It’s a word tossed around plenty in the basketball lexicon.
A nothing-but-net swish: pure money.
A pick-and-roll run just so: pure execution.
A sublime no-look, no-he-didn’t pass: pure beauty.
Rarely, though, can you put that most unblemished of adjectives in front of the guy shouting directions from the sideline.
But in this case, pure nestles next to John Dyer, the Bristol Herald Courier’s boys basketball Coach of the Year, as sweetly as a back-spinning leather ball in a splash of nylon.
Two years ago, Dyer’s Sullivan East Patriots found out just how pure their coach can be.
At a team dinner, a jokester switched the soda-shunning coach’s water glass for one filled with a carbonated beverage.
“Coach Dyer drunk the Sprite,” said East guard Chase Depew. “And spit it everywhere.”
No, this isn’t a run-while-I-stroll, refrain-while-I-indulge type of leader.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to be a man of your word and that’s what John is,” said East assistant principal Rick James.
“He practices what he preaches. He’s not hypocritical. He’s doesn’t drink. He doesn’t cuss. ... He’s always been the ethical rock.”
Zane Campbell remembered his coach exhibiting a potty mouth just once.
At a team retreat during Campbell’s sophomore year, two of the Patriots went swimming with some softball players and were late for a team meeting, leading to a memorable outburst from Dyer.
“He got so mad his face turned red and he said, ‘I’ll run you boys till ‘ya, till ‘ya, till ‘ya poop!’ ” Campbell said. “We weren’t going to laugh - we were so scared we didn’t know what to do. We thought we were going to run until we pooped. We knew he was going to say ‘puke,’ but he said ‘poop.’ ... That is literally the dirtiest thing I’ve ever heard him say.”
At 48, Dyer, a devout Christian summed up perfectly by the sports devotional book that rests on his desk, retains boyish looks that James said required the young coach to grow a mustache just to distinguish himself from the students when he began his high school coaching career immediately after graduating from Milligan College.
Dyer got his start at Johnson County, spending four years as the head man for the Pioneers before moving on to East.
A few years back, Dyer, who just finished his 22nd season at East, did what few coaches are willing – or able – to do. Instead of hollering instructions from afar, Dyer began taking part in workouts alongside his players, hoisting the same weights and struggling up the same hills during conditioning sessions.
Suffice it to say, his players took notice.
“It definitely pushes us that I guess you could say an old guy is out doing us,” said sophomore Chance Davis.
“It’s not him telling us to do something that he’s not doing it himself.”
Meshing a strong senior class with standout junior point guard Jordan Cross, Dyer led the Patriots to a school-record 29 wins during the 2009-10 season and the longest playoff run in school history.
If pure is the word for Dyer, placid most certainly is not.
While he can’t join his players on the court during games, Dyer most certainly doesn’t kick back on the sideline.
With a voice that quickly goes from strained to hoarse, the fiery coach hollers commands throughout the game – all the while gesturing, spinning, sweating and fervidly living and dying with every play as his pale-skinned complexion flushes all diamonds and hearts.
“That’s him,” said East principal Angela Buckles. “That’s just him. Sometimes we have a little joke about how long the sweater will last. He starts the game with a sweater and usually the sweater doesn’t last very long.”
Depew said his favorite Dyer dance is a circle/fall-back-in-chair/cross-legs/shake-head routine that the coach brings out when he gets especially exasperated with an East mistake.
“We make fun of him a little bit,” Depew said. “We’re not going to lie, we love him, but his actions are a little hysterical sometimes.”
“Sometimes he’s something to laugh at, but I’d much rather him be like that than a dull, give-up kind of coach,” Davis added.
Although Dyer’s courtside antics demonstrate his passion in a way that can’t be faked, part of his coaching growth has actually been dialing back – or at least redirecting – his intensity.
With Johnson County and in his early years at East, Dyer said balancing passion and compassion – for refs, players, even his own sanity – was something he didn’t quite have figured out.
“There was a time when I got technical fouls,” Dyer said. “I can say this: I haven’t gotten a technical in three years –which I’m sure some of my former players would think, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s happened.’ ”
“I think experience helps you remain passionate but not lose your mind.”
Dyer is still no softie when it comes to pushing his players for maximum effort and focus, be it in games or practice, but his players describe with terms like “father figure,” “Daddy Dyer,” and even “best friend.”
One player spoke about Dyer offering up a spot on his couch when he was going through rough times at home. Senior forward Campbell recalled Dyer throwing an arm around his shoulder as he limped off the court with an injured ankle following a disappointing district tournament loss to Sullivan South to end the 2008-09 season.
