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Much more than just a coach
Wins and titles hardly tell the whole Billy Ammons story
whistle
BILLY AMMONS WON state titles as a player and as a coach at CHS. - photo by C-I file photo

Call to the Hall

 

 

On Sunday in North Charleston, retired Camden High School head football coach Billy Ammons will be inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Here are some of the athletic career milestones of the winningest football coach in CHS history:

 

• Camden High School graduate - class of 1965

• Head football coach at Camden High School from 1971 through 1997. Retired to enter into academic administration at the school

• In 2016, was part of the inaugural Hall of Fame class for his contributions toward his high school alma mater

• In 2015, Ammons was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Directors Hall of Fame

• Was assistant at Camden High under his high school head coach, Red Lynch, from 1969-71 before being elevated to head coach in July of 1972

• Winningest head coach in the 120-year history of Camden High School football with a 178-119 record

• Led the Bulldogs to the AAA state championship and a 15-0 record. The 1990 team was named Sweet 16 champions by The Charlotte Observer 

• Head coach of the victorious 1994 South Carolina Shrine Bowl team

• Head coach of the victorious North All-Star team in the 1985 North-South All-Star Game

• Among the players he coached at CHS were Bobby Engram (’91) who was a 1990 Parade and USA Today All-American after having been selected as the South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year and the state player of the year by the Associated Press. He was the inaugural recipient of the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top collegiate wide receiver, following his junior campaign at Penn State. A 14-year NFL veteran, Engram is in his third year as wide receivers coach with the Baltimore Ravens; Shawn Elliott (’91) was a North-South All-Star defensive end who would earn All-Southern Conference honors at Appalachian state before going into the coaching profession. Now entering his seventh season as the offensive line coach at South Carolina, Elliott served as the Gamecocks’ interim head coach following the resignation of Steve Spurrier in 2015; Vonnie Holliday (’94) was a Shrine Bowl defensive end who signed with and played at the University of North Carolina before enjoying a 15-year NFL career. A first round selection by the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 NFL Draft, Holliday was the 1998 NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year; Kenny Carter (’86) is the head football coach at Delaware State University after a playing career at The Citadel. Was an assistant coach on Urban Meyer’s staff on the University of Florida’s 2008 national championship squad; Jimmy Neal (’74) is entering his 19th year as Ammons’ successor as the head football coach and athletic director at Camden High School and has 129 wins on the Bulldogs sideline. A former lineman at Furman University, Neal was the Paladins’ defebnsive line coach for the school’s 1987 NCAA Division I national championship squad.

• As a player at Camden High, Ammons quarterbacked the Bulldogs to the 1964 AAA state championship and was part of a team which went unscored upon during the regular season while allowing just six points in a 13-0 season

• In 1964, Ammons became the Camden High School football program’s first Parade All-American honoree

• Ammons would go on to play at Clemson University under head coach Frank Howard and in 1968, Ammons had six consecutive 100-yard passing games which, at the time, had only been done six times before in Tiger football history

There was never a doubt in the mind and heart of Bobby Engram that in one of the lowest times of his life, Billy Ammons would be there for him.

For Engram, the former Camden High football, Penn State and NFL standout, the sudden and tragic accident which claimed the life his father, Simon Engram, came in August of 1991 as he was preparing to play the first game of his college football career. Bobby Engram’s world came to a crashing halt when he received news of his father’s passing.

When the 1990 Parade All-American wide receiver made a hasty return from State College, Pa., to his family’s home in the St. Matthews community of Camden, he found his former high school coach and mentor waiting and asking what he could do to help the family.

A retired 14-year NFL veteran who is beginning his third season as wide receivers coach with the Baltimore Ravens, Engram said he knew at a time like this he could count on Ammons to help him get through such a difficult time in his teenage life.

Engram said it was the toughest period he has even gone through in his life. The one person he knew he could count on --- outside of his family --- was Ammons. On this particular day, his old high school coach became much more than someone who drew up plays in order to get the football to him the previous four autumns.

“When my father passed away,” said the 1991 Camden High graduate, “I can still remember, vividly, Coach Ammons coming down to the house. We sat, we talked and he took a walk with me in my backyard and he gave me some very strong words of comfort. He let me see another side of him; he let me see the heart of a man who really cared about me as a person and not just a player.

“From that point on, I’m always calling and have kept in touch with Coach Ammons and let him know how much I appreciated those words as well as everything he has done in my football career.”

