TIFTON — Tift County is mourning a coaching legend this week.

Anthony Bateman, a sideline constant for generations of Blue Devils, died Saturday.

“It was a shocker,” said Tift County head football coach Ashley Anders. Bateman coached wide receivers for Anders and also was an assistant on the boys basketball team.

Former Tift County head basketball coach Tommy Blackshear described Bateman as his best friend for 35 years. The two first got to know each other in 1985 when Blackshear joined the staff of then-new head basketball coach Emmett Bowers. Bateman was a senior on that squad.

“My first point guard I ever coached in my career,” said Blackshear. He, too, described Bateman’s death as a shock. “He didn’t drink,” said Blackshear. “He didn’t smoke.”

Before Blackshear’s arrival on campus, Bateman had played varsity hoops as a sophomore and junior, two seasons that had not produced much in the way of wins. The 1985-86 season, however, was a different one. The Blue Devils finished 20-5, won the Region 1-AAAA title and advanced to their first state tournament since 1962.

Jody Patton and Emmett Smith were Tift County’s main scoring options. Bateman’s role was a quieter one. “He was our best defender,” said Blackshear. That also meant being the reliable one at the free throw line in late game situations.

Blackshear succeeded Bowers as head coach in 1988. He remembers it being around 1991 that Bateman began helping out with the team. Bateman was limited in his volunteering, however, because he had a job delivering auto parts.

In 1995, Blackshear went to the Board of Education and convinced them to put Bateman on staff.

“The best decision I ever made,” he said. “The best decision the school ever made.”

Bateman’s addition immediately paid dividends. Tift County won its first ever state basketball championship that spring. His skills were such that every coach after Blackshear retained him. Bateman was an assistant on Robert Moore’s runner-up squad in 2004. He was with Johnny Spurlin’s semifinalist team in 2007. With Eric Holland, Blackshear won two more state championship rings and he helped take Chris Wade’s Devils to the semifinals last March.

Some coaches specialize in teaching aspects of the game. Blackshear said Bateman was good at all of them. “A very, very knowledgeable guy,” he said. “Extremely versatile.”

“He knew how to motivate kids.”

Tributes came from far and wide on Twitter and Facebook.

Wade tweeted Bateman was “the most decent human being I’ve ever been around.” Camden County High school tweeted condolences, as did athletic accounts for South Cobb and Warner Robins.

“He had more positive energy than anybody I’ve ever met,” said Anders. “He cared so much about Tift County.”

“He was just an awesome coach,” said Blackshear. “I’m proud I had one of the nicest guys in the world for my best friend.”

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