By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Purple and Gold have nothing on the red tie and socks that Joe Shults made famous in Fairview.
Back in a day where prep basketball coaches patrolled the bench in suits and ties, those colorful articles of clothing were the signature staples the local legend simply couldn’t do without.
Appropriately, they’re also what he was laid to rest in nearly four months ago.
On Tuesday, the Aggies will host their annual Joe Shults Night, the first since the coaching icon’s death. Shults passed away at 88 on July 3, but not before making the Purple and Gold program what it is today and leaving a permanent mark on the school and community he cherished so dearly.
In the most fitting of tributes, Fairview will take the court Tuesday against Holly Pond donning a couple pieces of clothing that would’ve surely brought a smile to Shults’ face. First-year coach Kurt Knight will proudly sport a red tie, and his players, all pairs of red socks.
At this time of year, it’s been hard for Sharon Drake to avoid those dreaded firsts. November 24 was her father’s first birthday without him. Four days later was the first Thanksgiving and later this month will mark the first Christmas.
Even still, Tuesday evening is one first Drake and her family can look forward to.
As part of the Joe Shults Night festivities, the recently renovated hardwood, complete with the snazzy signature of the gymnasium’s namesake in front of the Aggie bench, will be dedicated in the late coach’s memory. Shults’ family will also be honored, as well as any and all of his former players in attendance.
“Firsts are hard to get through, but when you have people sort of celebrating with you and doing things to honor him, it helps us get through it a lot,” Drake said. “We always appreciate the school doing it. The booster club and the athletes who are there now, some of them don’t know who he is other than the name on the gym. For them to have that kind of consideration and care to carry on that tradition means so much to us.
“I think this year it means even more because it helps us to remember him and know that he’s remembered fondly by the community. It really makes us feel a whole lot better.”
But let us lament no longer. Instead, let’s get back to the red tie and socks, a fantastic tale with far more than initially met the eye.
Drake can’t quite explain why, be it superstition or an attempt at a psychological advantage, but there was no doubting the flashy accessories were her father’s favorites, practically to the point they perpetuated themselves.
While well renowned, the tie didn’t ultimately reach its legendary status until the conclusion of a tournament title tilt. Having just clinched the championship, Fairview’s players climbed the ladder to cut down the net.
But they didn’t stop there.
The boys proceeded to snip Shults’ tie, too, dicing it into pieces and doling them out amongst the team.
The one-time ordeal wound up turning into a full-fledged tradition. Any time the nets came down, so did the tie, and “Coach Joe” wouldn’t have had it any other way. And it’s a good thing, because under his tutelage, the Aggies won a whole lot of basketball tournaments.
In 15 seasons (1956-71) with the Purple and Gold, his alma mater, Shults compiled a 289-112 record, racking up six Cullman County titles, three area titles, two regional titles and two state tournament appearances along the way. That lengthy tenure of course followed a five-year stint at Hatton High, where he got his prep coaching career off the ground with a 111-38 record and led the Hornets to their first-ever state championship berth.
Drake vividly remembers her dad coming home from these triumphs with the knot of the tie, or “little nub” as she called it, still wrapped around his neck. Bobbie, Shults’ wife of 66 years, could only laugh at such a sight.
“She was always having to replace these red ties,” Drake said with a laugh. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, you couldn’t just run to Belk or somewhere and pick up a red tie. There was maybe one color and one texture, and that was it.
“That had so much meaning for the boys. We ran into someone a year or two ago, a girl who had been a cheerleader. She had a scrapbook that still had a piece of tie in it. That just lets you know that was something they treasured and valued. It was their way of being a part of it, just like when you cut the net and everybody gets a piece of it. Well, his tie sort of became the same thing.”
Though Shults’ tie-cutting days were cut tragically short by a stroke at the age of 46, his family revived the ritual one last time 42 years later. At the outset of Shults’ funeral, the pallbearers — all former players — clipped off his red tie and cut it into little pieces to keep.
“Coach Joe” had played to the buzzer in the game of life. Now it was time for him to celebrate his final victory by heading to his eternal destination in Heaven.
It was only right Shults made the trip with the “little nub” of tie his daughter remembered so clearly.
“I think that just did a lot for everybody,” Drake said of the emotional service. “It did a lot for us as a family to know that we got to tell them how much they meant to us. I think it let them know that they were a big part of our lives, and they got to have a little bit of my dad one last time.”
Once again, let us lament no longer. Instead, let’s turn our attention to Shults’ red socks, a story spattered with speculation and intrigue.
You see, it wasn’t the socks themselves that were so mysterious. It was the way Shults appeared to use them as a form of expression on the court.
As Drake’s been told time and time again, the image of her father and his socks has been frozen in the minds of many a spectator. When the intensity mounted or a call went the other way, witnesses swore Shults would purposefully hitch up his pants leg, sit down on the bench and let his socks do the talking.
The message was blaring.
“Whether that was intentional on his part or people made that up because they thought maybe that’s what he was doing, I really don’t know,” Drake said. “But I’ve had a lot of people comment they knew he was upset or knew it was a serious time when they saw those red socks. Whether it was purposefully that or not, I’m not sure, but it makes a good story anyway.”
This year’s Joe Shults Night wasn’t originally scheduled for Tuesday. But when the eventual date was determined, Drake couldn’t have imagined a more perfect opponent than Holly Pond.
The Aggies and Broncos were the most heated and intense rivals around when Shults ruled the roost throughout portions of three different decades. That largely had to do with his coaching counterpart on the opposing bench, Felton Easterwood.
The duo were the best of friends, a true pair to draw to — away from the court, at least. But on it, the two were respectful competitors, pushing aside their friendship for 32 minutes at a time in order to do whatever it took to put their teams in position to win.
To this day, Easterwood, usually accompanied by his wife, Polly, attends nearly every Holly Pond game humanly possible. It’s almost certainly safe to assume the loving couple will be on hand Tuesday to not only watch their Broncos, but pay respect to a man whom each felt fortunate to call a friend.
As if all that weren’t a sure sign of divine intervention, go ahead and try this on for size — Tuesday also just so happens to be Bobbie’s birthday. She’d love nothing more than for the whole lot of her late husband’s former players to join in the honorary evening.
“The fact they had to change it from another day, then it was Holly Pond and then it ended up being my mom’s birthday, talk about really having an impact,” Drake said. “To get to honor the man she loved and spent so much time with and so much time taking care of. To her, you couldn’t give her anything any better than to have that fall on that night. I think that’s just one of those things of fate that it worked out that way.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.