The sundown covey: the continued tale of Coach Mooney Player
By Tim Askins
Tim Askins and Mooney Player at the awarding of Coach Player with the Order of the Palmetto by Governor McMaster. Image provided.
There are a few recurring themes when one looks at the body of work that is Mooney Player, faith being the first and family the second, followed by a willingness to take on and endure unprecedented risk professionally as exemplified by three enterprises that formed his professional life: coaching, Leadership in Action and bird huntin’ at Bobwhite Hills.
In the Charleston Mercury Magazine October edition, I wrote about the details of Mooney’s coaching career. Although highly recruited as a player out of high school, Mooney underachieved at Clemson under Frank Howard. He would leave the program after a year and then enroll at University of South Carolina to finish his undergraduate degree. USC fraternity brother Robert Royal recalled Mooney was pretty good at poker too, emphasizing his endurance for risk taking. Coaching then brought out a natural ability that was driven by his intellect and integrity.
His endurance for risk taking was evident in 1970 when “The Creek” was playing Sumter for the lower state title. Freddie Solomon was a star on the Sumter team who went on to play receiver in college and the NFL. With about a minute to go, LR was backed up near their goal with fourth down looming and leading by only three points. Mooney knew that if he punted, there was a good chance Freddie Solomon could run it back for a TD. He deliberately decided to take a safety. He then had the ball squib kicked so that Solomon could not get the ball. LR hung on to win the game. That was the first time anyone knew of a team deliberately taking a safety.
The Total Commitment System
The Mooney Player Total Commitment System enlisted the entire community as family, and a point was made to differentiate The Creek from its larger sister city, Columbia. Players were expected to buy into the system built of traditions and purpose as early as the sixth grade. Coach Player controlled every aspect of their young existence through the concept of Total Commitment, right down to how their hair was cut and who and when they could date. Dick Regan, a star tight end on the 72-73 Creek teams and eventual Citadel Bulldog, recalls Mooney saying, “If a man is a quitter, I’d rather find out in practice than in a game. I ask for all a player has, so I’ll know what I can expect later. I’d rather have my boys cry before the game than after the game.”
Coach Player discouraged intramural football before the sixth grade because of the commitment he required, recognizing younger players would burn out before reaching their prime in the 11th and 12th grades. During the sixth and seventh grades, players were introduced to the philosophy of the Total Commitment System and began learning the playbook — the same playbook they big boys in the black, white and gold were running on varsity. Younger players were tutored by the successively higher grades. Thus, the sixth and seventh graders were taught by the eighth, ninth and tenth graders, who were taught by the varsity players.
Quarterbacks were identified early for their intellect, leadership potential and commitment. Mooney would save the best athletes for his defense, but his offensive linemen were also faster than the tailbacks they blocked for. The starting QB took on a unique responsibility as coach of the sixth and seventh graders, while other QBs refereed their games. By the eighth grade these youngsters were fully indoctrinated and ready to play other schools in their purple jerseys with the hickory nuts — the black jersey worn by the varsity elite would have to be earned.
If a player did not quit, lived true to the honor system and stayed committed, he would be presented with a black varsity jersey and number in the 11th grade in a solemn ceremony that remains vivid to most former players. The jersey and number were worn with significance. Many years later at a player reunion, Coach Player introduced all the players from The Creek years by their varsity number. Players themselves refer to each other now 50 years later by the jersey number they wore, not by name. Though few of his players ever made it to the collegiate level in football, many became business and community leaders. To this day Mooney retains an uncanny ability to recall some tidbit of personal information about each one.
Then there was the Ready Squad or Pack Out Squad, a group of five to six players on the JV team that included the second string QB. These players were required to find a former player and “borrow” their black jersey, since they had not yet earned one, then make their own way to the game with their gear “packed out” in a duffel bag. If The Creek pulled away from the opponent, they might get the call to play in the fourth quarter— or as in the case of Jimmy MacGregor, play for an injured player. In 1971 while assuming his duties in the press box tracking plays with the coaches on field, the starting QB suffered a knee injury. Coach Player looked up to the press box and waved Jimmy down. With a quick change into his “borrowed” jersey Jimmy took the field cold, no warmup, and led the offense without skipping a beat.
