Arnold C. Mitchell Sr. was the man for the job.
The first basketball coach at Beaufort High School when three high schools merged during integration in 1970, Mitchell faced a delicate balancing act with incoming talent and existing players.
But the Charleston native, whose career eventually stretched more than three decades, kept his team's focus on the court and avoided the tension in the hallways and beyond.
"Some white kids thought they wouldn't get a chance to play; black kids thought they might not get a chance to play," said Mitchell's wife, Henrietta. "But it all worked out. He was a good leader. He was always calm whatever situations came up. If you could play, you were going to get the opportunity to do so."
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Arnold C. Mitchell Sr. died Monday at Beaufort Memorial Hospital at age 78. He was remembered by family and former players as a molder of basketball players and men.
He led the team at Robert Smalls High School starting in 1958 until the schools merged. He coached at Beaufort High, where the gym is now named for him, until 1989.
Before Beaufort County had a recreation department, Mitchell opened the Robert Smalls gym to young basketball players. He later became Beaufort County's first recreation director.
Mitchell played guard at Claflin University and earned a master's degree from Pepperdine. He coached basketball, track, baseball and football at Robert Smalls.
At Beaufort High, Mitchell didn't allow the influx of players from the combined schools and racial tension to affect his team's chemistry. Mitchell's daughter, Angela Mitchell Stephens, remembers the story her father liked to tell, that her dad's first Beaufort High basketball team included two players from Beaufort High, two from Robert Smalls and one from St. Helena.
"He said, 'Believe it or not, there was really no animosity, at least not on the playing field.'" Stephens said. "He said, 'Although there might have been some things going on in the school, when those kids hit that floor, it was business as usual, just trying to learn the game of basketball and play as a team."
His successor at Beaufort High, Bruce Beasley, still the Eagles coach more than 20 years later, was an all-state player under Mitchell and later an assistant coach. He remembered Mitchell as a quiet man who commanded attention when he spoke and showed a fierce competitive side.
Beasley served as Mitchell's assistant a decade before his mentor retired. When Beasley took over, Mitchell was always ready with wisdom to share.
"He didn't do a whole lot of criticizing," Beasley said. "He was always supportive and he would always encourage me. He never did say anything negative to me."
Beaufort County Board of Education Chairman Fred Washington played basketball and football for Mitchell at Robert Smalls and recorded a video message for his former coach when the Beaufort High gym was dedicated in Mitchell's name. Washington said Monday that Mitchell could be explosive on the sideline, but that it was out of character, that Mitchell was a well-rounded coach who helped his players succeed as people through athletics.
"You have truly had an impact on me," Washington told Mitchell in the video. "I think that it would have been very difficult for me to be where I am today ... without recognizing the influence that you've had on me."
Mitchell's son, Arnold C. Mitchell Jr., played basketball for his dad at Beaufort High and helped coach during his father's final season. The son went on to coach basketball, baseball and track in various capacities at Beaufort High and Battery Creek.
Mitchell Jr. remembered his dad as a pure shooter, a man who always won free-throw contests with his players before arthritis limited his stroke. And he didn't play favorites.
The son anchored the end of the bench for half of his junior season before breaking into the starting lineup. He credits his dad for helping shape the sports landscape in Beaufort.
"He has really done it all," Mitchell Jr. said. "That's given him the opportunity to touch a lot of lives. I think we were blessed to have him."