Trojan legend calling it a career

Basketball coach coaching game. Photo by Glenn Holmes.
Coach Tim Criswell is retiring after a 31-year career as head basketball coach. Photo by Glenn Holmes.

By Corey Cusick for the Times Georgian

Tim Criswell is preparing for one final full-court press.

Following more than three decades of calling the shots for the Carrollton High School boys’ basketball program, the Trojan legend announced on Monday evening that the 2019-20 campaign will be his last year in charge, ending an era of unprecedented success on and off the court for one of the all-time greats to ever don the Black and Gold as both a player and coach.

As he hits the stretch run of his 32nd season overall and 31st as head coach at Carrollton, the numbers speak for themselves in regard to Criswell’s impact on the program. He entered the season sporting a career record of 610-232 with 13 region championships, six elite eight appearances and a trip to the Class AAAA state finals in 2014-15 en route to Class AAAA Coach of the Year honors for the state of Georgia.

But the tell-tale triumph to Criswell’s legacy is the mark he made on his players in becoming better young men and productive citizens once their days between the lines ultimately came to an end.

“I tell all my coaches when they start coaching with me is, look, ‘Do I want to win? Sure, I want to win. We’re going to work them as hard as we can work them and we’re going to make them as good as players as they can be, as good a team as they can be. But what is more important to me is what kind of people they’re going to be when they graduate. What are they going to do?’” Criswell said. “I want them to understand what life’s all about. It means more to me for those kids that I coached 15, 25 years ago to walk into this gym and give me a hug and say, ‘Coach, it’s so good to see you. I appreciate what you did for me.’ That means more to me than winning a state championship. Now, do I want to win one? Sure I do. I ain’t never won one. I’ve tried to win one as many times as I’ve been coaching here, but what’s more important to me is those relationships with those kids.”

Criswell added how it’s never been about black or white in his program. Every ballplayer that steps into that locker room and on the court is an equal.

“Black, white, yellow, green, I don’t care what color they are. I always tell myself and other people, when I looked up Criswell, it was from Irish blood. So when I look at these kids, everybody’s green. They’re either dark green, middle green or light green. All my kids, I love them all,” Criswell said. “They’re all the same color. They’re just dark green, middle green or light green. That’s just the way I see it. It’s everybody, and especially these kids. I don’t look at them as being black and white. I look at them as being green because I’ve got Irish blood.”

Carrollton City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Albertus said it’s mind-boggling to think about how many lives Criswell has influenced and, in many cases, steered on the right path in life for those who didn’t have a father-figure growing up.

“Coach Criswell takes his role of coach past the court,” Albertus said in a statement. “He truly cares about the future of his players and does all he can to help them break out of life cycles that are holding them back. He is their top advocate and the closest confidant for some. He will be missed.”

Likewise, CHS Principal David Brooks noted how the name Tim Criswell is synonymous for what it means to be a Carrollton Trojan.

“Coach Criswell will go down as a great coach among our other legacy athletic leaders,” Brooks said in a statement, referring to football coaching legends Charlie Grisham and Ben Scott and track standout Hugh Maddox. “His loyalty to Carrollton High School is unmatched by anyone else. To be that dedicated for almost 40 years to one program exclusively is an accomplishment almost beyond comprehension.”

Criswell, who informed his team of the news on Monday evening following practice, had been contemplating retirement in recent years, and said he made a final decision at the start of this season that it would be his final one. Criswell will pass the torch to one of his former players and current assistant Don Bray, who is in his fourth season on the sidelines with the boys’ program. The veteran head coach was extremely excited to hear that Bray would be his successor.

“I just want it to be left in good hands, and with Don Bray being picked to be the next coach, I know it’s in good hands. We can make this as much about Don Bray as about me because Don Bray was a great player and one of the best leaders on a team I’ve ever coached,” Criswell said. “If my kids, if Riley and Cooper were still in high school and I was retiring, I would want them to play for Don Bray or (CHS girls’ head coach) Shon Thomaston. I mean, they’re Trojans. And that’s what it’s all about to me is making sure it’s in good hands.”

Before taking over on the sidelines at CHS, Criswell dominated on the court as a player. The 1981 Carrollton High School graduate was selected as the Class AAA Player of the Year in Georgia during his senior season and ranks near the top of all the school career records, dating back to 1980, capping off his career at No. 2 in scoring (2,045 points), No. 4 in rebounding (796), No. 2 in assists (413) and No. 8 in career games played (95).