As discussed in the Mercury Magazine article, in 1975, there was a failed attempt to get Mooney hired as the head football coach at University of South Carolina. It has been speculated that the Total Commitment System may have played a part in this. Getting college age players in the 1970s to submit to the rules of TC (as it was known) may have ultimately conflicted with the laissez-faire attitudes of the times. Coach Player stated: “We’re a little old-fashioned in our attitude toward discipline. Maybe we’re ten years behind the times, or maybe we’re ten years ahead. I don’t know which; but we expect respect from our boys. We want them to say ‘sir,’ and we expect them to love and respect their parents and their church.”
Today those students and players from Saluda and Lower Richland show their continued admiration and respect for Mooney, elevating him to celebrity status. Many like Dick Regan, Victoria Morgan, Sammy Crouch and Frank Chapman have close personal relationships with their former coach. Sammy and Frank continue bird huntin’ with Mooney at Bobwhite Hills.
After USC Mooney did not return to coaching, instead taking his talents into the private sector and bringing many of his coaches with him. The ensuing 20 years were financially rewarding. After an internship with Charleston’s Ray Waites, he developed a boot-camp style program, Leadership In Action, to train upwardly mobile executives and develop the same leadership skills and commitment to high standards that he fostered in his players. His firm climbed to the top of the field nationally with clients like Trans World Airlines, Price Waterhouse and Merrill Lynch. Our own Governor McMaster was a student, as was National Champion coach Bobby Ross.
The sundown covey
With the conclusion of Leadership In Action, at age 71 Coach Player was finally free to focus on his true passion, bird huntin’ at Bobwhite Hills. The ensuing years required a total commitment from the coach not unlike his football and professional career. To have wild quail in this modern era requires manipulating the landscape and encouraging the natural habitat to return to the state before everything turned to pine tree farming. Loblolly plantations are a desert for quail, which thrive only when the ratio of trees to open space gets below 40 percent. Mooney would slough off the profits of the tree farmer to encourage the native forbs and grasses essential to ground bird survival.
The resulting mosaic of longleaf savannah and hardwood bottoms have created a haven for quail. Mooney is now ready to pass his dream on to the people of South Carolina. With the S.C. Conservation vote on September 22, Quail Forever is positioned to acquire the land on favorable terms including a generous donation by the Player family and place it into a conservation easement.
On a recent property inspection, Breck Carmichael with SCDNR commented, “Bobwhite Hills represents one of the closest I have seen to a turnkey property for quail. It will require minimal work to have public hunting. This acquisition will double the number of public hunting opportunities.”
“This acquisition will be a great addition for S.C. quail hunters, as it will provide a great deal of high-quality quail habitat near the midlands,” added SCDNR small game manager Michael Hook.
“Bobwhite Hills and the people who made it happen represent the heart of Quail Forever’s mission — helping to conserve quality wildlife habitat and public access for future generations,” said Matt Kucharski, national board chair of Quail Forever. “This land project will help attract new supporters in the Southeast as we propel our signature acquisition program — Build a Wildlife Area — in new and exciting directions.”
In his hunting directions distributed to a small group of 18 dedicated bird hunters, Mooney asserted, “Me and Sammy and one other living South Carolinian have killed a bird after 6:10 p.m. Maybe you’ll get in the record book.” The members of this group, some of whom have hunted together for more than six decades, were handpicked to participate in the final hunts at Bobwhite Hills, and each received a 38-point proviso differentiating bird huntin’ and a quail shoot while spelling out the rules of bird huntin’. The second firing of the starting gun signals the start of the “gun lap” and the last chance to leave it all out on the course. They are determined to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” as Paul wrote in Hebrews, for the last sundown coveys.
At the turn of the century, Mooney prayed that he might hunt until Caleb’s age (Joshua 14:10) and now as the 2021 season opens, he knows he’s been blessed starting his fifth season hunting on “house money.” In the world of bird huntin’ a sundown covey denotes a quail covey that occupies a well-known spot and is saved for the last part of the day. Mooney and his band of bird hunters are set to take full advantage of Bobwhite Hills sunset coveys. Through these days, Mooney will walk with the knowledge that his Bobwhite Hills will be preserved for generations to come and forever foster bird huntin’ in S.C. Just like his daddy gave him bird huntin’, the legacy will pass on to all South Carolinians.
Tim Askins is a USCG Master Mariner and has been a licensed captain since 1980. He continues to operate his real estate development and construction business while devoting time to his farm, children, and wife, Karen. He is an advocate for wildlife habitat with Quail Forever and returning ex-convicts to the workplace with the Turning Leaf Project.