Fuller and White to be inducted Friday
Published 12:48 pm Tuesday, June 24, 2014
From the moment Donny Fuller first stepped on a high school basketball coach, his life and career has been intertwined with John White’s.
“I was his basketball manager in high school,” Fuller said. “Warren Central had its greatest success in boys basketball when he was the coach. I joked that he never made it to the Coliseum after I left.”
Nearly two decades after he was White’s pupil, Fuller was his employee. White, who had become Warren Central’s athletic director, hired Fuller as the girls basketball coach in 1992.
Fuller went on to become one of the most successful and respected girls basketball coaches in Mississippi, and on Friday night he’ll team up with White once again when the duo is inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame.
“It’s really an honor. I’m really happy. Going in at the same time as John White makes it even more special,” said Fuller, a Vicksburg native who is now the girls coach at Gulfport High School. “Some of the stuff I learned from him, I still use. He was like a second father figure in a lot of ways.”
Despite serving as a teacher and administrator for 39 years, White’s coaching career was relatively brief. He was the boys head coach at Redwood High School in 1964, then became Warren Central’s first coach when it opened a year later.
He spent 10 seasons on the Vikings’ bench and led them to heights they haven’t experienced before or since. His 242-97 record included three conference championships, a South State title, a third-place finish in the MHSAA Class 5A tournament in 1973 and a runner-up finish in 1974.
Warren Central has not been back to the state tournament in Jackson since then.
“I missed winning a state championship by three points when Purvis Short played for Hattiesburg,” White said, referring to the forward who went on to play 13 seasons in the NBA. “I loved my career in coaching.”
White never returned to coaching after stepping down from his post at Warren Central in 1975. He settled into his teaching career and, later on, administration.
“Here’s the amazing thing. John had to go in (to the Hall of Fame) as a related field person. He had 10 years as a head coach, and you have to have 15 to be eligible,” Fuller said.
White returned to Warren Central a decade later as its athletic director. When Warren Central and Vicksburg consolidated in 1991, he became the athletic director for the Vicksburg Warren School District and oversaw both programs.
“That was one of my toughest jobs. I had spent 20 years at Warren Central, and each side thought I was going to pull for the other,” White said with a chuckle. “Something I was proud of, was we were in the top five every year in the overall athletic program standings. I was very proud of that.”
White left Warren County in 1996. He then became principal at Choctaw Central until his retirement in 2005.
During his first stint at Warren Central in the 1970s, White had a profound impact on a certain team manager.
Fuller was a bit short to play for the Vikings but was a self-described “gym rat” who soaked up all the basketball knowledge White was willing to dish out.
“He was the most dependable guy you ever worked with,” White said.
Working under White in high school helped convince Fuller to go into coaching. He coached at Philadelphia High School — ironically, the school White led to two state titles as a player in the late 1950s — before returning home to Warren Central as an assistant in 1982.
Fuller left WC in 1986 for Oxford, where he was an assistant to Hall of Famer Van Chancellor for five seasons. In 1992, the call came again to return home as White hired him to become Warren Central’s girls basketball coach.
“When I came back in ‘92, there were two people that were a factor in getting me back — John White and (former superintendent) Donald Oakes,” Fuller said. “I came back to work for them.”
Fuller, in his first head coaching job, immediately became one of the state’s best. He led Warren Central to the Class 5A South State championship in 1994, and lost in the state championship game in 1996.
He’s won 478 games in his career, with the only blemish on his resumé the lack of a state title. His teams have gotten to the Mississippi Coliseum a half-dozen times, but never won.
“We got back where we were winning championships,” Fuller said. “We didn’t win a state championship, but we got to the state finals. We won division championships and got to the Coliseum.”
In addition to his work on the court, Fuller has been a familiar face off it in all of the state’s high school coaching circles.
The 57-year-old has been president and vice president of the Mississippi Association of Coaches and currently serves on its basketball committee. For the past eight years, he’s been the administrative coach — the one who helps organize and coordinate the team and various activities surrounding it — for Mississippi in the annual Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game.
Getting elected to the Hall of Fame for the MAC, an organization that he’s worked hard to promote over the years, meant a lot, Fuller said.
“The Coaches Association is a great, great organization. Anything to help the Coaches Association, I’m willing to do,” Fuller said. “I remember going to meetings and I was the baby. Then I went to another one a few years later and I was one of the old guys.”
Fuller’s prominence in the Coaches Association has made him a known commodity to nearly every high school official in Mississippi. He was most proud, however, of the bonds he’s built with his players.
He kept his cell phone number the same when he left Warren Central for Gulfport in 2009 so old players could keep in touch. Dozens of his players have gone on to play college basketball, and more than a few have gone into coaching themselves.
“I enjoy being at practice. I enjoy being at games. I enjoy being around young people,” Fuller said. “For a single man, I have more children than anybody I’ve ever known. Once they play for me, they’re always one of mine.”
Fuller never seems to forget a face, date or story. He can rattle off stats from the 1973-74 Warren Central boys team as quickly as those of his 2013-14 Gulfport squad.
Some things, though, will always be a little more special than others. For instance, Fuller was happy that his parents — father Bill and mother Ann Fuller, both in their 80s — will be able to attend Friday’s Hall of Fame ceremony.
And then there’s White, his other father figure.
Three other men — West Lincoln basketball coach Jack Case, Starkville High School football coach Chuck Friend, and Tupelo basketball coach Mickey Linder — will also be inducted to the MAC Hall on Friday.
While there will certainly be a mutual respect for their accomplishments, they won’t share the same bond as the other two men on the dais.
“Donny and I go way back. He’s a fine young man and a fine girls basketball coach,” said White, who at 74 years old is only 17 years older than Fuller. “It is an honor. I know three or four of the other guys very well, but Donny is very close to me.”