Legendary coach, Dr. Phil McCrary, earns milestone win
Six hundred is no small number.
It’s almost two years’ worth of days. It’s 100 hours, or roughly four days. Six hundred minutes is a larger amount of time than a full day of school, work, or in some cases, time spent awake.
For DeKalb County School District (DCSD) basketball coach Dr. Phil McCrary, it’s the amount of wins accrued over the course of a long, storied career.
Dr. McCrary arrived at Columbia High School in 1987 and was named head basketball coach one year later. After 27 seasons and five state championships, he has recently earned an impressive 600-213 record, with the 600th win coming on February 6 against Arabia Mountain.
The Columbia coach, whose career accolades also include induction into the Atlanta Basketball Hall of Fame and becoming the winningest coach in DeKalb County history, was honored by family, friends, and former players following the win.
“To be honest, it never really crossed my mind,” McCrary said. “My main focus, every game, is on my student-athletes. Coaching basketball is like a ministry to me. I just want to touch young guys’ lives and make a positive impact.”
A positive impact, for McCrary, includes understanding that basketball is just a tool in building a future. By playing basketball, he said, student-athletes have the opportunity to travel, earn entry into college, and build a foundation of discipline.
Being able to impart that philosophy on a daily basis is McCrary’s reason for coaching—but the wins are a plus. This is especially true considering McCrary’s transition from teaching to coaching a sport he had no history in.
“Back in 1987, I was teaching at Clark Atlanta University. The principal, who I had known for many years, enticed me to leave Clark Atlanta and come to DeKalb,” McCrary said. “I was assistant coach and one day, I was asked to carry the team through practice. Before we left for summer, he told me, ‘Look, I’m going to give you this job, but don’t embarrass me.’ That motivated me—a guy taking a chance on me. I never played basketball; I played football and baseball.”
McCrary didn’t take the opportunity lightly. He began studying the game, beginning at the basics and working his way up. He attended clinic after clinic—a practice he still continues today—and asked anyone willing to speak with him for advice.
More than 30 years later, it’s hard to disagree with McCrary’s methods.
“You’re never too old or young to learn,” McCrary said. “I had to learn the game from the ground up. Along the way, I had great people tutor me and get me on the right track. What’s fascinating to me is.. I was a lousy football coach.”
McCrary’s lack of success as a football coach, he says, stems from his natural ability on the field. Because certain things came easy to him, he had a hard time teaching technique and basic tactics. Being a beginner himself in basketball, McCrary was able to relate concepts to beginners because he was not far from being one himself.
The Columbia coach states basketball is second-to-none in terms of pace, tangible feeling, and atmosphere.
“Basketball is a sport that’s out of inclement weather, always played in perfect conditions,” McCrary said. “The overall pace of the game is beautiful. It’s great to be that close to both the games and the fans. Each game, you’re seeing poetry in motion. I love being able to teach kids certain moves, watch them play, and watching the overall camaraderie.”
According to McCrary, there’s nothing like seeing a player grow from someone who doubts themselves to someone who dominates the court. Through victory on the basketball court, students come to learn about discipline, accountability, priorities, and other values.
In other words, McCrary enjoys showing students what the game can do for them.
“That’s more important than my record—watching these kids turn into productive citizens,” McCrary said. “All these players come back and pass it along. Some of my players are now coaches elsewhere at other schools. It’s good to have those wins, but watching those young guys grow and become great coaches, athletes and citizens says a lot more.”
There’s no difference between coaching and teaching, McCrary maintains, a philosophy many teachers-who-coach often get wrong. For him, a basketball court is just an extension of the classroom, complete with subject areas, techniques, skills, and intelligence. He often incorporates proper geometry, angles, and other concepts to coach.
McCrary does not shy away from incorporating adversity. He’s a big advocate for letting student athletes fight for a place on the team, persevere, failing, and finding their own success. Despite being controversies, these philosophies have earned him a DeKalb County record and the hearts of an entire community.
The secret? Doing everything with passion.
“Whatever you do, do heartily, as unto God, and not unto man,” McCrary said. “An educator ought to be able to coach and teach from the heart. You ought to be able to treat people the way you want to be treated. Form a relationship with your players—they have to know you care. Not just as a coach to player, but person to person. Once they know that, they’ll go the extra mile on the court.”