Photo by Robert Smith

His Simpson Academy Cougars led 16-1 with  2:01 left in the first quarter, and head coach James Crain wasn’t close to happy.

​“We can’t even do a layup right!” he yelled.

​By the end of the quarter, with his Cougars dominating Collegiate Christian of Gulfport 16-3 Wednesday night in the MAIS Overall Tournament at Mississippi College, Crain’s shirt tail had worked its way out and he was gnawing his players’ ears off. 

​Crain expects them to focus and execute, no matter the score or the opponent or how much time is left.

​More often than not, his teams play up to his standards.

Photo by Robert Smith

​During his 38 years of coaching, Crain’s teams have won 1,036 games — second-most boys victories in Mississippi prep history. Richard Duease of MRA leads with 1,109.  Crain has won nine state championships — four at Simpson, three at Hillcrest and two at Mendenhall.

​Crain and Duease go against each other Friday at 6 p.m. in the Overall semifinals at Mississippi College. MRA, 30-6, won the 5A state championship last week. Simpson, 35-6, claimed the 4A title.

​“We’ve played pretty well the last couple of weeks,” Crain said following the Cougars’ 59-28 victory over Collegiate Christian. “We’re battle tested, and I think we’ll play with confidence. If we can play the way we have been, I think we can give them a go.”

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​A kid can’t be mentally soft and play for Crain.

​He lit into one player during a timeout Wednesday night so badly, one of his teammates gave him a pat on the back as they walked back onto the court. Most all of the starters and key reserves have felt the wrath at one time or another.

​“Kids want to be coached,” Crain said afterward. “Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to mistreat kids. But they want to be coached hard, they want you to get on them and push them hard. 

​“The kids know me and so do the parents. I get on the kids and they play a little harder.”

​He smiled.

​“You watch us come out on the court and you wouldn’t think we could play with a lot of people we beat. We’re puny. Weak looking. But we try to make up for that with effort.

​“I think a lot of times, games come down to effort and attitude. How much do they want it? A lot of our kids get after it, working in the summer to get better. Coming up to the gym on weekends to shoot. We always make our gym available to them, and they make use of it.”

​Only two of his 18 players went out for football. “That’s down a little bit this year,” said Crain, who played football and basketball at Hinds Community College. “Usually, about half our kids play football.”

​In his 10th season at Simpson, it is no secret what the Cougars are going to do each game. Crain’s teams are known for their 2-2-1 press and a buzzsaw 2-3 zone that bends into whatever needed that night.

​It’s fun watching the Cougars play defense because of their effort and how well-schooled they are in it.

​“We try to fly around (on defense) and maybe match up with certain players,” he explained. “We’ll cover people different ways, according to how they set up.”

​Simpson’s zone defense goes all the way back to Crain’s first year of coaching — 1977-78 at Mendenhall.

​“The junior high coach, Walter Shows, had been there and that’s what he played, a 2-3 zone.  He had them in a system and they already knew the basics of it by the time I got them. So I adopted that and just added to it.”​

​Brad Smith, an All-State player for Crain at Mendenhall from 1986-89 who went on to play at Mississippi State, said Crain “is the reason for my success in basketball.”

Photo by Robert Smith

​“Coach Crain is the type guy who will push you to the limit because he knows you can play better, do more,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Ping Pong and his team has never played before. He’ll figure out a way to win.

​“Some of the talent he won state championships with at Mendenhall wasn’t nearly as talented as the teams they beat. But his players respect him and trust him. That goes a long way toward winning.”

​Smith’s 13-year-old son, Gage, plays at Simpson’s middle school for Carey Crain — one of James Crain’s two sons. Carey is his dad’s high school assistant. Crain’s older son, Curt, coaches junior high boys and girls at Simpson Central School in Pinola.

​“I tell my son all the time that when Coach Crain stops fussing at you, it’s time to worry,” Smith said. “He only fusses if he knows you can get better, if you have more to give than you’re giving.”


​A native of Puckett and a 1977 graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Crain also has a lighter side. 

​In the game against Collegiate Christian, he told an official who was standing in front of him: “Move, I can’t see.” The official laughed.

​And then there are his outrageous socks, which Smith said Crain even wears to Mendenhall First Baptist Church services.

​It’s a miracle they have any threads left the way he tugs at them during games.

​“Do I?” he asked when I joked with him about his nervous habit. “I didn’t even know I did that.”

​He pulled up his right pant leg far enough to reveal a sock that featured horizontal stripes in every color imaginable.

Photo by Robert Smith

​“If we need a lucky color, it’s bound to be on there somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know which one is the lucky one, but I don’t like taking any chances.”

​Crain didn’t hold back when I asked him if he enjoys the Overall tournament, which features teams from each classification. He has lost three times in the championship game to Duease and MRA — a larger school.

​“I’ll be honest, it’s hard to get a kid up to play after winning a state championship,” he said. “You win state, your players and parents are on Cloud 9. Then the next day, you’ve got to meet and then play the next. It’s tough.

​“When I was at Mendenhall, I was glad when the public schools did away with the Overall tournament. We won the state and went 36-2 in 1982 but got beat by Harrison Central in the Overall finals on a last-second shot.

​“Our people were like ‘Y’all didn’t win nothing..’ I’m not a big fan of the Overall, but I like where our team is at right now. We’ll see how far we can go.”