Very few athletes get a chance to help build a basketball program as a player and then come back as a coach, but Enterprise basketball coach Rhett Harrelson did just that.
Harrelson is one of the most decorated basketball players in Enterprise High School history and this past season, as head coach, guided the EHS basketball team to its first ever state championship game, as well.
Harrelson grew up in the City of Progress watching the game he would one day fall in love with and dreaming about one day wearing the Wildcat blue and white.
“Growing up as a kid basketball was the one sport you could always go and work on by yourself,” Harrelson said. “I just always loved being in sports growing up and basketball was one of those things you could go out in your yard and shoot on your own goal by yourself. You didn’t have anyone else there with you. I just fell in love with it at an early age.”
Harrelson said he grew up watching games at the gym at the old Enterprise High School and couldn’t wait to be playing there himself. He, though, didn’t think it would come as soon as it did. Following Harrelson’s seventh grade season at Coppinville Junior High, Harrelson was called on by EHS head coach Albert Weeden Jr. to add some depth to the varsity team. Then, Harrelson got his chance to play but an AHSAA rule that prohibits varsity players from playing in rec league sports put a damper on that.
“I played in one game at the old high school after Christmas against Russell County in an area game,” Harrelson remembered. “I never thought I was even getting in the game. There’s a rule that you can’t play rec center ball and high school basketball and we ended up having to forfeit that area game. I didn’t get to finish playing the rest of the season because of that.”
Despite the frustration of what happened as a result of him playing in that game, it still holds a special place in Harrelson’s memories.
“One of my favorite things I’m really proud of is that I got to play at the old high school, the junior college and the new high school and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that got to play in all three of those gyms as a part of the EHS basketball team,” Harrelson said. “That’s something I’m really proud of and it’s something that is special to me. I grew up watching the high school games at the old high school, so to be able to get a chance to play there before the tornado was really special.”
Harrelson went on to become a starter on the EHS basketball team as an eighth grader and never looked back. Ultimately, his 2,322 career points ranked him as the EHS all-time leading scorer and the all-time leading scorer in Class 6A history. That point total also ranks as the 16th best in AHSAA history regardless of classification.
Harrelson also ranks as the fourth best career free throw shooter and eighth best three-point shooter in AHSAA history. He also holds school records in steals and assists and was the first seventh and eighth grader to ever play on the varsity team. EHS won four straight area championships and made the Elite 8 for only the second time in the previous 20 years during Harrelson’s high school career. He also earned all-state honors three straight years.
Harrelson was also a dual-sport athlete at EHS and the school’s football record book was also not safe from him. Harrelson left EHS with 4,683 total yards – the most in school history – and 3,392 career passing yards, which was also a school record. He also held the single-season passing record until Grant Thornton broke that mark in 2018.
Despite all of that success, the five-foot-10-inch Harrelson wasn’t highly recruited in high school for either sport. Then, following his junior season Western Carolina offered him a scholarship and he jumped on it.
“I committed really early on for basketball,” Harrelson remembered. “I went up there on a visit and really fell in love with it and they were the first ones to believe in me and take a chance on me.
“That sort of stopped my recruitment but I was never really highly recruited or sought after for basketball or football.
“I always wanted to play basketball in college, that was something I wanted to do and I was blessed that Western Carolina took a chance on me.”
After being a starting guard from a very early age, college was a big adjustment for Harrelson.
“I went in as a freshman having played varsity as a seventh grader and from my eighth grade year on I played most of the game every game we played,” Harrelson said. “So, you talk about an adjustment for me. It was really tough on me to go from that to playing spot minutes here and there.
“I was playing behind (WCU third-leading scorer of all-time) Trey Sumler. He made me so much better, he was just an unbelievable player but as a freshman I didn’t play much and as a sophomore I just played spot minutes here and there. Something that sticks out as a big step for me going into my junior year happened during the SoCon Tournament against Elon my sophomore year. Trey was having a tough game, really wasn’t playing well, and coach threw me in there with us down. I hit back-to-back threes and got a steal and a layup (to lead the comeback) and that was a big point for me to kind of say that I belong here and can play here.”
Harrelson would go on to finish his WCU career as the school’s starting point guard as a junior and senior averaging 12 points in both those seasons. After the season, he decided to pursue his coaching goals rather than chase his dreams as a professional player.
“I had always said that I would love to be able to continue to try and play as long as my body would allow me to and had an opportunity to,” Harrelson said. “Being a little guy like me amongst all those humongous guys in college, day in and day out in practice I got beat up a lot. I tore my meniscus partially my junior year going into my senior year and it gave me problems my senior year.
