For four seasons Suwannee High basketball had the experience and the basketball know-how of a special coach, Don Atherton. Atherton coached the Bulldogs from the 94-95 season to the 97-98 season. During that time, Suwannee took the district championship and two district runner-ups, the basketball booster club numbered over 100 and from 60-70 kids came to basketball tryouts.
"I love the kids," Atherton said. "I think they need direction."
In Atherton's first season as coach, the Dogs were ranked 15th in the state in their class and took the District runner-up. The Dogs won the first game of the regionals but lost out in the semi-finals.
Helping Atherton in those years were Ronald Tucker as his direct assistant, Terry Brinson as the JV coach, Jamie David who kept the statistics and the books and his managers Joe Williams and James Morris. These two guys also took turns videoing the games for Atherton.
Running his booster club were some very strong officers, the late Mrs. Bernice Jones, the late Bonnie Brown senior, Mrs. Sonja Riley and Mrs. Cora Owens.
In his second year, the Dogs won the district, won in the quarter-finals but lost in the semi-finals.
"We only had one losing season out of the four I coached," Atherton said.
Atherton is 6'9" and has loved and played basketball all his life. He played as a forward at Cedarville University in Ohio where he attended college. He said he was recruited by over 70 schools but wanted to go to a Christian University.
After college, Atherton played as a pro in Australia for two years then moved on to play for the New York Nationals. This was the team that eternally lost to the Harlem Globe Trotters in 1974-75.
"We lost 350 straight games to the Globe Trotters," Atherton said. "We came close to winning a couple of times, but we always knew how it would come out in the end. It's a show."
Atherton had several great Suwannee athletes play for him. Andra Davis, presently a defensive back for the NFL Cleveland Browns, played all four years for Atherton.
"At one time, Andra wanted to quit football and just play basketball," Atherton said.
Andra's mother had assistant coach Tucker speak to Andra about staying with football.
Larod Fleming, Thaddeus Bullard, Antwon Jones, Maurice Waters, Willie Gardner, Travis Calhoun, Matthew Cupp, Leonard McGee, Kevin Clark, Michael Loston and Ryan Wheeler all played for Atherton and are all players he remembers with a great deal of affection. On the last year Atherton coached, Kyler Hall, Jarvis Herring and Kelly Jennings, all Division I football players at this time, were on the JV team.
Coach Atherton wanted to remember as many of his great players as possible. He also coached Bonnie Brown, Jr., Chris Jones, Derron Warren, Leslie McDaniel, Jason Jackson, Cassius Baker, Sherman Wells, Chad Renfroe, Lee Weaver, Elvin Warren, Leroy Smith, Daryl Clark, Mario Jemison, Kenny Hankerson, Jimmy Cherry, Jr., Reggie Bevels and J.J. Gracey.
Atherton is a physical education instructor for Suwannee County's little kids, kindergarten through second grade, at Suwannee Primary School. He believes the almost 15 years he has spent teaching small children has taught him patience.
"Teaching little kids, I've had to be patient. It's helped me with coaching," Atherton said.
Atherton's program was tough, but the kids excelled,.
"We'd meet at the track for pre-season conditioning, Plyometrics and running," Atherton said. "For four days a week, we'd train on the track for endurance. If the kids came back after that, it showed me they were ready to make a commitment. It was a pretty rough conditioning program."
Atherton coached college level ball at Nova Southeastern in Ft. Lauderdale and two years at Branford High School collecting almost 20 years of basketball coaching experience which he brought to Suwannee. He approached coaching Suwannee like he was coaching college ball. He used a match-up kind of defense that incorporated man-to-man defensive principals.
"Our practices were like simplified college practices," Atherton said. "You teach the same skills even at that level. You don't spend more than 10 minutes on one drill. Kids get bored after 10 minutes."
Atherton put a lot of planning into each season and each game. He planned schedules that he felt would strengthen his team.
"I would always schedule tough teams prior to the districts in the non-district slots," Atherton said. "For high school kids there has to be a challenge every game and every practice."
Atherton believed in coaching a year-round kind of program. He believed being a basketball coach meant taking on the responsibility all year.
"You don't win games during the season," Atherton said. "You win them in the off-season."
For Atherton's team that meant working out in the summer, going to summer camp and playing summer ball.
Atherton loved games that went down to the wire, games that were decided in the last few plays.
"That's when it was the most fun to coach," Atherton said.
Before each game, Atherton said he would have scouted the team they were playing at least twice. After a game, he would come home and watch the tapes.
"I'd play the tapes and find out what we needed to work on. Sometimes it was good to lose. You could learn a lot. I put a lot into it, " Atherton said.
Atherton had many kids move up to the next level. Some of his players that received football scholarships could have played Division I basketball as well. He helped several of his great players find a place in the basketball world.
Antwon Jones played for Atherton for three years. Jones was heavily recruited but ended up at TCC where he played basketball for two years then he went on to the University of Cincinnati. Jones was 6'9" and was strictly a basketball player. Jones now plays pro ball in Europe and calls Atherton when he's in town.
Atherton helped Fred Robinson and Leonard McGee find a place playing basketball in Brevard Junior College and Bonnie Brown went to St. Petersburg Junior College.
"Me and Terry (Coach Brinson) drove to Brevard and in one day got tryouts, registered and got an apartment for the boys," Atherton said.
Atherton also helped Brown get into Tusculum College in Tenn., an NCAA D-II school, after junior college.
Atherton believes in sports as a tool for teaching kids the rules of life.
"It was a great experience for those kids," Atherton said. "I know at least three kids that wouldn't have finished school if they hadn't loved sports. My wife and Melissa Brinson held study halls for them. As a coach, we are preparing these kids for life and as players we're preparing them for the next level."
Coaching wasn't always fun for Atherton. He loved the sport and still loves it.
"I'd get disappointed with the kids that had the potential but wouldn't put in the time," Atherton said. "Sometimes you put all this time into the kids and then they come up short."
Atherton's wife Marilyn was a big help in his coaching.
"She was always there to back me up," Atherton said.
Atherton lives at home on his farm in McAlpin with his wife. They attend Mt. Zion Christian Church, have lots of cats, dogs, a horse and a home in the mountains where they spend the summers. He and his wife attend the Final Four NCAA basketball finals when they can get tickets and watch college basketball on TV. And he misses coaching.
"I miss being around the kids," Atherton said. "We were a family."