Sunday night, Billy Ammons will be inducted into his third hall of fame in a calendar year when he will be part of a seven-person class which will be enshrined into the South Carolina Athletic Coaches (SCACA) Hall of Fame. The 7 p.m. ceremony will take place inside the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston as part of the 2016 SCACA All-Sports Clinic.

When inducted, Ammons will become the third former Camden head coach to join the SCACA Hall of Fame along with former Bulldogs’ head football and baseball coach Lindsay Pierce (1994) and CHS girls’ basketball head coach Hulan “Pop” Small (2001). Ammons will also join fellow Camden High graduate Barbara Wilkes, a 1999 SCACA inductee, who was a standout athlete at CHS before going on to become the head volleyball and girls’ track coach and athletic director at North Central High School.

For Ammons, Sunday night will honor his school-record 178 victories at his alma mater which included the magical 1990 campaign in which he guided the Bulldogs to a 15-0 record and to the AAA state championship. It was part of a 25-year gead coaching career in which pure numbers tell just a smart portion of the story and of a man whose influence is still being felt in Camden and beyond.

Never one to enjoy being in the spotlight, Billy Ammons said being part of the inaugural Hall of Fame class at Camden High School --- a class feted in May --- which came on the heels of his being inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Directors Association Hall of Fame last summer, is the honor of which means the most to him. When he receives his plaque on Sunday, he said he will accept in on behalf of a town, a high school and a football program which he loves.

“I think it’s special,” he said while sitting at the dining room table of his Lake Wateree residence which he and his wife Lynn have called home since 2006. “Being a football coach and all the coaching staffs we’ve had over the years and all the hard work we put into it, it’s our program being recognized; that’s what it means to me. It’s not something I did. It’s something we, as coaches, did as far as our overall success over the years.”

Humble to a fault, the former Parade All-American quarterback who helped lead Camden’s ’64 team to the AA state title, Billy Ammons was not a coach who made it a habit of getting in a players face after he made a mistake. Neither was he a “rah-rah” guy when it came to his pre-game talks. He was hardly the taskmaster which his former coach at CHS, Red Lynch, was during his tenure.

Tales are still told in Camden about the tough as nails Lynch and his pre-season camps in North Carolina. Many of the players from those teams compare what they went through to what Texas A&M players endured under Bear Bryant when “The Junction Boys” were bused to the dusty plains of Texas for several days of grueling practices in preparation for the coming season.

Ammons, who succeeded Lynch as head coach at their alma mater, said he never tried to be the same type of head coach as was his former boss.

“I was a lot more laid-back than Coach Lynch. That wasn’t in me,” Ammons said with a smile of his mild-mannered style on the sidelines and in practice. “Coach Lynch was hard-nosed and all that type of stuff. His personality and my personality were different.

“I could say that over the years, with the assistants that I had, there were plenty of hard-nosed coaches. So, I could be the guy who could pat our guys on the back and be on their side a little bit when one of the position coaches was really getting on somebody.”

Shawn Elliott was a standout senior defensive end on Camden’s 1990 squad before signing with Appalachian State. Today, he is the seventh-year offensive line coach at the University of South Carolina after having served as the Gamecocks’ interim head coach last fall following the resignation of Steve Spurrier.

Elliott credits his high school coach with helping develop him not only as a coach but also as a person. He laughed when asked if he had ever seen Ammons blow off steam at his players.

“Coach Ammons always had an even-keel demeanor. He was always business-like,” Elliott said. “But I will always remember just one particular time … We were playing a scrimmage at West Florence and he really got after it. It was really a shocking moment because he had never really raised his voice at us.

“I remember some strong words which he threw at us that day which drew all of our attention. But his focus, his demeanor and the way he carried himself was the way it was going to be; he wasn’t going to change and I respected that.”

 

In an era when coaches are sometimes portrayed as wild-eyed and maybe, foul-mouthed men who let their emotions get the best of them on game nights, Billy Ammons was a picture of calmness on the sideline. Almost never wearing a headset, Lynch would say that Ammons was always in control and was thinking “one play ahead” of everyone else.

Even though Ammons was a Camden graduate who returned home to join Lynch’s coaching staff following his playing for and graduating from Clemson, he was not immune to the criticism which comes a head coach’s way in a town steeped in football lore. 

In Ammons’ first year, in 1972, the Bulldogs went 3-7. A 1-8-1 and a 2-9 campaign followed. Grumblings were heard throughout Camden as Ammons looked for answers. He found them after being given the reins to hire his own staff. With his own guys in place, the 1975 Dogs crafted a 9-2 campaign and things were rolling.

