One of the sensations of the last two seasons of college basketball has been Mac McClung of Georgetown. He has been an internet star from his high school days because of his spectacular behind-the-head dunks (which 6-2 white kids don’t normally do). He also played high school ball at Gate City, VA, whose population in the 2010 census was 2040 - somewhat smaller than Charleston. In other words, he is a small-town kid who has made good on the big stage.
We have had some basketball legends of our own in the River Valley. The population of Branch in 1950 was 308, making it considerably smaller than Gate City. Branch and Ratcliff consolidated for the 1951 school year. The starting center (at 6-3) on that first County Line team was EC O’Neal. (According to his daughter, Susan, there were no periods after the initials, as they did not stand for names. Friends and family would come to call him “Doc” in later years.)
Virginia Fields’ brother, Bill Rutledge, was a starter on the team with O’Neal. She recalls that they actually played their games at Branch that first year because the County Line facility was not completed. In addition to playing ball, O’Neal was Class President and Valedictorian.
O’Neal was a three-time All-District selection and his high school teams had a combined record of 95-9. Since that averages to a record of 32-3 over the three years, we can assume that Branch/County Line was one of the dominant small schools in the state during that period.
O’Neal moved on to a storied career at Arkansas Tech under legendary coach Sam Hindsman. He was the school’s first ever two-time All-American. During his four-year career, Tech had an overall record of 106-14 and 65-1 in conference games. They won four consecutive AIC titles and went to the NAIA Final Four in 1954 and 1955. O’Neal was the tournament’s leading scorer in 1954.
Over 60 years after the end of his career, O’Neal remains the third-leading scorer in Tech history. He also owns the second-highest single-season scoring average (27.6 ppg) and the fifth-highest career scoring average (18.5). He accomplished this while rarely playing more than 20 minutes per game as part of Hindsman’s platoon system.
I remember vividly O’Neal’s seven years as the basketball coach at Booneville. One of the most anticipated events after each season was the game between the teachers and the seniors. As long as Coach O’Neal was on the staff, it was brutal. When a bunch of high school kids are playing against an All-American, it is just not quite fair. To say he dominated the lane would be a huge understatement.
EC O’Neal became Dr. O’Neal after getting his Ed.D. from the University of Arkansas in 1968. He taught for thirty years at Mississippi State, finally retiring in 1998 as a full professor. He is in three Halls of Fame – Tech, Arkansas Sports, and NAIA.
O’Neal kept an active hand in sports even after his retirement from coaching. He was an official for football and basketball games at different levels for more than forty years. He was the Mississippi Official of the Year in 1984. John Strom told me that Dr. O’Neal operated the clock at the Mississippi State games until near the end of his life.
Schools do not get much smaller than Branch, and the college basketball stage does not get any bigger than Final Fours. EC O’Neal played in both places. He fully qualified as a Very Small Town Player who made good. And I am proud to say that I saw him play in person, even if only in student-faculty games.