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Vicars got the ball rolling for Blue Devils basketball

Tanner Cook • Jun 9, 2020 at 4:00 PM

GATE CITY — Over the past decade, Gate City boys basketball has been the model of success and stability in Southwest Virginia.

However, the program goes back much farther than just the 21st century.

The late John Vicars could be called the father of Blue Devils basketball. He coached at the school from 1964-83 and remains the longest-serving head coach in the history of the program, which dates to the days of Shoemaker High School.

“Coach always had a great sense of humor and had a great connection with the kids,” current Gate City coach Scott Vermillion said. “He always got players that could score. My brother played for him and he set the foundation for fundamentals and good shooting.”

“Coach was there so long and folks my age growing up remember him as a loving man,” son-in-law and former Gate City coach Greg Ervin said. “When you think of a father figure, the first thing you think of is love. Coach loved people and people loved him.”

Vicars compiled a 325-118 record as the varsity coach, winning seven regular-season district titles and eight district tournament championships. He brought Gate City its first district title in a sport other than football in 1965.

He coached the junior varsity basketball team from 1958-64, posting an 86-22 record, and was the offensive line coach under Harry Fry on Gate City’s state championship football teams in 1970 and 1974.

In 25 seasons serving in multiple roles for Gate City, Vicars never had a losing campaign and his best team, in 1966-67, built a 23-0 record before losing to Northside 66-64 in the Southern Group 1-B regional tournament first round, ending the team’s season.

According to the game recap by then-Times News correspondent Walter Carter, Gate City had two scoring opportunities in the last 28 seconds but could not cash in. The outcomes of those two possessions were a turnover and a last-second heave that went astray.

It was the fifth time that Gate City reached the regional tournament and couldn’t come away with a win.

Some of Gate City’s best players from that era played under “Big John.” Among them was Darwin Pippin, who was the school’s longtime leading scorer with 1,791 career points before Mac McClung came along.

Pippin, who went on to play at Virginia Tech, had a senior year worthy of note in 1967-68. In 23 games, he poured in 827 points for an average of 35.9 per game. His season points mark still stands as the 17th best in VHSL history, and he played the fewest number of games of the players listed in the record book.

Other notables Vicars coached included Harold Willis, Stan Rogers, Eric Fugate and Bobby Seaver, all of whom reached the 1,000-point plateau in their high school careers.


Vicars was mostly a role player for Shoemaker, where he was a member of the Class of 1953. He was known for his hook shot as the center under coach Eugene “Jeep” Quillen.

One of his highlights came during his senior year in a season-ending loss to Appalachia in the District VIII tournament. The Blue Devils led the entire way, but the Bulldogs rallied with a 24-7 run in the fourth quarter and won 55-50. Vicars, with 11 points, was the third-leading scorer on the team that night behind Basil McDavid (13) and Bunk Whittmore (12).

Vicars went on to play at Milligan under the legendary Duard Walker. He was part of the 1998 class of Milligan Athletics Hall of Fame inductees.


After a lengthy coaching career, Vicars called it quits and went into administration, serving as the elementary school principal at both Rye Cove and Fort Blackmore from 1983-91.

After retiring from the school system, he chose to stay on as the Gate City Middle School coach for seventh- and eighth-graders. He stayed in that role until 1999.

Some of Vicars’ awards included the 300 career wins Milestone Award and a lifetime membership for VHSL events.


Vicars and his wife, Judy, had three children: Rebecca Lawson, Gayle Ervin and John Daniel Vicars.

Vicars was a constant presence at Gate City and Twin Springs home basketball games for many years and got to see his grandson Brandon Lawson play for the Titans before passing away in 2003.

Justin Lawson, Luke Ervin and Zac Ervin also are among his grandchildren.

“He would always load up the kids and take them to basketball camps when they were young,” Greg Ervin said. “Zac was only 2 when he passed, but he loved working with Luke and the other kids in the seventh- and eighth-grade programs.”

“He was a great father and it was a loving household growing up,” daughter Gayle said. “I was truly blessed to have him as my dad.”


Vicars was one of the most well-liked people in the community and among his coaching colleagues.

His mild-mannered and unassuming character was epitomized by his devotion to the First Baptist Church of Gate City.

During an eight-month stint when the pastor was absent, he served as the church administrator. He was a deacon and a trustee and was on the Board of Directors for the Harvest Children’s Home.

“I don’t know anybody that could say a bad thing about Coach Vicars,” Vermillion said. “He was genuinely a great man. I never heard a bad word come out of his mouth.”

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