick Jerry Craycraft were the newest inductees to the Milligan Athletic Hall of Fame, while legendary basketball coaches Sonny Smith and Del Harris were honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award Friday night at McCormick Dining Hall on the Milligan College campus.
   Rhea, who played high school ball at Science Hill, was a virtual walking record-book after graduating from Milligan in 1990. He left the Carter County school with marks for most career wins (31), most innings pitched (307 2/3), most career strikeouts (294) and lowest career earned run average (1.79).
   "I consider this a great honor," said Rhea. "I had a great experience at Milligan and to be able to come back here as a member of the Hall of Fame is a big honor. Somebody will eventually come along and break all the records."
   He enjoyed great success all four years as a Buffalo with a career record of 31 wins against 8 losses. "Some of our victories over King College put Milligan on the map," said Rhea about the most memorable of those wins. "King was on top of the hill at the time. Those were some big wins for us."
   Rhea was excellent behind the plate also, belting 20 home runs and hitting for a .358 average. That helped him earn two conference MVP awards, two-time team MVP and Player of the Year for the entire state of Tennessee in 1989.
   He remains the only Milligan baseball player to be a NAIA first team All-American in 1990 after being a 1988 NCCAA Academic All-American. He signed with the Toronto Blue Jays organization after completing his studies at Milligan.
   For the last six years, Rhea has worked at Johnson City Medical Center in the field of Sports Injury and Rehabilitation. He still is involved in the sport as a t-ball coach and also coaches youth soccer. He also keeps a close eye on the Buff baseball program headed by his longtime friend Danny Clark.
   "I played against Danny, as he played at East Tennessee State," Rhea commented. "I went to Science Hill and he went to Elizabethton. He went to ETSU and I went to Milligan. We played against each other in summer leagues, so I've always been against Danny. I've talked to him some recently and hopefully I can do some things to help Milligan out. He is a good coach as he was always a very hard worker as a player."
   Craycraft couldn't attend as he had prior commitments, but was a third round draft pick of the New York Knicks in 1977. Along with former Happy Valley standout Marty Street, he led the Buffs to some of their greatest basketball success under coach Phil Worrell.
   Ninth on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,574 points, Milligan enjoyed three 20-win seasons during the days Craycraft laced up his sneakers. He now resides in Wooster, Ohio and is self-employed as an agricultural commodities broker.
   Overall, the Buffs had a .669 winning percentage with Craycraft on the floor. He played in 130 games for Milligan from 1973-77 and at one time held the distinction as the only Milligan player drafted by a professional team.
   Harris also couldn't be at the ceremony as he was on the road as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, but did send some comments in via videotape. Prior to this stint with the Mavericks, Harris is most noted for being the head coach with the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. His 1981 Houston team led by Moses Malone made it to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics.
   "I was thankful that I was able to get a good background at Milligan," said the legendary coach from the class of '59. "It has served me well over the years. I wouldn't have been able to achieve anything worthwhile, if it wasn't for the great education that I received at Milligan."
   Orginially from Plainville, Indiana, Harris' original intent was to study to become a minister. Nowadays, he ministers to professional players and is vocal about the mission of Milligan and similar schools.
   "I do believe that a Christian education is the hope of the world," said the well-traveled Harris. "Especially at a time like this, we can see the world needs more people going out in all areas of life, spreading the word so that we can have a lasting peace. We want to get past this particular situation and build an even greater society."
   As coach of the Lakers from 1995-99, Harris coached some of the best talent on the planet including Kobe Bryant and league MVP Shaquille O' Neal.
   "It's quite an honor to be given this along with Sonny Smith," said Harris about the Distinguished Alumnus Award. "I love Sonny like a brother. He's been a lifelong friend. I do feel indebted to Milligan. I believe the values that were validated at Milligan helped me get back to the center of my faith."
   Smith, also coached high-level talent, among those future pro basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and three-point ace Chuck Person. He insisted that the lessons learned at Milligan has been a major reason for his success.
   "When I came to Milligan I was wallowing in a sea of mediocrity and kind of enjoying it," Smith recalled. "But I met some people here that changed my life. The first one was Steve Lacy (the legendary Milligan roundball coach) who allowed me to come here.
   "I entered Milligan after I had been on a scholarship at a junior college. I didn't even pick up my books. I was that sorry. I needed somebody to put some direction in my life. I met coach Duard Walker and he changed my life. He made a productive person out of me. He taught me the value of working hard and wanting to win."
   Smith also remembered his former teammates. "Duard Aldridge, Dennis Greenlee, Al Cole, Del Harris, Donnie Williams, Moose Williams and all of them played a big part in changing my life," said Smith. "Phil Worrell and Del were the co-best men in my wedding. The professors here were excellent. Jim Fox, besides being a teammate, he introduced me to my wife. Leonard Gallimore gave me that last push, he taught me the value of speaking.
   "I left Milligan a changed person. I left with goals in mind."
   After a successful high school coaching stint, Smith first entered the collegiate ranks serving as an assistant at William and Mary before moving to California's Pepperdine University. He returned closer to home in the early 70's at Virginia Tech and was an assistant to Don DeVoe on the 1973 team that beat Notre Dame for the NIT championship.
   That allowed a dream to come true coaching at ETSU for two seasons, where he led the Bucs to the 1977-78 Ohio Valley Conference championship. Bigger opportunites awaited and Smith took over a struggling program at Auburn.
   He led the Tigers to five NCAA appearances and the SEC Championship in 1985. After leaving the plains in 1989, Smith resurfaced again at Virginia Commonwealth where he had a successful stint first as coach and later as athletic director. He won coach of the year awards in four different Division 1 conferences.
   Smith, a gifted storyteller, now makes his living through speeches and hosting a radio show in his adopted hometown of Birmingham with former rival coach Wimp Sanderson. The two engage in plenty of playful Auburn versus Alabama banter to keep listeners tuned in.
   The Roan Mountain native ranked this honor along with having Cloudland High School name their basketball gymnasium after him as some of his biggest moments.
   "I've received a lot of things," commented Smith. "The best thing I ever received was having a gym named after me in Roan Mountain. Naming that gym and getting this award means more than you will ever know. I was third in the running for national coach of the year and have been coach of the year in a league six different times, but that doesn't mean as much to me as this award and having that gym named after me."