Late coach set tone, path to excellence for St. Joe Sharks
MORTON, MISSISSIPPI — Oftentimes when a little-known sports program turns into a consistent powerhouse, there is that defining moment that people look back on and see as the point when it started to change.
For the Port St. Joe Sharks’ basketball program, it was the hiring of Bill Dickson as head coach in 1964. Dickson would lead the Sharks to back-to-back state championships in 1968 and 1969 and help the school become the only in the state to win football and basketball championships in the same year (1972) before departing in 1974.
Dickson, a Florida native, passed away Dec. 5 in his longtime home in Morton, Mississippi, where he coached and taught for many years at Morton Attendance Center. He was 82.
But his memory and legacy will live in in Wewahitchka and Port St. Joe, where he made a unique mark on two sports programs and helped instill a legacy of pride.
And the pride he instilled wasn’t just in a basketball program or its players, but in the people he met, the people he befriended and where he went in life, friends said.
"I was saddened to hear the news about Coach Dickson," said Tim Grandberry, who played for him from 1970-73. "He was a great coach and mentor. I will never forget him. Coach Dickson will be greatly missed but his warmth, kindness, and gentle spirit will be remembered forever ... Some people come into our lives, leave a footprint on our hearts, and we are never the same."
Grandberry looked at Dickson as a father figure and kept in touch with him over the years, attending his induction into the PSJ Sports Hall of Fame.
Fifteen years before that, Dickson was at Wewahitchka High School as a basketball player when he befriended Grady "Buck" Booth.
“It sure brings back memories, he was a good ballplayer, and he was also sort of carefree I guess you could say, not concerned about a whole lot,” said Grady “Buck” Booth, who was in the 8th grade at Wewahitchka in 1955 when Dickson was a junior and part of the school’s national championship team.
“I think that what I would say is that Bill Dickson was a jock, Buck Booth was not a jock,” Booth said. “And yet we were friends. I sometimes felt like you had to be a jock to be admitted into ‘the fraternity’ but I never felt like I was excluded for any reason with him.”
Booth said even with Dickson being several grades ahead, they stuck close and “we had our good times together.”
Dickson’s performance at Wewahitchka earned him a scholarship at Chipola Junior College and by the mid-60s he was on the other side of Gulf County coaching the Port St. Joe Sharks.
While the Sharks now swim in the current of a reputation for feistiness, hard-play, winning and being competitive, no one knew much about them at the time Dickson arrived. His coaching would help put them on the map.
Newspaper reports at the time from The Port St. Joe Star and The News Herald reveal an oft-undermanned team often playing teams from much bigger districts. And the Sharks held their own or won against them, including teams like Bay High, and might appear to be limping into state playoffs with a so-so record.
But that experience against bigger schools paid off and the Sharks won state championships in 1968 and 1969 and were a constant source of competitive aggravation after that.
“That was the most embarrassing team I’ve ever put on the floor,” Bay High Coach Chuck Seal was moved to say after his Class A team lost 104-80, at home, to the Class B Sharks in February 1969. Seal, at that time, predicted the Sharks would win a state championship.
Dickson would leave Port St. Joe in 1974 for a coaching position in Ponce de Leon and eventually land in Morton, Mississippi, where he remained after he retired.
Dickson was later inducted into the Port St. Joe High School Sports Hall of Fame and in 2015 Wewahitchka High honored the 1955 championship team he played on – and the two that preceded it – with banners.
And now, some 65 years later, Buck Booth wants people to remember not just the ballplaying and not just the coaching, but the man, the friend.
“I would want them to know he was a good man, like we all try to be, and I would like people to know he was a man of faith and that he was active in his church in Mississippi,” Booth said. “He was just a presence.”
During the interview, Booth excused himself for a moment and returned with his 1958 annual, saying he wanted to share what Dickson had written back in 1958.
“To one of my very best friends that I have. Wish you the best of luck. Your friend forever, Billy.”
That, Booth said, “sort of sums it up, those are the kinds of relationships he had.”