2023 INDUCTEE - ROBERT POPE
By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily
DANVILLE – The glass on the trophy case at the Danville High Gym is only opened for special occasions.
It’s usually for a new trophy to be added to the collection honoring success by the Hawks.
On a sunny afternoon the trophy case was open for a reunion. Danville’s state championship basketball trophies from 1962 and 1963 got to pose in a photo with Robert Pope, one of the key players on those championship teams.
Pope is being inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.
“I had a great time playing with some great guys on some great teams,” Pope said. “Morris Schrimsher was our coach. He was here just three years, but we won two state championships.
“He was a great coach and was a big influence on my basketball career as a player and coach. I coached for 38 years and never felt like I worked a day in my life.”
Basketball ruled at Danville in the early 1960s. The school did not field its first varsity football team until 1976. It was basketball year round.
“Coach told us to be sure and bring our basketball shoes on the first day of school,” Pope said. “It was time to get started.”
High school basketball in Alabama had one division until 1948 when it was divided into two classifications called A and AA. The expansion to four classes came in 1964. Now, it’s seven classifications.
Danville had enjoyed some basketball success competing in highly-competitive Morgan County. The 1953 Danville team advanced to the state tournament. The state championship seasons in 1962 and 1963 pushed the excitement to a new level.
“We enjoyed playing together and we enjoyed playing for Coach Schrimsher,” Pope said.
“His first year was my ninth-grade year and that first team had a great season but got knocked out in district by Priceville which won the Class A state championship that season.
“We felt like we had a chance to be really good the next season (1962). We had some guys that could shoot the ball like Lynn Holladay, Joe Millsap, Gilmer Ellis, and Jimmy Segars. I was the tallest player on the team at 6-5 and I could shoot the ball, too. If you wanted to play much on that team, you had better know how to shoot.”
In 1962, the playoff format was different from today. There were eight districts in the state. Each district had two tournaments leading up to a championship game. The eight district winners advanced to the state tournament at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama.
The Hawks blew through the district with big wins over Saint Bernard, Tanner and East Limestone before defeating Susan Moore, 65-41, to earn the trip to Tuscaloosa.
“Danville was a lot smaller back then,” Pope said. “We had 30 in my graduating class and maybe 500 kids in grades 1-12. Getting to go to the state tournament was a really big deal.”
The state tournament format at the time had 16 teams with four wins needed to take home the big trophy. The semifinals were played on Saturday morning with the championship game that night.
“I think the only time the post office in Danville was ever closed on a Saturday was when we were playing in Tuscaloosa,” Pope said. “Danville was pretty much deserted. Everybody went to Tuscaloosa.”
Danville knocked off Hurtsboro, 54-46, and New Brockton, 60-51, to advance to Saturday.
The Hawks took down Munford in the semifinals, 63-48. They blew out Corner, 51-32, for the state championship. Holladay scored 23 points in the championship game and was named the tournament MVP.
“Right after that game we started talking about trying to do it again the next year,” Pope said. “We lost some key players like Holladay, but we had a lot coming back.”
Pope’s role grew on the 1963 team. He averaged 9.8 points that season.
“A championship team needs a good outside game and a good inside game,” Ellis said. “We had a lot of guys who could shoot the ball from the outside. Robert gave us a great inside game. He could score and play great defense.”
Danville returned to the state tournament after beating Locust Fork, 82-72, in the district championship game. The Hawks beat Uriah, 57-38, Altoona, 55-46, and Curry, 69-53, to advance to the championship game vs. Lineville.
That game went to Danville, 45-38. Joe Millsap was named the tournament MVP after scoring 16 points. Pope scored 14 points. The Hawks (30-7) became the first repeat state champions since Austinville did it three years in a row in 1957-1959.
Danville had a chance to match Austinville with three state championships. Pope and Ellis led a group of talented, experienced players returning for their senior season. The three-peat would have to be made without Schrimsher coaching the team. He left to become assistant principal at the new Austin High in Decatur.
Wayne Bowling took over the Danville basketball program. Pope became a double-double player in his senior season. He averaged 17.7 points and 10 rebounds a game. He scored a season-high 45 points vs. Falkville.
The Hawks made it all the way back to the district championship game at DAR only to fall to the Patriots, 96-90.
“That was a long bus ride back that night,” Pope said.
DAR advanced to the state championship game before falling to New Brockton, 64-53.
The basketball career continued for Pope at first Calhoun Community College and then Saint Bernard College. After his playing days ended, Pope went into coaching. He coached the last high school team at Ryan before it was merged into Brewer. There were stops at Cotaco and Priceville when they had junior high programs.
In 2000, Pope got a call from Ellis, his former teammate, who was now the Danville principal.
“Gilmer wanted to know if I would come home and coach,” Pope said.
For the next nine seasons, Pope was back on the Danville bench. This time he was in the first seat. His 2004-2005 team revived some of the spark from those state championship seasons. Danville won the Class 3A Northwest Regional championship to advance to the Final Four in Birmingham.
Sumter County ended Danville’s season in the semifinals, 59-54, and then beat Central-Hayneville in the championship game, 76-60.
“That was an exciting season for the school and the community,” Pope said. “It brought back a lot of memories from when I played.”
Pope stepped away from coaching after the 2007-2008 season with 356 all-time wins. He had 129 in 10 seasons on the varsity level.
“One of my fondest memories in basketball goes back to the state championships we won in Tuscaloosa,” Pope said. “In Foster Auditorium they had a giant sign that was the outline of the state. There was a light in the map representing each team in the tournament.
“After a team got eliminated, its light would be turned off. I will always remember looking back at the sign after we won our championships and seeing one light glowing. That was the light for Danville. That was something special to see.”