Morris Griffin walked into Camden High School’s gym as the coach of the Atlantic City boys basketball team on March 8, 1997.
The Vikings’ history against Camden was not good.
Griffin didn’t care.
The 6-foot-5 coach stood in the doorway of the gym and said, “I’m ready to get this done.”
Atlantic City upset Camden 60-56 in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal. The Vikings have won plenty of big games in their illustrious history, but that victory at Camden is among the best.
Griffin died Monday. The Mays Landing resident was 66.
“He always made you believe that you could be great,” said Derryk Sellers, a former Griffin assistant and now the athletic director at Lindenwold High School. “He instilled that in you. That’s the thing about him I can’t ever forget. Anything I ever told him I was going to do, he told me I was going to be great. Whether he believed that or not, I don’t know, but he made me believe it.”
Griffin coached the Vikings from 1995 to 2003, finishing with a 153-59 record. He led Atlantic City to the 1997 South Jersey championship and state final. Griffin also coached the Vikings to the 1996 and 2000 Cape-Atlantic League championships.
Before coming to Atlantic City, Griffin was the head coach at East Orange and Hillside high schools in north New Jersey. He worked as a physical education teacher. His overall coaching record was 376-128 in 20 seasons.
Sellers said a recent back surgery revealed Griffin had cancer. Sellers coached with Griffin at Hillside and against him when Griffin coached Atlantic City and Sellers led Cumberland Regional.
“That was the hardest game I ever coached in my life,” Sellers said. “It was emotional. He was like a brother to me. His teams were gritty, hard working with a lot of hustle. They always played hard.”
Former Atlantic City standout Tory Cavalieri said Griffin was more concerned about what his players did in life than on the basketball court.
“Everything wasn’t about basketball,” said Cavalieri, a 2000 Atlantic City graduate. “It was life lessons. When I spoke to him after I was done playing for him, he would ask me what was going on in the classroom or what was going on with my family before he asked if I scored 30 that night.”
Griffin grew up in Newark and played for Central High School in that city. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Plainfield High School.
His first head-coaching job was at East Orange. He led that team to the 1986 and 1987 Essex County championships.
Griffin led Hillside to five straight state Group II title games from 1990-94, winning the 1990 and 1992 championships. Four of those games — two victories and two defeats — were against a Middle Township team coached by Tom Feraco.
The Atlantic City boys basketball coach is one of the toughest jobs in high school sports. Expectations are high, and fans and media sometimes treat the Vikings as if they are a college or professional program.
“It wasn’t about winning with Coach Griff,” Cavalieri said. “It was more about, are we learning anything? It was more lessons learned.”
Griffin was known for his fiery sideline demeanor.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association placed him on probation in 2000, 2002 and 2003 and suspended him for three games at the start of the 2001-02 season because he had received too many technical fouls.
“He had a knack for getting with the officials,” Sellers said with a laugh. “That’s what made him a good coach. He was so emotional. He put so much passion into to it. People mistook him arguing calls. He was arguing for the kids. He was an advocate for his team. He wasn’t arguing for himself. His emotional was for the kids. He was always about the team.”
Griffin was popular among his fellow coaches.
“He was always a gentlemen,” Feraco said.
Services for Griffin will be held Monday at New Hope Baptist Church in East Orange. Griffin was set to be inducted into the Newark Athletic Hall of Fame on Oct. 22.
He had talked recently with Sellers about that honor.
“He was so excited about that,” Seller said. “That was the culmination of all things. It was a kid leaves Newark and goes and does well and comes back home. It was a homecoming.”