Criswell signed to play at Furman University out of high school, but transferred back home to then-West Georgia College, where he became the second-leading scorer in school history by the time all was said and done. He is a member of the Carrollton High School and University of West Georgia Athletic hall of fames, has the court named in his honor at CHS — Criswell Court — and also has his No. 23 jersey retired at Carrollton.

Sometimes it’s funny how things work out in life. After all, Criswell originally had aspirations of playing professional baseball. But after five years in the minor leagues between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations, he decided it was time to take his talents elsewhere. And for that, class upon class of up-and-coming ballplayers in the Carrollton area are now better for it.

“I wanted to play pro baseball. I just didn’t make it. Things happen sometimes not the way you wanted them to go,” Criswell said. “I played five years in the minor leagues and thought I might have a chance to get to the big leagues. I didn’t make it and so I said, ‘Well, it’s time for me to do something else.’”

Fate intervened again when Criswell was on his way to the collegiate coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at Jacksonville State before CHS Athletic Director and head football coach Ben Scott gave him a buzz.

“It was done. I was going. Then all of a sudden, Ben Scott called me. It just worked out and I thought, ‘Well, maybe that will be the best thing for me.’ Because you don’t have to travel around and recruit so much coaching in high school versus having to go all over the place trying to get players to come to college. I wanted to have my kids around the house and be able to go home at night and not have to go all over the place recruiting and be gone all the time,” Criswell said. “I’ve had just an unbelievable opportunity to do this.”

Another integral piece to the puzzle of Criswell’s success has been the glue of the family — his wife, Dawn.

“My wife has been incredibly good about it. She comes to the games when I’ve been so caught up in it. When the kids were little, she just took care of the kids. Coaches need great wives, and I’ve got one,” Criswell said. “I couldn’t think of anything she could have done better for me. She’s been a great wife and a great mother. She still sits up there and pulls for my teams. It’s important to have that.”

Criswell’s family, the school and this community became an even larger source of support in the fall of 2017 when he suffered a traumatic bike injury on the Carrollton GreenBelt. At the time, getting back on the sidelines proved to be the least of anyone’s concerns. They were just praying he would pull through.

Fast-forward from many sleepless nights for friends and family, the power of prayer and months of rehabilitation for Criswell, and he was able to come back for the 2018-19 season. And now he feels extremely blessed to be able to retire on his own terms.

“There was a time where they didn’t know if I was going to survive. Then when I did survive, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to walk. I couldn’t eat. So I was just like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to coach again,’” Criswell said. “They started getting contacts with administration about what do you think if you can’t do it? I would always say, you’ve got Shon Thomaston and Don Bray there. They’re two great ones. There was not a whole lot of discussion about it at that time, but when I was able to get back, I knew I had missed it. I was missing it bad. But I got to come back and coach and teach again last year and then I got to do another year. To say that I’m not still enjoying it would be the wrong thing to say. I still enjoy to coach. It’s just that I’m getting to that point in my life where I want to be able to get out and go places while I’m still in good health.”

The Criswells have three children — Riley (25), Cooper (23) and Kirby (20) — and coach Criswell said it will be nice to spend a Christmas away from a holiday tournament for a change and with his family and be able to travel during the summer rather than sweating it out in a hot gymnasium at basketball camps throughout June.

But he’s still got some unfinished business to attend to before strolling off into the sunset. With 13 region titles under his belt, he’d love to add No. 14 this winter and then take another stab at the state tournament. Carrollton High School is holding a special ceremony to recognize Criswell on Friday night when the Trojans host Cass, but he said the No. 1 priority that evening is getting a ‘W.’

“I know they’re going to do a recognition Friday night at the game to recognize me about the 31, 32 years, and that’s fine. But I want my kids to understand that it ain’t about me Friday night. It’s about them and it’s about that game because we’re one game ahead of Cass and they beat us at Cass. We need to win that game real bad,” Criswell said. “The kids will be ready. They understand. Everybody understands what a big game that is for us. Then the region tournament will get here and that would be great to have a chance to finish it off with a region championship and then see what happens in the playoffs. That’s how it’s always been.”

And at some point in the coming weeks when the final buzzer ultimately sounds to mark the end of an era for Trojan Athletics, Criswell said it will truly bookmark the last chapter of a dream career.

“I got to play here in high school and I’ve got to coach here for so long. There’s no place that I’d rather be,” Criswell said.