“That meant more to me than anything,” Campbell said. “I was so down ... and knowing that he believed in me that I was going to get it done the next year really stands out in my mind.”
For years, the 2010 senior class at East was touted as the group that could make a run at titles on the court.
The Patriots got off to a 12-0 start and finished with 11 straight wins before dropping a sub-state heartbreaker to Carter County in front of a packed Patriot Palace.
As he’s apt to do, Dyer will spout off praise about his players’ heart and hustle and effort and the specialness of all of his teams regardless of wins and losses in a way that would sound hokey or cliché coming from any other coach.
But even as it’s obvious that Dyer actually means what he says, he admits that he, too, had a different feeling about this year’s bunch.
“We knew it was going to be special,” he said.
High hopes, though, are always followed once the games actually begin by their less pleasant cousin: high expectations.
Dyer said he felt the most pressure of his career this year when the Patriots met Happy Valley as they tried to advance to the first regional final in school history and earn a school-record 28th victory. Happy Valley had a poor record and even though the Warriors had finished the year strong, the Patriots were expected to romp over their conference counterparts.
East got off to a big lead before a wild second half saw them collapse in the third quarter only to rally for the history-making victory.
At the final buzzer, Dyer leapt in the air multiple times while somehow having enough energy and vocal cords left for a shout of “Yes. Yes. Yes!”
“It was just relief,” Dyer said. “If we’d have got beat that game, our season was great. I mean, there was no reason for us to feel bad, but at the same time it would have been a little bit of regrets.”
Depew shuddered when he pictured Dyer in the alternate universe where East wasn’t able to regroup against Happy Valley.
“Oh my goodness, he would have lost his mind,” Depew said. “He would have passed out right there.”
Dyer, a Lexington, Ky., native, doesn’t have ancestral roots in Bluff City, but his Patriot bona fides could now rival even those of Mel Gibson turning away invading redcoats on the silver screen.
The coach lives just two quick right turns away from the school and, especially since he added athletic director duties to his plate nine years ago, is a constant presence at East.
“I didn’t envision being here 22 years,” Dyer said. “I didn’t envision being athletic director. Those weren’t the plan. It was be a basketball coach wherever that led. This just became our home.”
Dyer’s wife, Cindy, teaches at Weaver Elementary just down the road and their daughter, Rachel, is a fourth-grader at the same school. Whether he’ll make it another 22 years on the job at East remains to be seen, but even after more than two decades of sideline shouting Dyer’s voice brightens noticeably when he talks about anticipating his turn to have Rachel at school with him each day when his own flesh and blood eventually joins him as Patriot.
If you make it up before 6 a.m., Dyer can invariably be spotted at the school getting in a run, a swim or shooting hoops before he prepares for the day. It’s nothing that he’ll trumpet, but again it’s nothing that his players overlook.
“He’ll come into school, his hair’s still wet from where he took a shower,” Campbell said.
Dyer taught history at East for nearly a decade and a half before shifting to health and wellness when he took the AD job. James said he excels as a leader in the classroom just as much as he does on the court.
“Your best coaches are your best teachers,” the assistant principal said.
The basketball players at East aren’t the only ones to benefit from Dyer’s coaching expertise. As AD, he holds regular group meetings with all the school’s coaches and attends non-basketball sporting events like a dedicated parent.
He’s not a fair-weather fan either. On a miserable rainy night last week, it was Dyer who was overseeing field conditions before the baseball game and who popped up under an umbrella at the Patriots dugout after a yawner win to congratulate the team.
“He’s my role model,” said James, who served as an assistant coach under Dyer before becoming an administrator.
“I don’t know how he comes up with enough hours in the day to do all he does,” added principal Buckles.
Depew said there’s only one explanation to account for his coach’s seemingly super-human traits.
“He’s a machine,” Depew said.
Despite the wins, records and honors that the 2009-10 season brought, Dyer said he’s not ready to make a judgment on the year just yet.
Instead he cites the wisdom of his own high school coach, who always said that he needed 20 years to assess how a season went because only then would he be able to see the men his players had grown up to be.
“That’s a neat answer,” Dyer said. “That’s a great answer.”
When 2030 rolls around, it’s not hard to envision a beaming Dyer standing on a court about to bear his name as player after player from the 2010 squad and dozens of other Patriot teams take turns honoring their mentor.
Those future speechmakers could spend hours showering praise on Dyer.
Or they could stride to the microphone and say a name followed by two words that would say it all.
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