Detroit cradle of pioneer coaches

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    Last week in an article I mistakenly noted that my fellow Mackenzie Stag, Gary Waters, was the first person that prepped in the Detroit Public School Leagues (PSL) to become a NCAA Division 1 head basketball coach.

    In hindsight, I have to ask myself, “What was I smoking?” Surely I knew better, but my fingers forced me to scribe that nonsense, while my brain was on an extended Caribbean vacation.

    Well, my brain has taken back control over my wayward and insubordinate fingers and I thank the heavens for that.

    So with sound mind and fingers I can correctly interject and type the real Detroit coaching pioneers, who set the table for the entire United States with their noteworthy thrust for inclusion as equals in the coaching profession.

    Surviving America’s volatile 1960’s, which were induced by oppressive hatred and tyrannical segregation, Detroit bred men took center stage in the battle for addition in the ever growing NCAA basketball genre.

    Leading the Detroit charge on the national basketball coaching stage was Fred “The Fox” Snowden, followed by Jim Boyce, David “Smokey” Gaines, Perry Watson, then Waters and now Rob Murphy.

    Fred “The Fox” Snowden

    Fred “The Fox” Snowden

    David “Smokey” Gaines

    David “Smokey” Gaines

    The irony of being so forgetful is that Snowden and I became very good friends and I wrote a number of narratives about his exploits. He and I enjoyed our company as we moved through the Los Angeles area circles.

    The first time I ran into Snowden in Los Angeles, I said the words PSL and he jumped at attention. Our conversations then flowed from the Motown days to his Northwestern days and my Mackenzie days to his University of Michigan days and my Michigan State days.

    We were never short on conversation ideas. But more importantly, our Detroit sports connections brought us together in an extraordinary way.

    “Snowden was on the 1954 All-City team with Jim Boyce,” said Lovelle River a former Mackenzie and MSU player, who is now a PSL sports historian. “He was not the greatest scorer, but he was a competitor and heady player. And that was reflected in his coaching style as all his teams were fundamentally sound.”

    When Snowden was selected as the head coach at Arizona University in 1972, he became the second black coach of a Division I basketball team, following Detroit Pershing’s Will Robinson at Illinois State. Coach John McLendon was the first black coach at a predominately white university when he got the Cleveland State job.

    Snowden took over a Wildcats team that had a 6-20 record the season before. But by 1976 he had led the Wildcats to the Western Athletic Conference championship in 1976, their first in 25 years.

    Snowden following Robinson let the coaching charge as John Thompson at Georgetown, John Chaney at Temple and George Raveling at Washington State, were hired a few months after he was.

    “It was a good thing one of us succeeded right away,” Snowden told me. “People have told me that the success of my teams in those first four years was an important reason that opportunities began to open up for other black coaches.”

    Detroit Northwestern has been a beacon for pioneering coaches as Boyce and Snowden, both made All-City in 1954 and became noteworthy coaches.

    Boyce went to the army after high school and came back and played and coached at University of Detroit. Boyce followed his teammate to Michigan as an assistant coach and became the second PSL’er to become a head coach at a Division 1 college when he got the Eastern Michigan job in 1979. He coached at EMU from 1980 to 1986.

    “Boyce gave me my first PSL head coaching job in 1989,” noted Venias Jordan. “He had just left EMU, began coaching at Mumford for a couple years, then he took the athletic directors spot. He wanted a young coach to follow him and he selected me.”

    David “Smokey” Gaines, 68, played under Robinson at Miller High and when it closed went to Northeastern. He then attended LeMoyne-Owen College, played in the American Basketball Association and had a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters.

    Gaines got his head coaching job at University of Detroit after Dick Vitale took the Pistons job. He then became the third PSL player to become a head basketball coach, following Snowden and Boyce. After U of D he went to San Diego State. He is currently Athletic Director for the Memphis City Schools.

    During our days in Southern California together, Gaines treated me like a son, always looking after me and hosting me when I came to San Diego – which was every other weekend.

    So, with the ascension of Rob Murphy as the head coach at EMU he follows a PSL legacy of men like Snowden, Boyce, Gaines, Watson, Waters and now Murphy.

    The fact of the matter is there have only been six former PSL players that have elevated to the NCAA Division 1 head coaching level.

    Said Watson: “I really appreciate UDM giving me the opportunity. I represented all the men that came before me and the ones that are trying to get there.”

    Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and on twitter @lelstein3

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