“I came with the intention of going to Lee College for two years, then transferring to the University of Georgia or Valdosta State to finish getting my degree to become a history teacher,” the South Georgia native explained.
Almost a half century later, Rowan is still teaching history but he never left Bradley County to do so.
While fulfilling his calling to teach, Rowan became an iconic figure on the local sports scene — helping to start the area’s first tee-ball leagues, assisting on the construction of the Cleveland Community Center, starting the Lee baseball program, plus serving as head basketball coach at East Cleveland Elementary, Lee and Bradley Central High School among his numerous contributions to the county.
He is also regarded as one of the foremost historians on local athletics, especially when it comes to his beloved Bears and Bearettes.
Raised on a family farm outside Nashville, Ga., Rowan played baseball while attending Berrien County High School, but it wasn’t sports that brought him to Cleveland.
“I grew up in the Church of God. My dad was one of the leaders at the Nashville church. When I was a teenager, my pastor and his wife, Floyd and Winnie Carey, were big Lee College supporters and insisted I consider coming here for school,” Rowan related.
“When I got here, I worked with coach Hubert Black and the Viking basketball team. That’s where I met Dale Hughes and became the best of friends with him,” he added.
“After my sophomore year, I was going to leave, but Dale had just graduated and became the Lee head coach. He asked me to stay and help him,” explained Rowan.
He agreed and while finishing his final two years as a Lee student, Rowan served as the school’s director of intramural sports, as well as coached the Lee Academy (high school) basketball team, while also serving as Hughes’ athletic assistant with the Vikings sports program.
“I thought I was a big shot, coaching the high school team against schools like Charleston, Copper Basin and others in the area,” Rowan said with a laugh. Little did he know that was just the beginning of a long, respected run as a coach in the area.
Graduating from Lee in 1966 with a degree in Christian education, Rowan was hired to teach and coach basketball at East Cleveland Elementary School.
“When I interviewed with Superintendent Grace Carroll, she asked me if I knew where East Cleveland was and I said no,” he related. “Of course it turned out to be just a few blocks away from Lee.”
When he went to see Principal Pauline Taylor, he found out that not only would he be teaching every subject (not just history) to the school’s eighth-graders, but an even bigger surprise awaited him.
“While we were in the interview I got excited and asked to see the gym (where’d he be coaching basketball) and that’s when ‘Miss Polly’ told me the school didn’t have a gym, but ‘had one of the best blacktops (an outdoor court) in the state.’”
“I’d told her I’d been in Tennessee long enough to know it got cold in the winter, so how were we going to practice and play our games? She said, we’d practice in September and October and then just have fun and play the games, but not practice in the winter.
“When I told her we needed to practice more than that, she said well, maybe Mr. (Sam) Ledford would let me use the Michigan Avenue gym one night a week after he was through practicing his team,’” Rowan related.
The young, exuberant coach not only worked out a deal to use Michigan Avenue, but North Lee, Black Fox and Hopewell’s gyms, as well as Lee’s facilities, to get in the needed practice.
“That first year I had a ’66 Mustang and one parent had a station wagon. We’d pile four or five kids in the back seat of that Mustang, plus two or three in the trunk to take them down Benton Pike to Michigan Avenue to practice,” remarked Rowan.
The second year the principal obtained some funds and bought a used van for Rowan to transport the team.
Coaching at East Cleveland for eight years, Rowan’s squads went 126-30, finishing third in the county the first season, then winning five county championships and finishing second twice. “We qualified to the East Tennessee Elementary Tournament every year I was there,” he commented.
In 1974, Hughes called wanting him to come back to Lee to start a baseball program and help with the basketball team.
“It was a part-time position, but that next summer (1975), Dale left to become the principal at Bradley. They called me in and offered me the full-time job as head of the athletic department,” Rowan explained. At the time the school had seven varsity sports including men’s and women’s basketball and tennis teams, plus men’s soccer and cross country, as well as the newly formed baseball squad.
“Dale had won a couple of national championships in 1968 and ’73. The school was a fixture in the National Christian College Athletic Association, plus we were playing in the NAIA District 24, so he had built a very strong program.”