“I went a couple years there where we had the coaches who existed there and we weren’t able to bring in anybody,” Ammons said of his early years as a head coach which came after three seasons as Lynch’s assistant. “When I got the chance to make the hires and bring in Reggie (Dean), Jim Fox and later, Carl Startsman, and I was able to put together a coaching staff, I felt like it was more like my program.”

With his hand-picked coaches on board, which would later include his former players Jeff Jordan and Dennis Reeder along with longtime friend and assistant coach Guy Eckenroth, among others, Camden became a force in the 4A state ranks. There was, however, always somebody in the Dogs’ way in the post-season. In 1980 and 1981, it was Summerville which ended Camden’s season in the second round of the state playoffs. In 1983, Walterboro handed CHS its first loss of the year in a crushing 19-13 loss in round two.

When Camden dropped into the AAA ranks, a second round, 13-7 loss to Daniel in 1988 was followed by a 17-14 setback at the hands of Seneca in the second round of the playoffs. That 1989 squad had large and experienced lines on both sides of the ball along with a young group of talented skill players like Engram and Kerry Hayes at wide receiver and Andre Carter at quarterback.

Still, there was a part of Ammons which thought his best chance at winning a state title as a head coach went by the boards that bitter-cold evening in Seneca.

“Against Seneca,” he said, “we thought we could win that game. Of course, we lost it there at the end, though. We thought, ‘Oh, boy. We were so close but we just could not get there.’ But we were also thinking that we still had Andre Carter, Kerry Hayes and Bobby Engram … all these guys coming back and that we could be pretty good.”

Using a quick-strike offense along with a defense which swarmed to the ball, Camden won the 1990 AAA title. 

In their final six games, the defense pitched two shutouts and no opponent scored more than seven points in a game while the CHS offense averaged better than 27 points in those contests with the final four coming in the playoffs. The capper came in a 13-3 victory over Hilton Head at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“We just had the right blend of coaches and players,” Ammons said in looking back at the 1990 team. “May, having come close (in 1989) made them work that much harder that next year. I think that may have gone into it.”

When he decided to retire following the 1997 season, Ammons did it on his own terms. The reason for his decison was familial rather than health or, being burned out by coaching. 

At the time, Billy and Lynn’s youngest child Leigh, a three-sport standout at CHS signed to play basketball at Francis Marion University. Her parents did not want to miss out on being there for her collegiate career. That would not be possible, Ammons said, if he remained as head football coach and athletic director.

“We thought that would be a good time,” he said of his decision to retire. “I never went in a season thinking ‘this could be it’ or anything like that. We wanted to be a part of Leigh’s college experience with sports and other things. It was the right time.”

Ammons said he never gave thought to taking another job even when things were tough in his first three seasons.

“I didn’t really set a time table,” he said of his decision to retire as a head coach and athletic director. “There wasn’t a job anywhere else that I wanted to go to. I didn’t want to pull up and leave Camden; having gone to the high school and then, coming back home to coach. It would be a matter of how long I wanted to coach.”

 

While the fans may remember the wins and, sometimes, the losses, the players remember Ammons for what he meant to them not just on the field but off it. Many keep in contact with him to this day.

Camden players were never embarrassed or, dressed down by Billy Ammons. It was a far cry from what head coaches were portrayed as back in the rough and tumble days of the sport. In that respect, Ammons was a breath of fresh air in the profession. 

What his former players, almost to a man, will say is that Billy Ammons treated them with respect and never made them feel bad about themselves while always looking to put a positive spin on things with his level-headedness and his strong sense of humor. He was a role model which his players could follow.

“Coach Ammons set the stage for exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Elliott said. “He had a huge impact on me as a student-athlete at Camden High School. Just watching him, his demeanor, the success he had and how he managed a team and how he pulled us all together really intrigued me.

“I have the utmost respect for Coach Ammons; always have and always will. His is one of the most influential men in my life.”

While not in the same room as his former teammate, Engram echoed Elliott’s thoughts.

“First off,” Engram said, “Coach Ammons is a special man and he has been in my life for a very long time. I have a lot of respect for him and the man that he is; the family man that he is and then, the coach and the type of leader that he was. He was responsible for us having a lot of wins and a lot of success there as an athletic program.

“Off the field, I got to know Coach Ammons through driver’s ed and just dropping by his office. To me, as good of a football coach as he was, he is even more of a quality man and a quality person.”

His relationship with his former players and former students hit home last December when Angie Ammons Caymol lost her youngest son, Drew, in an automobile accident near the family’s Georgia home. The wreck led to days and weeks of rehabilitation for her husband, Teo, and oldest son, Matt, who were injured in the wreck.

