2022 GCSHOF: Cramerton’s Eller played and learned fundamentals as football coach and still doing it as golf organizer

By Richard Walker

Joe Eller spent much his life playing or coaching football.

Former North Gaston High football coach Joe Eller

His successes with Gastonia youth football and at Cramerton and North Gaston high schools is the reason he’s a part of the 2022 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame induction class.

Just don’t get the impression Eller has stopped coaching.

Now 88, Eller remains active in his profession as the organizer of the Gaston County Seniors Golf Association.

“A bunch of us started playing in 1951 when old Lakewood Golf Course opened in Cramerton and we sort of self-taught ourselves,” Eller said. “The group kept growing and growing and growing over the years and finally we just created a club. We called it the ‘5 o’clock League’ at Lakewood, which as the years went on and people started retiring, it became the ‘Lakewood Lunch Bunch.’ When they sold the golf course (in 2004 on the land where Stuart Cramer sits), we moved to other courses.
“Eventually, we got a schedule and organized our group and started keeping records on everything.”

Eller is the current top organizer for a group that now plays place at several courses – at Cramer Mountain Country Club in Gaston County, River Bend, Cleveland Country Club, Deer Brook and Woodbridge in Cleveland County, Lincoln Country Club and Westport in Lincoln County, Glen Oaks in Catawba County and Spring Lakes in Clover, S.C.

Those who know Eller best, say that attention to detail started with his football playing and coaching career that made him famous.

“He was just an excellent teacher and a disciplinarian who knew the game and knew how to explain it to the players,” said Art Shoemaker, a former assistant for Eller at Groves Threads in the 1960s. “He got information from all of the coaches he was around like Matt Matlock, Bennie Cunningham, Jack Huss and E.C. Duggins. That’s why he was such a great teacher of fundamentals.”

That started at an early age for Eller, as he played four years of Cramerton Bantam football under Matlock, then four years at Cramerton High School under Huss and four years at Appalachian State for E.C. Duggins before he was hired by Cunningham at Gastonia’s Groves Threads company to start his coaching career.

Matlock had played football at N.C. State in the 1930s, Huss played football at Lenoir-Rhyne before coaching at Cramerton High, Duggins is the second-winningest coach in Appalachian State football history and Cunningham was a former Belmont Abbey basketball star; Huss (1977) and Cunningham (1977) are Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

“All of the coaches I had taught the fundamentals of football every day,” Eller said. “They all had a strict schedule that they followed every day.”

Eller also learned multiple positions as he played fullback in Bantam football, fullback and tailback in high school and center and linebacker at Appalachian State.

At Cramerton, where he was a 1953 graduate, Eller helped the Eagles to 18 wins in four seasons and was the team’s leading scorer in 1952. At Appalachian State, the Mountaineers won 23 games in four seasons highlighted by an 8-3 overall record and 6-0 league mark to win the 1954 championship of the old North State Conference (now Conference Carolinas).

After college graduation in 1957, Eller spent two years in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany before he came back home.

Upon his return, Cunningham came looking for him.

“When I got out of the service, Bennie Cunningham was the athletic director at the Groves Threads Company and he came by my house to see if I would help head coach Earl Groves (and 1975 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee) with the Little Orangemen,” Eller said. “It was an honor to be asked and I enjoyed it immensely.”

The team also was incredibly successful as Eller helped the Little Orangeman go 106-3 overall in his nine years with the program.

Sponsored by the N.C. Young Businessmen’s Club, the team employed the Delaware Wing-T offense and annually won conference titles, state titles and postseason bowl games in addition to winning three Pop Warner Football national titles.

That first world title left Eller a lifelong memory – but not just because of football.

“The most memorable trip was playing in the Disneyland Bowl in California,” Eller said of a 1960 game in which the Little Orangemen routed Monteballo, Cal., 47-7 for the national title. “We met Walt Disney and they were filming ‘Zorro’ at that time and we saw some of those actors. And our tour guide was (original Mouseketeer) Annette Funicello and we toured the Rose Bowl and a lot of other places.
“The biggest thing was meeting Walt Disney. He was one the nicest men you would ever want to meet.”

After the 1967 season with the Little Orangemen, Eller took on another challenge as an assistant coach for the final season of Cramerton High School football. Huss was then the school’s principal and he hired Eller to join the staff of head coach Mickey Shellman and assistant coach (and 2019 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee) Gary Henry.

The Eagles would go 9-2-1 overall, win their conference title and claim the school’s first-ever playoff victory; Cramerton and Belmont consolidated into South Point High School the following year with many of Eller’s Cramerton players (like 2013 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee Scott Crawford) helped South Point win a 1971 state title.

After that one season as a Cramerton assistant coach, Eller would go on to a high school head coaching job for the next nine years at old Dallas High (1969-70) and at North Gaston High (1971-77).

At North Gaston, Eller’s 31 wins make him the second-winningest coach in school history and he also guided the Wildcats to their only conference title and unbeaten regular season in history in 1972.

“We had some players that played for the Little Orangemen so they knew the system I was trying to use,” Eller said. “But it was tough. We were playing 3A fotball with only one feeder school. We worked on fundamentals the whole time I was there every day in practice. I believed in that.
“And, as with all of my coaching, you’re always so proud of the way the kids grow and improve. That was always really special for me.”