Reflecting on Big House

Monday would have been the 95th birthday for Clarence Gaines.

Today would have been the 95th birthday for legendary Winston-Salem State head coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines. His win total of 828 was once the mark to beat behind Adolph Rupp in college basketball. Today it’s now number 17 in the record books.

A lot has changed in college basketball since Gaines coached his last game in 1993. One thing has not, however. The impact he had on the many lives that he came into contact with.

As a high school senior my college choices were narrowed down to Elon, North Carolina A&T, and Winston-Salem State University.  I really wasn’t very interested in Elon, I was just amazed at the waffle maker they had in the cafeteria during my visit. NC A&T seemed the better choice honestly but my girlfriend at the time was going there for sure. It was a family tradition of sorts. My foolish pride didn’t want her to think I was following her.

So WSSU it was. I hated the school during my visit because back in 1992 there was nothing new about WSSU. The student body at the time was smaller than that of my high school. I distinctly remember that the only real thing I knew about WSSU was its legendary basketball coach. A partial academic scholarship sealed the deal and off to the Triad it was.

Forever the Teacher

I was very excited when I saw that a basketball elective with Coach Gaines could fit my schedule. I filled out my three layers of carbon copy forms (this was pre-internet) and off I went. For the next semester, I was about to be a basketball understudy to a genius.

I still laugh today that in actuality we never touched a basketball until the final day of class. We spent the entire semester discussing the theory of basketball. When we did get on the court we did things like broad jumps and ran the three-man weave. My misconceptions of learning the secret behind Earl The Pearl’s spin moves were quickly dashed.

Coach Gaines was probably teaching us about life but the brashness of my Generation-X cohorts likely created a mental roadblock to the lesson. We were obsessed with baggy shorts, black socks, and the Fab Five. That was the emotional epicenter of the basketball universe in 1993.

Making the call

It wasn’t until after Gaines’ professional career ended and mine was beginning did I really get to know the man behind the legend. Around 2001 I was a fledgling sportscaster in Winston-Salem at the local NBC affiliate. I didn’t know my behind from a hole in the ground, to be honest, but I had enough gumption to keep showing up every day. I was the low man on the totem pole. No, correction. I was the man standing downhill from the totem pole.

One day there was a job opening that would have put me on that proverbial totem pole and I was “Thirsty” as the kids say. I generally don’t come on strong for potential opportunities but I was putting on the full-court press for this. It was a dream come true moment for me. My desire was still ahead of my skill at that point and I didn’t get the promotion despite my blitz of self-promotion.

What I did find out later though is that my boss received a phone call during the process from someone lobbying on my behalf. She described it, as I recall, as a booming but majestic voice on the other end of the phone. He humbly introduced himself although she later told me that no introduction was needed.  She immediately knew that she was talking to Big House Gaines.

Fledgling Sportscaster

Imagine all the people

So here was a Naismith Hall of Fame coaching legend taking time out of his day to lobby for a snot-nosed 25-year-old kid.  I was no more than a bug on the windshield of his life’s journey. One semester in his class and maybe a few passing encounters in the years that followed.  I was a proud graduate of WSSU, however.  That school that I turned my nose up to on a campus visit turned into one of the best decisions of my life. Being a Ram meant that Coach Gaines was going to do his part to help me along in life.

I didn’t get the job that time but I eventually did. The gesture of a legend didn’t seal the deal on the spot, but it wasn’t forgotten. It made an impact. Now imagine what Coach Gaines did for countless other people on similar random occasions. Imagine how many phone calls he made that swayed and impacted the circumstances in people’s lives. Imagine the stories that the players who gave their blood and sweat for Big House might tell.

Gone but not forgotten

Ironically the night that Coach Gaines passed away I was working that job that I had so desperately coveted. The same job that Coach Gaines had lobbied for on my behalf. I was a weekend sportscaster who just happened to be filling in on a Monday night. Tim Grant, Gaines’ longtime assistant, and former player, called me and told me the news. It was late and we had to quickly reformat the 11 pm newscast because this was obviously a huge story.

I helped lead the coverage that night along with Cameron Kent, a former sports anchor himself. Neither of us had to depend too heavily on notes or teleprompters that night, we all knew Coach Gaines and knew his story. It was sad to inform people of his passing on television, but I was proud to also help celebrate his life.

Before he passed away he and his wife Clara invited me into their home on a few occasions. I was fortunate enough during those times to interview Coach Gaines about his life and journey as one of the best college coaches ever. He opened up huge scrapbooks in his basement that told the complete story of WSSU athletics. He was Google for all things Winston-Salem State long before there was a Google.

So happy birthday Chief! Your contributions both big and small will never be forgotten. Your example of touching people and making a difference is the greatest lesson of all.



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