In the hours, days and weeks following the tragic accident, Ammons’ phone was constantly buzzing with calls or texts from former players. He said those calls helped him get through an unspeakably hard time for his family.

“In fact,” he said when asked of the relationship between his former players and himself, “I was thinking about what I would say (at Sunday’s ceremony.) That’s the most important thing. I know that when we went through this tragedy recently that I heard from player after player after player. That probably means more to me …”

Some of the players’ strength which they have comes directly from Ammons who never questioned why such a thing happened. The Rev. Bruce Hancock, pastor at First Baptist Church in Camden, of which the Ammons family are members, said it takes a special person whose faith does not waver when times are tough.

 “Billy is a strong witness for Christ. He is an unashamed witness for Christ,” said Rev. Hancock. “He’s a wonderful role model for people and is a wonderful friend to his peers. Anyone who is going through any kind of difficulty, Billy is a powerful example of trusting the Lord and being faithful to the Lord in the face of adversity. 

“He and Lynn have been an inspiration in the way in which they dealt with the tragedy which occurred in their family in the last few months. He handled that in a way that shows how much he trusts the Lord and how much he depends on the Lord to sustain him in a time like he’s been through.”

 

In the 19 years since his last game as head coach, very little --- if anything --- has changed when it comes to Billy Ammons the man.

Those who know him see someone who does not possess the same worries he had as a coach when Friday night would roll around. For those who have gotten to know Ammons more recently, they see someone whose faith has kept him grounded and who wears his faith on his sleeve. 

 “I did not know Billy before I came here as pastor,” said the Rev. Hancock, “but I have discovered that he is one of the finest Christian men I have ever known. He’s a man of impeccable character. He’s a man of genuine humility. He has unquestionable integrity.

“He’s a soft-spoken man but when he speaks, people listen because what he says has substance and it has a great deal of meaning.”

Ammons does not shy away from spreading the news of the Gospel. That includes his frequent visits with First Baptist’s Church Mission Team to Machachi, Ecuador, a town which First Baptist Church has adopted and where its members return to several times a year in order to spread the good news to it citizens. “I’ve enjoyed that,” Ammons said. “(Being retired) I can leave for 10 days and do that.”

As part of the local team, Ammons is part of a group which prepares for several weeks before heading to the South American country. Once there, most of the work involves working with the schools, with school officials and talking with school children and businessmen in the community. “Just getting to know the people and sharing the Gospel with them,” Rev. Hancock said of the missionary experience.

“I never thought much about it,” Ammons said of his getting involved in what have become his regular mission journeys to Ecuador. “We have a lot of close ties and developed relationships over there. There’s a beautiful park in the middle of town there and sometimes, we’ll just go there and do ‘park evangelism’ where we sit outside and talk with the people and invite them to the services and things like that.”

For Rev. Hancock, there is no better ambassador for First Baptist than Billy Ammons whether it by in Ecuador or, in Kershaw County.

“Billy is one of those fellas that you can depend on,” he said. “He’s here on a consistent basis. He’s actively involved in the life of our church. He’s been a deacon, he has helped build Habitat for Humanity houses and he has gone on a number of mission trips. He gives of himself for the benefit of others.

“He’s a caring, compassionate man. He loves people and he loves the Lord. Our church is blessed to have Billy Ammons as a part of our congregation and personally, I am blessed to have him as one or my church members and as one of my friends.”

 

These days, Billy and Lynn Ammons are enjoying a full and active retirement on the banks of Lake Wateree. The house will fill up when their four grown children --- Angie, Will, Aimee and Leigh --- show up with their families, including the grandchildren at various times of the year.

In just 10 years, he has seen his neighborhood grow from a smattering of summer homes to having year ‘round neighbors. “We enjoy being here on the lake,” he said of his life in a place which has become home.

The former coach still makes his way to Camden High football games with his good friend and former Bulldog kicking coach, Bob Sheheen. Not coaching has also allowed Ammons to become a regular at Clemson football games on Saturday in Death Valley as well as attending select road games with family and friends. That was something he could not do when he was putting together a game plan for Friday night as a head coach.

“Now,” he said of being able to see his beloved Tigers in person on Saturdays with his family, “we do the season tickets and go the games. You can keep up with things on all kinds of media; we’ve enjoyed that.

“You know how people will say that they want to go back to their college town when they retire. It always comes up ... we bring it up and hash it out … but Camden would be a hard place to leave.”

Not to mention less rich without  having Billy Ammons around.