By Anthony Rhoads
A.C. McCullers has accomplished much throughout his coaching career but last Wednesday as the Clayton State Lady Lakers beat Armstrong Atlantic State, he won his 700th game throughout high school and college.
"That means I've been around a long time," McCullers said. "It goes back a lot of good girls at Morrow and here. I've been blessed. God has blessed me extremely well; I give all the credit to him."
Tonight, as Clayton State takes on the University of South Carolina Spartanburg, McCullers will be honored for his career milestone.
"A.C. has meant so much for women's basketball in this state," Clayton State athletic director Mason Barfield said. "People don't know how tough it is. A.C. deserves it."
McCullers' high school coaching career spanned 29 years -- four at Northwest Whitfield and 25 at Morrow.
At Northwest Whitfield, McCullers won two region titles and posted a four-year record of 113-8. But McCullers achieved his greatest success at Morrow, where he guided the Lady Mustangs to four state titles.
Morrow was especially dominant from 1989-91 when the Lady Mustangs won three state championships, with the pinnacle coming in '91, when they went 30-0. Morrow also won state in 1993 and was runner-up in 1996.
"He's a good basketball coach and knows how to handle good players," Mt. Zion boys' head coach Rick Moore said. "I'm sure making the transition to the college game was tough at first but he's building a solid program at Clayton State just like he did at Morrow. They'll get better."
McCullers left Morrow after the 1998-99 season and racked up 648 wins to make him the third-winningest girls high school basketball coach in the state.
In addition to holding many state records, McCullers is by far the winningest girls' basketball coach in Clayton County with 535 victories at Morrow.
"A.C. did for girls basketball what (former Riverdale and College Park head coach) Ken Ross did for boys' basketball -- he caused other teams and coaches to get better to compete with him," Clayton County athletic director Bob Brannon said.
Doug Crane, the former Riverdale and Jonesboro head coach, is second on the Clayton County list with 224 wins. Crane also coached at Sandy Creek High School and met McCullers many times on opposite sides of the basketball court.
Crane has not only been a rival of McCullers back when both were head coaches in the high school ranks but two are now side-by-side at Claytoh State.
"A.C. works awfully hard and takes a lot of pride in what he does," Crane said. "Too many of those 700 wins came against me; we had some really good matches when I was at Riverdale."
McCullers has been at Clayton State since the 1999-2000 season and things were rocky at first. The Lady Lakers went 8-18 that season and 6-20 in 2000-01. They began to turn the corner in 2001-02 with a 13-15 record.
In the 2002-03 season, McCullers led the Lady Lakers to its second-best year in school history with a 16-11 record.
"He does a great job," Pickens County girls' head coach Donnie Byrom, who is the former Eagle's Landing head coach. "I knew he would be successful at Clayton State. He's establishing a winning program at Clayton State just like Morrow."
Even though Byrom and McCullers have been rivals on the court, Byrom has always respected and admired McCullers.
"A.C. is one of the reasons I got into coaching," Byrom said. "In the early 80s when I was in college, I would go to Morrow games. I was there to great players but the main person I was watching was McCullers. He's definitely an outstanding coach and has been an inspiration to me."
Another current high school coach who McCullers has influences is Brookwood's Scott Terry, who was McCullers' assistant at Morrow for three years. After McCullers left Morrow, Terry followed in his mentor's footsteps by guiding the Lady Mustangs to the Class AAA Final Four in the 1999-2000 season.
"As good of a basketball coach as he is, he is an even better person," Terry said. "I'm just as happy as I can be for him. He's an excellent basketball coach, a tremendous motivator of the kids and if anyone deserves a milestone like that, it's A.C. I learned a great deal from A.C. I still consider him one of my best friends, not just in basketball but in life. Working with him was a lot of fun and a good experience."
McCullers has influenced many people but perhaps the greatest impact he has had has been with his former players.
Stephanie Lawrence Yelton played for McCullers at Morrow during the glory years of 1988-91 and went on to the University of North Carolina.
Now, Yelton is the women's head basketball coach at Charleston Southern, a Division I program in the Big South Conference.
"Coach McCullers is one of the most outstanding coaches in this profession," she said. "He is knowledgeable, intense and honest when it comes to his basketball team. He finds a way to motivate even the laziest player and makes the team believe they can win. Coach McCullers does it the 'old school' way. In a day when treating any athlete as a celebrity is common, he treats athletes for what they are -- athletes. He pushes the competitive buttons in a no-frills kind of way."
Yelton credits McCullers with helping her become a successful player and coach.
"It has been a while since I played for Coach McCullers and I don't see him that often, but when I do, there is always an unspoken gratitude that he and I share," she said. "He helped mold me into a good player and in return, he became a great coach. That is how he feels toward all his players, not just the great ones."
Some other former players who have gone on to play in college were Lori Burroughs (Indiana), Val Davis and Marianne Upton (Georgia State), Tania Martin and Melissa Edwards (Miami), Latrecia Drake and Mary Beth Lycett (Georgia), Dawn Smith (Georgia Tech), Shelli Novotny (Mississippi State/Georgia Tech), Felicia Bryant (Hampton), Jaye Barnes (Kentucky) and Nicia Puckett (Valdosta State/Clayton State).
"Just look at all the girls he's coached who have gone to college -- that's what it's all about," Morrow athletic director Tom Van Tone said.