I only knew Charlie Coles through my high school basketball coach, Ed Rachel — the two were friends who regularly met and talked shop. I never met him in person but can only imagine that Coles, who died June 7 at age 71, is again talking shop with the late Rachel, who died a couple of years ago.
Before he retired in 2012 as Miami of Ohio’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach (355-208), and the Mid-American Conference-wins leader as well, Coles was a successful prep basketball coach at Saginaw (Mich.) High School (1972-82) and led teams to two state title games in the mid-1970s. He then moved on, first to Central Michigan in 1985 for six seasons, then back to high school coaching in Toledo, returning to his college alma mater in 1994 as an assistant, followed by 16 seasons as head coach.
There he coached former Minnesota Mr. Basketball Robert Mestas of Minneapolis Roosevelt, who attended his college coach’s June 13th funeral and spoke to us afterwards.
“There were a lot of people who knew him. The first person I ran into when I got to the memorial was Milton Barnes,” said Mestas, referring to the former Minnesota assistant coach and Eastern Michigan head coach
who’s now with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “Coach Barnes and Coach Coles were really tight.”
First-person testimonials on Coles since his passing have been posted on both BET and ESPN websites. “There are stories for days, and there are a lot of things that can be said about him,” continued Mestas, who completed his first season as Roosevelt head boys’ basketball coach.
“For me, he was the most influential male figure that I ever had in my life. I’m talking about the day-to-day, the way I coach, my moral code; the way I raise my kids. I judge and assess myself based on what I think Coach Coles would do or how he would do it.”
Coach Coles “was serious about basketball,” recalled Mestas, who played for him as a starting point guard at Miami of Ohio in the 1997 NCAA tournament, one of three school appearances during his coach’s tenure. “There was no excuse of messing up. I remember one time being at practice and he said to one of the players, ‘How are you doing?’
“‘Oh, man I’m doing OK,’” said the player. “‘I’m trying to stay out of trouble.’
”Then [Coles] was like, ‘What? Stay out of trouble? What are you telling me about trouble? Why does trouble find you?’
“He went on this big long rant about how people just say whatever and really don’t think about their responses. But he was more upset that this guy said that when he asked him how was he doing. He wanted an answer, a response that had something to do with basketball.
“The common theme was that he was a man of his word,” said Mestas of the tributes to his late coach. Coles had heart problems — he suffered a heart attack during a game in 1986 and had bypass surgery in 2008.
Mestas added that he never lost contact with Coles: “We talked a lot, and I respected his opinion. He was part of the whole process when I was preparing for my interviews at Roosevelt,” and once took his AAU team to visit Coles at his Oxford, Ohio home. “He hung out with us the entire day and came to a bunch of our games,” recalled the former player.
“He always told me that he expected me to do good things,” noted Mestas, who briefly played pro ball overseas before returning home to pursue a career working with youth. “His son [Chris, the head coach at Olivet College] talked to me for about 30 minutes at the memorial. He was telling me how much his father talked about me, how important I was, and how much about the game that I knew.
“I tried to call him when I got the word I was coaching in the Inner City Classic (a couple of weekends ago). He didn’t call me back, and two days later he had passed,” said Mestas.
I regret never meeting Coach Coles, but now, through one of his players I have known since he was a fourth grader, I have a better sense of the man. He and Coach Rachel had similar traits — both men set coaching standards in the state of Michigan for having well-disciplined and defensively tough teams. Both men strongly believed in developing those under their charge, especially young Black men, to successfully compete on the basketball court as well on the court of life.
Finally, I know both men are looking down and smiling because, in more cases than not, they succeeded. “I knew he loved me as a person on top of being a basketball player,” said Mestas.
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