By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

The days of high school sports at Cotaco ended in 1972.

Despite the passing of time, the stories of the athletes and teams from the small community school that now feeds into Brewer High are larger than ever.

One of those athletes was basketball player Gary Couey, who played on the 1968 basketball squad that was the only Cotaco team to advance to the state tournament.

Couey is being inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.

“Basketball made my life,” Couey said. “It led me to getting a college education and then into coaching and a career in education of 48 years.”

Couey was a 6-foot-5 center who could rebound. He averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds in his junior season in 1967-1968.

“Gary was big and strong and had a pretty hook shot,” Charles Maples, who was Cotaco’s coach in 1968, said. “He had great hands to grab rebounds. Gary could make that outlet pass that got our offense going. We loved to run.”

Ben Allen was an All-State selection on that Cotaco team. He averaged 20.4 points a game on a team where all five starters averaged in double figures. Cotaco averaged 76 points a game and had seven games with over 100 points.

“Now we played at a lot of small gyms in the county. Only Hartselle and Decatur had bigger gyms,” Maples said. “Still this was a really good team with some really good athletes, who knew how to score. They were fun to watch and fun to coach.”

Joining Couey and Allen in the starting five were Rodger McClure, Ray Scott and Tommy Willis.

“Everybody in our lineup could shoot the ball,” Couey said. “I just worked on getting rebounds. I knew if I did that the points would come.”

Couey grew up in Florette in a house next door to his father’s store, which was across the road from where Brewer High stands today.

“Before I got interested in playing basketball, I think I had actually watched one game at Cotaco,” Couey said. “I went to some of the games at Cotaco while growing up, but I didn’t pay much attention to the game.

“Gary Blagburn, who was from Austinville and played at Alabama, was our coach. He had everybody excited about basketball so me my cousin Gerald Couey tried out and made the ninth-grade team.”

It was in Couey’s freshman season in 1966 that the Cotaco varsity won its first and only Morgan County Tournament championship by beating Decatur.

“We put up a basketball goal by the store and we played there so much that the dirt was packed like a floor,” Couey said.

Later the games moved to a nearby closed cotton gin. The Morgan County Commission used the property for a district office. Couey persuaded the county officials to let them play basketball in the cotton gin building.

“It was narrow, but it had a high ceiling and we could play there even when it rained,” Couey said. “We put up a goal and strung some lights. There was a lot of basketball played in what we called the Florette Coliseum.”

Couey said players from all over would show up. Two of Morgan County’s best ever, Boonie Russell and Bud Stallworth both from Hartselle, played there. The games on the concrete floor were intense.

“I can remember getting there on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. and not leaving until 8 or 9 that night,” Couey said. “There would be 30 or 40 guys there. You would play until you got beat.

“That’s where you could improve your individual game and become more familiar with the guys you played with in school. There’s usually not a lot of difference between a win and a loss in basketball. It might be just 10 points. Experience playing together can make up that difference.”

The county tournament championship in 1966 was part of a good run for Cotaco. Both the 1966 and 1967 teams fell just one win short of advancing to the state tournament.

“Cotaco just couldn’t get over the hump for whatever reason,” Couey said. “We were determined in 1968 to be the team that got over that hump.”

That’s exactly what the Indians did. They won the region championship and earned a trip to the Class 2A state tournament in Tuscaloosa. It was the first year for Memorial (now Coleman) Coliseum at the University of Alabama.

“I had been to state tournament games at Foster Auditorium,” Couey said. “Walking into Memorial Coliseum was like going from a cow pasture to a palace.”

The new arena brought some new concerns for Cotaco. First was the length of the floor at 94 feet.

“We had never played on a court that long,” Maples said. “The stands behind the goal caused depth perception issues. They let us have a 30-minute practice session. All our shots were three or four feet off. I told all the guys you have to get closer.”

Cotaco drew Kinston in the first round. The Bulldogs from south Alabama had won the 1966 state championship. This was Kinston’s 18th appearance in the state tournament.

“They just blew us out. It wasn’t pretty,” Maples said. “The community really supported the team. Half the community was at the game and the other half listened on the radio.”

The final score was 90-61. Cotaco finished the season at 22-8.

After getting a taste of the state tournament in 1968, Cotaco worked to return in 1969 for Couey’s senior season, but the plan was derailed in the region finals with a 63-60 loss to rival Priceville.

“I wanted to play some more basketball after high school,” Couey said. “I thought about going to Auburn and trying out. I thought I could play there. Florence State offered me a scholarship.

“I decided to try out at Calhoun with my cousin Gerald. There were 25 or 30 guys trying out for just two spots that were available. Gerald and I got the two spots. By the fourth game of the season I was in the starting five.”

After two years at Calhoun, Couey played two more years at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tennessee. He averaged 15.5 points and 10 rebounds in two seasons at the NAIA school.

Couey returned to Morgan County for a career in coaching and then administration. When Couey rides by Brewer High he remembers the covey of quail that lived in the field before the school was built.

When Couey watches Alabama play a home basketball game on TV, he remembers Cotaco’s trip to that arena in 1968.

“I put a lot of work into playing basketball and in my education career,” Couey said. “It all paid off for me. This recognition by the Hall of Fame just makes it all even more special.”

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