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Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The sport of basketball in Alabama is losing one of its institutions.

Eugene Mason, head boys’ basketball coach at Uniontown’s Robert C. Hatch High School, is stepping down after 42 years of coaching success. Mason guided seven different Hatch basketball teams to state championships, more than any other coach at any level in state basketball history. Mason’s teams have claimed the title in an amazing four different decades.

As remarkable as his player’s performance has been on the court, it’s his impact off the court that makes his departure tough, says Hatch principal Leslie Ford.

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“He’s just a walking body of knowledge,” she says. “He makes the kids aware that everything you do affects who you are…he teaches them responsibility. He’s been very dedicated to the school and he’ll be highly missed.”

Mason says that it’s been easy to be good at his job when he’s liked it so much.

“I enjoy working with kids, working with children,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

That passion helped Mason have fun with his work, but it’s also helped make him one of the most successful hoops coaches in basketball history.

“Being able to motivate kids up to their potential,” he says, when asked for the biggest key to his success. “I start off by getting him to love what he’s doing. Otherwise he’s not going to do it well. That’s the basic key to it. The enthusiasm I had, because I love what I’m doing…I think that kind of rubbed off on the kids.”

Mason admits that not every player can be approached the same way. Part of how he’s stayed on top for so long, he says, is a willingness to fine-tune his coaching methods for players that don’t always have a lot in common with the ones he coached in the ’60s.

“It’s a different time, a different day,” he says. “Children have changed. They’re exposed to so many things now. So you have to change with the times. The kids change, so I have to change. You have to adapt. I can’t do the same things I used to do, so I’ve made some adjustments.”

Those adjustments mean that Mason’s first title, in 1978, wasn’t his last. Neither were his titles in ’85, ’87, ’94, ’95, or 2003. And his 2004 title might not have been his final one if an unfortunate injury suffered mid-season by one player hadn’t hurt the chances of his 2005 team, which entered the playoffs ranked second in the state.

Mason says that he doesn’t consider any of his seven title teams the greatest, or his personal favorite.

“I’ve had some outstanding young men on all of them,” he says. “I don’t see any team really standing out. They all had to be good in order to be champions.”

Even some of the players who didn’t win a title at Hatch have been pretty darn good. Take Erwin Dudley, the Hatch graduate who went on to become the SEC’s Player of the Year at the University of Alabama. That he didn’t quite manage to get over the hump with Dudley is more evidence, Mason says, that guard play is the biggest on-floor key to victory.

“You have to have guards. They’re the QBs,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to have some good guards while I’ve been here.”

The success brought on by that guard play might have led other coaches to start angling for a better-paying job at a larger school, but Mason says he’s never considered leaving Hatch.

“I never wanted to go anywhere else,” he says. “I’ve been happy here. I’ve enjoyed my tenure.”

Another idea Mason given the first thought to, despite the disappointment of his team’s loss to Altamont in the early going of the 2005 playoffs, is returning for a 43rd season.

“Never. We had a wonderful season,” he says. “You know, you can only go so long, and only do so much. It’s time for me to spend some time with my family.”

That lucky family includes Mason’s wife, Priscilla, and their two children, Kevin and Valerie. Mason says that without their encouragement, he never would have become the coach he is.

“I couldn’t have done it without Priscilla,” he says. “She’s been right there by my side. Her and my children have supported me 110 percent. You have to have that support or you’re not going to do well. You’re not going to do anything.”

Mason says he’s especially thankful for Priscilla’s “putting up with” the many long hours spent in the Hatch gymnasium. Those are hours, he says, that he can’t wait to spend at home from now on.

“That’s one of the downfalls of coaching. You have to put in the time. You don’t get any more out of it than what what you put into it. I’ve put a lot of time in,” he says, and grins for a moment. “But now it’s time to start putting it somewhere else.”