Toil turned triumph: MMI tourney bound

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 17, 2005

Times-Journal Sports Writer

MARION – Last year began on a positive note for the Marion Military Institute men’s college basketball team and for Al Blanton.

Although Blanton had no connections with the MMI men’s basketball team, he would soon find himself the coach in the midst of a nightmare season that would have a dream-come-true ending.

Email newsletter signup

The Tigers’ nightmarish season recently took a turn for the better this week when they were invited to compete in the Universities and Small Colleges Athletic Association eight-team championship tournament beginning March 2 in Concord, N.H.

The berth into the tournament is a far cry from the painful and discouraging events that have surrounded the team and its coach this season.

The Tigers began the new year without a coach after former head man Don Flick resigned Jan. 1. Under Flick,

the Tigers went 8-7.

After Flick’s resignation, the Tigers went two weeks without a coach. That is, until a chance meeting brought them a new one.

“I was at a point in my life where I thought, ‘Where am I going?'” new coach Al Blanton said.

Blanton had just one year earlier passed the Alabama Bar exam to become a certified lawyer in the state.

“I was flat broke and I couldn’t find a job,” he said. “I had to move in with friends in Tuscaloosa.”

Blanton took a job as a sales associate at Dillard’s Clothing Store.

From there, he became a history teacher and basketball coach at McAdore’s High School in Birmingham.

On Dec. 1, however, Blanton’s life took a drastic turn when he was in a life-altering car accident. According to Blanton, another car ran a red light and struck his car, causing it to flip twice. Blanton said while his car was totalled in the accident, he walked away with just a scratch on his nose and back.

“I should have been dead,” he said.

After his accident, Blanton was looking for a new career, one in which he could make a difference. Then, one day Blanton received a phone call.

“A friend of mine who is a dentist told me he had a patient who knew (MMI Athletic Director and girls’ basketball coach) Michelle Ivey,” Blanton said. “The patient knew that their basketball coaching job was open. I called down there (to MMI) and scheduled an interview. They hired me the day I came for the interview.

“It was tough to leave McAdore’s in mid-season,” Blanton added. “But an opportunity like that doesn’t come up very often. When you get one, you have to go for it.”

Since his arrival, Blanton has taken over a program filled with problems. The Tigers have lost several players to injury and others to academic ineligibility. Blanton said the Tigers’ roster, which began with 19 players when the season opened, has since dwindled to nine.

Despite his and the Tigers’ setbacks, Blanton believes his MMI squad can accomplish miraculous things at the upcoming tournament.

“I think we could do very well,” he said. “Despite everything we’ve been through, we’ve learned to never give up. This team will never give up.”