Rowan maintained the school’s basketball prowess for seven years, taking the Vikings to four more NCCAA national tournaments, including a trio of third place finishes and playing in the 1979 national championship game.
“We played Liberty Baptist University for the title and the Rev. Jerry Falwell flew in from Lynchburg (Va.), for the game,” recalled Rowan.
During his tenure, the Vikings also made four trips to California and Mexico. It was during the last one, in January 1981, that Rowan had one of his most famous experiences.
“We were going to play at Point Loma College in San Diego, but we flew into Los Angeles and spent a couple of days sightseeing before heading to the tournament,” he explained. “We had gotten tickets to ‘The Price is Right’ [TV game show] and, low and behold, I got called down to play the games. “
The Lee coach not only won his way on stage to meet Bob Barker, but went on to win the “Showcase Showdown.”
“I won a couple of Catnapper recliners and a grandfather clock in the first game. Then in the showcase, I got a full dining room suite, with a wine credenza, plus a big screen TV. It was good, practical stuff but the other showcase had a trip and a new car,” laughed Rowan, who was still a bachelor at the time.
“The Price is Right” is currently making plans for some special 40th anniversary shows, where they hope to bring back previous winners. “I don’t know if I’ll get chosen for that, but I’d like to,” Rowan remarked.
While overseeing the Lee program, Rowan also earned his master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University.
During six of Rowan’s seven years with the Vikings, current Lee athletic director Larry Carpenter served as his assistant coach. Rowan compiled a record of 123-96 while coaching the Viking hoops squad.
In 1982, his old friend, Dale Hughes, called again.
“Stevie Williams resigned as the head coach at Bradley. I felt like my time at Lee was done and they needed to head in a new direction,” Rowan assessed. “The chance to coach the Bears was something I never really dreamed about, but when the opportunity arose, I jumped at it.”
Not only had the head coaching position opposite of legendary Bearette coach Jim Smiddy become available, but with the coinciding retirement of longtime Bradley teacher Elsie Arrants, a spot in the school’s social studies department was open as well.
“I was not only able to teach history, like I’d always wanted, but with Stevie’s PE (Physical Education) slot available as well, I was able to bring Paul Cretton over as well as my assistant coach. Paul had played for me at Lee.”
The pair led the Bears for 11 years before Cretton took over the Bearette program when Smiddy retired. Rowan continued three more seasons with current BCHS assistant principal Greg Geren as his assistant.
“Coach Smiddy and I became real good friends. We did a lot of traveling together,” expressed Rowan. “He was a joy to be around. I had the benefit of knowing him from when I was at East Cleveland and Lee. I knew what a great program he had and considered it an honor to coach with him.”
Also serving as Bradley’s cross country coach for five years, Rowan directed his Bear hoops squads (1982-96) to a 281-148 overall record, with numerous district titles, but made the substate just twice and never made it to a TSSAA state tournament.
“That’s the biggest disappointment of my coaching career,” he confessed. “We kept running into Brainerd in the regionals and they were very good during that time.”
In 29 years on local benches, Rowan’s teams went 530-274, winning 24 district, region or league championships.
“When I got involved in coaching here it was challenging and fun,” Rowan expressed. “I immediately saw that I could make a career out of it.”
“I didn’t come to Lee to get involved in coaching but really had ambitions of teaching U.S. history. Before I knew it 30 years had passed and I was getting to do both.”
“As my career evolved, I realized it was a great way to touch hundreds of lives and the Lord just kept opening opportunities up for me,” he summarized.
“There’s a special bond between a young person and their athletic coaches that’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it.”
“Billy Graham once said ‘A coach has much more influence on a young person than ministers do,’” Rowan remarked. “There’s nothing quite like that relationship.”
Although he hung up his whistle more than 15 years ago, Rowan is providing leadership to the Bradley Central students in the classroom as well as being one of the biggest supporters of the athletes and coaches with encouragement and the benefit of his many years of wisdom gained on the local hardwood.