“The last two months of my senior year was really tough on me and I didn’t want to take any time off to risk having surgery. I knew I always wanted to coach and I didn’t have anyone contacting me to play overseas anyway, and it was unrealistic for me to play in the NBA or G-League.”
Weeden, Harrelson’s high school coach, put him in touch with VCU coach Will Wade – who is now the coach at LSU – and Wade brought him on as a graduate assistant there.
“It was really, really good for me being on the other side of things in terms of seeing the day-to-day operation and the amount of detail that goes into practice plans and travel and managing 18-and 19-year old kids,” Harrelson said. “That side for me was really, really eye opening coming from being a player where you’re catered to a little bit. It was a growing experience for me to see I could have done things better or approached things differently as a player.”
Harrelson said being at VCU during a time when the school was one of the top basketball programs in the country was exciting.
“That experience, with all of that great basketball tradition and history, was really special,” he said. “A bunch of guys and coaches that worked their butts off day in and day out. That’s why we were able to make it to the NCAA Tournament that year. That was a huge, huge experience for me to understand the way things were like on the other side of the game.”
While Harrelson was enjoying his time as a grad assistant at VCU, Enterprise was in the process of searching for a new head coach.
“I never really thought about it,” Harrelson said of the open EHS job. “It was in the back of my mind that it would be awesome to be able to come back home and coach but at the time I had always thought I would pursue the college game. I never planned to pursue (the EHS job).”
Then, Matt Rodgers – who was the principal at EHS at the time – contacted Harrelson about the job.
“Matt Rodgers was the principal here and he called me and talked to me and I told him I had never really thought about it but I was absolutely interested,” Harrelson happily remembers. “We stayed in touch over the next 2-4 weeks and finally set up an interview and I came down and they eventually offered me the job. Now, five years later I am enjoying it like crazy and loving every bit of it and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else than where I am right now.”
Rodgers – who is the current president at Enterprise State Community College – said he was looking for a winner to turn around the EHS basketball program.
“I’m a former coach and I wanted our programs to be successful and compete on a high level,” Rodgers said. “We had taken steps in just about every other program and I felt like we were at a crossroads in basketball.
“We had a beautiful facility at EHS and a large school with a lot of opportunities, so I wanted a winner. I felt like it would take a winner to turn our program into what we wanted it to be, which is a championship caliber program and all of that came to fruition back in February.”
The school had not won an area championship since Harrelson’s senior year and had compiled a winning record just once over the previous five seasons. Since taking on the job at EHS, the Wildcats have won an Area Championship, made it to the Elite 8 twice, made only the second Final Four in school history and made it to the first state championship game in school history.
Harrelson said that Josh McCray’s game-winning shot in double overtime of the state semifinals this past season stands above all other memories he has as a player or coach.
“I feel like – not just me but a lot of people – are always going to remember the run we had this year and Josh’s tip in at the buzzer in the Final Four game,” Harrelson said. “It’s hard to pinpoint just one game or moment in my career but it would be hard to not have Josh’s game winner there at the top of it.”
Rodgers said that moment stood out to him for more than the history of it, dating back to Harrelson’s interview at EHS.
“When Rhett came down for his interview he was very impressive – as several others were – but I felt like the job called on someone who understood the community, the program and would love it like it was their baby and pour their heart and soul into it,” Rodgers continued. “In that interview Rhett had power points and cut-ups and clips and specific plays, but one of the questions I asked was, ‘You have four seconds left in the game, taking the ball out of bounds.’ I wanted them to draw me up a play for that scenario.
“I don’t know if he used that same play to win the semifinals but what was more impressive is that he didn’t just have a play, he had a list of plays.”
Rodgers said that he hopes the Enterprise community understands the quality of coach and person that EHS has with Harrelson.
“This made my day to talk about Rhett Harrelson and I want you to print that,” Rodgers said. “I had chemo(therapy) yesterday but when you texted me, any time I get to talk about Rhett Harrelson that makes my day.
“We are very lucky in Enterprise and I hope the people of the community understand how lucky we are to have this type of young man leading our young men. We could talk about ball and Xs and Os and those are things you need to know – and can learn – but Rhett Harrelson is one of the finest young men I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a winner and he’s a man of his word.”
While Harrelson is still one of the younger coaches in the state – and opportunities elsewhere are surely coming to present themselves in the future – Harrelson says that he is home.
“I’m where my feet are right now,” he emphasized. “I love where I’m at, I love the kids we coach, I love what we’re doing here, I love the coaches we’ve been able to bring in and I love the administration in terms of what they’ve allowed us to do to be able to be successful.
“Enterprise is just a special place. I’m not looking ahead to anything else or trying to use EHS as a stepping stone to get anywhere else. When I grew up Enterprise in my mind was the final step, the final place. It doesn’t get better than this in my opinion.”