If a Mount Rushmore of Black coaches is ever erected, who would be the four faces to grace that mythical mountainside?
“I’d put John McLendon, (Clarence) Big House Gaines, Cal Irvin, and Bill Russell, the first Black coach in the NBA,” suggested Jesse Washington, senior writer with The Undefeated.
Russell and Gains are considered locks. Russell, who won two of his 11 NBA titles in 13 years after being named Boston player-coach in 1966, is in the Hall of Fame (1975). Gaines (1923-2005), whose entire 47-year coaching career was at Winston-Salem State University, won the 1967 NCAA Division II national title, coached Earl “The Pearl” Monroe among others, and is also a Hall of Famer.
But Irvin and McLendon?
Irvin (1924-2017) played two seasons in the Negro Leagues before his 18-year coaching career at North Carolina A&T, where he won four CIAA titles. His older brother Monte is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I am not ashamed to say that when I started working on this book with Coach [John] Thompson, I did not know who John McLendon was,” admitted Washington, the co-author of Thompson’s autobiography “I Came as a Shadow.”
“I love basketball. I read a lot. I never heard of the man,” he added of McLendon (1915-1999), twice a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee (contributor, 1979; coach, 2016). After he transferred to the University of Kansas from a junior college, he learned the sport’s intricacies from the school’s athletic director Dr. James Naismith, who years earlier had invented basketball. McLendon, however, never played at Kansas because he was Black.
But McLendon’s oft-overlooked influence on the game during his three decades as a successful high school and college coach is his infusing quickness. “He’s credited [with] full court, fast-break basketball,” Washington discovered. “Coach [Thompson] learned from him. That’s just amazing to me.”
Now that we have our mythical mountain up, we need a park to put it in. “I would say let’s put up a statue of Coach Thompson and Coach [John] Chaney at the entrance to the park,” said Washington of the two legends who passed away almost six months apart, Thompson last August and Chaney in January.
Black Coaches of the Year
Veteran sportswriter Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated tweeted last weekend: “Between Coach-of-the-Year awards up and down Division I, and tournament championships being won and challenged for, Black college basketball coaches have had major success in recent days. Legends John Thompson, Nolan Richardson, George Raveling and John Chaney fought for this day.”
Here is a sampling of the Black coaches who this season won their respective league COY awards:
Men: Juwan Howard (Michigan, Big Ten), King Rice (Monmouth, MAAC), Mike Anderson (St. John’s, Big East), Isaac Brown (Wichita State, AAC), Byron Smith (Prairie View, SWAC), Robert McCullum (Florida A&M, MEAC), Dennis Gates (Cleveland State, Horizon League), Bashir Mason (Wagner, Northeast Conf), Terrence Johnson (Texas State, Sun Belt), and Lew Hill, who died Feb. 7 due to COVID-19, by the WAC.
Women: Joni Taylor (Georgia, SEC), Amaka Agugua-Hamilton (Missouri State, Missouri Valley), Natasha Adair (Delaware, Colonial Athletic Association), Freda-Freeman Jackson (Alabama State, SWAC), and Tiesha “Ty” Grace (Howard, MEAC).
“It is always great to see the Coach-of-the-Year award [go to Black coaches],” said Texas Southern WBB Coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke. The HOF and WNBA legend last week told the MSR that this especially is true for Black female coaches.
“African American females have been around… We are now just recognizing it,” explained Cooper-Dyke. “It is a huge opportunity for us to continue to showcase ourselves as coaches and players.
“It’s on us as well,” she said. “We can’t stop here.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.