From the Big House where stories abound
(Writer’s note: In more than 40 years of covering sports in Mississippi, one of my favorite annual events was the MHSAA State Tournament at the so-called Big House. I used to tell people you could tear a sheet of paper out of your notebook, make a paper airplane, send it flying, and wherever it lands you’ll find a great story. I’m sitting here at courtside this morning, watching Coldwater and Hinds AHS in the 1A semifinals. Here’s the column, courtesy of The Clarion-Ledger, I wrote last year about Coldwater, the town and the basketball.)
History tells us the good people of the Coldwater community in Tate County are accustomed to hardship, hard luck and hard work. Back in 1942, all-too-often flooding of the nearby Coldwater River caused the entire town to move about a mile and a half south to higher ground.
That’s right. The entire town up and moved. Some folks actually moved their houses. Others built new ones.
Coldwater basketball coach Wert Spiva Jr., 41 years old, wasn’t around for that. Had he been, we may surmise, he would have led the way. Nobody works harder than Wert Spiva Jr. Ask anybody in Coldwater. Friday, Spiva brought both his Coldwater boys and girls basketball teams to play in the Class 1A state championship games at Mississippi Coliseum.
His girls lost a 74-69 heartbreaker to H.W. Byers, before his boys toppled Biggersville 68-55. Spiva had about 15 minutes to help his grieving girls get over defeat before he began coaching the boys to victory. Later, he drove the team bus back to Coldwater.
All in a day’s work for Spiva, who drives a bus route to and from school, serves as athletic director, coaches the linemen for the football team, coaches boys and girls track, teaches six periods of physical education (kindergarten through 12th grade), helps coach girls softball and drives the baseball team to and from games. His work day begins at 6:45 a.m. On game days, it ends around midnight.
I would love to tell you that on Sunday he rests. But no, he plays guitar and sings in a gospel group at his church, where he also serves as a deacon.
If Wert Spiva were paid by the hour, he might not make minimum wage.
“Hey man, you don’t do what I do for the money,” Spiva said while his boys players celebrated around him. “You do this because you love what you do. You do this for the kids. You do this because you love kids.”
Five state titles
Spiva graduated from Mississippi State University in 1992, was offered the coaching and teaching position at Coldwater, accepted it and then poured himself into it. Twenty years later, he’s still pouring. His Cougars basketball teams have won five state championships (three girls, two boys).
Willie Brandon Jr., the Coldwater principal for three years, marvels at the relationships Spiva builds with his players.
“We’ve got 594 children in pre-K through 12th grade, and Spiva knows them all because he has them in P.E.,” Brandon said. “He’s known all these kids their whole lives.”
George Forest, a 59-year-old lifelong Coldwater resident and Cougar fan, has watched Spiva’s career with keen interest.
“You know now he’s coaching some of his former players’ kids, so it’s like one big family,” Forest said. “Everybody knows what to expect. What Spiva says in Coldwater is law. He’s earned everybody’s respect.”
Coaching the boys and girls teams has its challenges. In the North State tournaments, played at different sites, Spiva had to choose between the two. He coached the girls. His boys lost in the North State championship game to the Biggersville team it beat Friday.
When asked the difference in the two games, Biggersville coach Cliff Little noted his team had a homecourt advantage in North State, but added, “And don’t overlook the fact that Coach Spiva wasn’t there the first time. He’s a great coach. I have all the respect in the world for the job he does.”
Blessed with talent
Spiva will tell you quickly that he has been blessed with superb athletes during his years at Coldwater, athletes such as Jerontay Clemons, who scored 40 points and pulled down 17 rebounds in a losing cause for the girls, and Jakevin Farmer, who scored 15 points and grabbed 22 rebounds for the boys. And Spiva also will tell you basketball is really important to the town, which has two four-way stop signs, not one traffic light and not a lot else to do.
“We don’t have a lot of kids, but the kids we have love to play ball,” Spiva said. “They’re tough kids, they play hard.”
Said 63-year-old Coldwater fan Ella Forest: “Coldwater has been good at basketball as long as I can remember.”
When asked why she thought that is, Ella Forest responded: “We don’t feed our kids at McDonald’s. We feed ’em real food, food like fresh vegetables, neckbones and pinto beans.”
Ella Forest says today’s Coldwater kids don’t know how good they have it. She grew up hearing stories from her mother about the old town of Coldwater, which now stays under water most of the year and serves as a favorite fishing hole for many.
“It flooded so much back then, my mama said her family had the routine down,” Forest said. “They’d gather up some cans of beans and go up in the attic. They’d just eat cold beans and starch for days until the water went back down and then they’d go down and clean up the mud and start over.”
Such tenacity has passed on through the generations. Yes, and Wert Spiva Jr. brings out the best of this latest one.