Breaking News

Mark Richt out as Georgia football coach November 29, 2015

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

It's been 30 years, three decades of high-fives and memories for Wiley Brown, a kid from Sylvester who was thrown under the spotlight back in 1980 when Brown and his teammates won a national title for Louisville.

All those memories and more will be tugging at Brown's heart tonight when he returns to the Final Four -- and maybe a few tears as well.

He's not just going to watch the Final Four, he's there for Nolan Smith, Duke's electric guard who picked up the Blue Devils with a 29-point night in the Elite Eight and pushed them past Baylor and into tonight's national semifinal against West Virginia.

"I've known Nolan since he was born,'' Brown told The Herald during an interview this week. "I'm a Duke fan this weekend.''

Nolan's father, Derek Smith, was Brown's best friend. They were a pair of kids from Georgia who landed together at Louisville. Cardinals coach Denny Crum couldn't live without them. Crum had a Georgia harvest on that national title team, because he also had Darryl Cleveland, who came from just down the road at Thomasville.

They were as close as peanuts in a shell (forget that peas in a pod stuff, these guys were Georgians, heart and soul).

"We were the Georgia guys,'' Brown said.

Those Georgia kids made history, and put their stamp on American culture like few athletes ever have. If you have wondered where the high-five began, here's the answer: Brown, Smith and Cleveland -- the "Georgia guys" --- made it popular, and it was actually Brown and Smith who came up with the idea.

Sure, long before 1980 athletes slapped five to celebrate -- but it was a low-five. You would open the palm of your hand and the other person would slap it -- hence the ageless term, "Give me five.''

"One day at practice, I had my hand out to Derek to give me five, and he said, 'No, let's go up high,' "

Brown said. "So I went up high, and that's where the high-five started.''

After that, the three Georgians started high-fiving each other after big plays and the rest of the Louisville team picked up on it. Quickly, it became a part of Americana when Louisville caught fire that season and won the NCAA Tournament.

"We were on national TV so much that year," Brown said. "It just caught on, and it just made history. It's really something when you think about it -- three kids from small towns in Georgia started the high-five. That's sports!''

It might not have caught on if not for Louisville's exciting brand of play. That team was known as "The Doctors of Dunk,'' and is arguably one of the most exciting squads that ever won a national title. When the Cardinals won back-to-back games in the Final Four, they won in that fashion: running the floor and slamming in one dunk after another.

And, of course, those jams were followed by leaping jubilation and high-fives.

Brown and Smith couldn't have been closer, and that's why this Final Four will bring some heartache. In 1996, Smith, who was an assistant with the Washington Bullets at the time, was on a cruise when he suffered a heart attack and died. Nolan has all but dedicated his basketball career to his father, and one of his biggest fans is Brown.

"I'm so proud of him,'' Brown said of Nolan. "He had a huge game against Baylor (in the Elite 8), and there's no way I'd miss this Final Four.''

It's about a 100-mile drive from Louisville, where Brown lives with his family these days, to Indianapolis, but the distance wouldn't have mattered. The irony is overwhelming, because Louisville beat UCLA to win the 1980 title -- ready for this? -- in Indianapolis. They played the Final Four in Market Square, which was razed years ago.

It's been a long road for Brown.

Brown is now the men's basketball coach at Indiana University Southeast, which is just on the Indiana side of the river from Louisville. Brown has made quite a mark so far, going 75-22 in his three years there. Brown was even such a remarkable athlete that he spent two years with the Philadelphia Eagles and seven years playing pro basketball overseas, featuring stops in Spain, France and Italy.

The two-sport phenomenon gives all the credit to Travis Wright, who was Brown's coach back at Worth County High in the 1970s.

"Coach Wright was my football coach -- he was an assistant -- and my basketball coach,'' Brown said. "I always wanted to be a coach because of Travis Wright. I always had it in my blood because of him. He was like a second father to me. He was such a great man. I never saw a person he didn't love. He was so important in my life. That's where I got the passion for the game and for coaching.''

It was a different era for sports.

"Travis Wright loved for his basketball players to play football,'' Brown said. "They really don't do that anymore. The basketball players are on AAU teams that play all the time, and the football players are in the weight room working out year round for football. And it was different. In basketball, we played defense. Nobody wants to play defense anymore. They just want to score.''

Brown said he still keeps up with Worth County's football and basketball teams and relishes his roots in Sylvester. He still has a lot of family in Worth County, where he was a 6-foot-8 star on the basketball court and a force at tight end and defensive end on the football field.

"I've been fortunate,'' Brown said. "I was raised by my mother and grandmother, and my grandmother meant everything to me.''

When he left Sylvester for Louisville, Brown promised his mother and grandmother he would get a college degree, and left Louisville with a bachelor's degree, majoring in Communications, Health and Education and Pan African studies. He worked at Louisville for 15 years as the strength and conditioning coach under Crum and Rick Pitino, before getting a head job of his own.

"I was fortunate to be around those coaches. Coach Crum is in the Hall of Fame and coach Pitino will be some day,'' Brown said. "I learned so much from both of them.''

Any advice for Coach K and Duke?

"I would tell him to just tell the kids to go out and play and have fun,'' Brown said. "There's so much pressure coming from so many directions, just tell them to forget about the pressure and have fun.''

Brown had his moments back in 1980.

"It was unbelievable getting to the Final Four,'' Brown said. "I was 19. One minute, I was in Sylvester, and then I'm in the Final Four. It was absolutely amazing.''

Brown's most vivid memory came after Louisville's semifinal victory against Iowa.

"We were all sitting in the stands watching UCLA (win) the semifinal game,'' Brown remembered. "UCLA had an All-American named Kiki Vandeweghe. He was averaging about 25 points a game. I said 'How are we ever going to stop him?'

"Then coach Crum looked at me and said: 'I don't know how we're going to stop him, but I know how you're going to stop him.' "

Then Brown laughed at his own story, adding, "I think Vandeweghe got about eight points off me while I was guarding him, and I think he finished with (14), and we won the game. It's something I'll never forget.''

Louisville was victorious that day, 59-54, and Brown, the kid from Sylvester, scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds on a night he will carry with him for a lifetime.

All that and so much more will wash over him this weekend.

"It will be a Final Four I'll remember,'' Brown said.