CHARLOTTE, NC (Langston Wertz./Charlotte Observer) - One of the most successful high school coaches in N.C. history died Friday morning, and friends, family and former opponents said West Charlotte's Charles McCullough will be missed dearly.
McCullough, 84, died after a long battle with a respiratory disease. He was boys' basketball coach at West Charlotte from 1960-93. His teams won nearly 600 games and five state championships, including three from 1986-93.
"He loved high school ball," McCullough's daughter, Cynthia, said Friday afternoon. "He loved mentoring young men. So many young men who played for him have told me stories of things my dad said to them and how they carried that throughout their lives."
McCullough, who graduated from West Charlotte in the 1950s, coached college basketball at Livingstone after retiring from high school, but he's best known for building a championship program at West Charlotte.
His Lions teams were remarkably consistent, winning 21 conference championships and reaching the N.C. quarterfinals 16 times. His teams played in seven state championship games. McCullough was named Charlotte Observer Coach of the Year twice.
Players he's coached include Mecklenburg County district judge Lou Trosch, former Boston Celtic Junior Burrough and former North Carolina Tar Heel and longtime NBA player Jeff McInnis. McInnis was a sophomore on McCullough's 1991 4A state championship team. He was the finals MVP.
McInnis, 42, is now owner and coach of a showcase travel basketball team, Team Charlotte, that recently won its second straight AAU Super Showcase national championship in Orlando.
"Feels like losin' my own dad or a family member," McInnis said via text message. "He really taught me to be accountable on and off the court! He was a legend coach, but (a) better man. Sad day."
Former North Mecklenburg coach Leroy Holden was probably McCullough's biggest coaching rival. He was shocked to hear of the news.
"He was a class act," said Holden, 72. "We had some of the greatest games when we played. I held him to the utmost respect and I think he held me the same way. The kids loved him and they played their hearts out for him, and there will never be another one like Charles McCullough."
In 2001, McCullough was one of seven people honored during his school's first Wall of Fame ceremony, organized by West Charlotte's national alumni association. Another former player, Gosnell White, said that honor was much deserved but he has long pushed for the school to name its gym or its court after McCullough, who coached White in the '70s.
White, 62, said West Charlotte's heyday began in 1960, when McCullough became the boys' coach. White said McCullough gave his teams and the school something that became its trademark: "Lion Pride." McCullough, he said, told his players they represented a community and to be proud of their heritage.
"He pretty much built the entire West Charlotte tradition and program," said White, who would later follow McCullough as boys' coach, winning a state championship in 1999. "It's a sad time for me. He is West Charlotte basketball. And it was his demeanor. Nothing ever upset him. Nothing ever rattled or bothered him.
"And he was so successful because the entire school was very talented. People that played PE basketball could play. But he could pick the ones who could make his teams great. Then he could make them fit in and jell as a team."
Before returning to Charlotte in late 2015, McCullough spent nearly 20 years in Bowie, Md., with his wife, Bertha Clark McCullough, who died in 2012. Shortly after he returned home, McCullough was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, his daughter said. It's a condition that causes scarring of the lung tissue, making breathing difficult.
In the months before he died, his daughter said her father's mind remained active.
"He loved jazz, poetry, the classics," Cynthia McCullough said, "and he would tell you anything about sports. On Saturdays after he got ill, we would watch PGA golf and he would just rattle off statistics about the players. He just loved life and I think most people will say he was very vibrant."
McCullough is survived by his two children, Cynthia and Charles. A second son, Derrick, died in a car accident in the '80s. McCullough is also survived by two granddaughters. The family said funeral arrangements will be complete Saturday with a public viewing and a private burial planned.
"He was a mentor," McCullough's son, Charles, said. "He taught and tutored young men, and it's a calling, and he was called to do that. As I watched these guys pilgrimage in and out of here, they became like his children.