BALTIMORE, MD — When you talk about the word legacy as its relates to CIAA or even HBCU basketball, WSSU is never far from the conversation.
Winston-Salem State won the CIAA title on Saturday, beating Lincoln University 62-57. Leading the charge was head coach Cleo Hill Jr., who bagged his third CIAA title overall and second in the last three seasons at WSSU. That has cemented his WSSU legacy as a two-time championship coach. But that’s just scratching the surface here.
Saturday’s win was the 13th CIAA title for WSSU. The first eight of them came under Basketball Hall of Famer Clarence “Big House” Gaines, who coached his father, Cleo Hill Sr.
“I think for me, I mean, it started a long time ago. Coach (Big House) Gaines and what he did, as well as my dad. And it goes on down the line with Ted Blunt and Earl and…” Hill went down the line naming names.
“So that was our motto: “Protect The Legacy” — and all the sports programs at our institution understood that. But in particular the men’s basketball program, we really took it to heart. And that’s something we talked about all year. We were recognizing as this year’s the 55th year anniversary of the national championship. And so the two of them together is something that we wanted to protect.
Hill considers Gaines as his mentor despite the fact that he never played for him. Cleo Jr. was recruited by Gaines in the 1980s, but decided to go to then-CIAA rival North Carolina Central and create his own legacy in Durham. He would go on to serve as head coach at another CIAA school — Shaw University — which he led to a CIAA title over WSSU in 2011. But the winds of change blew him to WSSU, coming off a five-win season in 2018.
He has a photo of Gaines in his office and a copy of his father’s jersey in his office. The reminders of the legacy, and the responsibility to push it forward, are all around him.
“It’s humbling, you know, to sit in almost literally the same seat that he sat in. And, you know, my dad walked these very footsteps on our campus where he met my mother. So it’s a lot to digest. But I’m glad the success I’m having as a coach and my staff is here at Winston-Salem State.”
WSSU players stuck together despite lineup changes and losing streak
Hill doesn’t have an Earl Monroe or Cleo Hill Sr. on his team. Those were first round NBA Draft picks when the league was a quarter of its current size. What WSSU does have is a team with Division I transfers like Jaylon Gibson, Jaylen Alston and Nate Springs along with talented underclassmen who had D1 offers like Samage Teel and Issac Parson. That combination has led WSSU to a 21-8 record this season and a CIAA title.
Also adding to their legacy were four members of the WSSU program who were a part of the 2020 title under Hill. Seniors Jon Hicklin, Xavier Fenell and Jaylin Parker as well as redshirt junior Alston sealed their second CIAA ring on Saturday.
“Everything kind of aligned, just like how it did in 2019. Everybody locked in. Everybody was one. Everybody was on the same page. Everybody had that energy,” Fenell said. “I could feel the energy is around everything, how everything happened, how everything went. And I was just proud of my guys that we stayed together.”
Hill has led the program to a 71-30 record in his four seasons (WSSU didn’t play during the 2020-2021 season). As far as he’s concerned, there isn’t any option at the school if he wants to stick around long.
“Well, you can’t be at Winston-Salem State without expectations,” Hill said with a trademark grin. “You know, it goes to say what was with the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, all the great teams. You can’t come here and not expect to win division championships and conference championships and advance to the NCAA tournament. It is just part of part of the deal when you when you’re a coach here or you’re a player here.”
Now WSSU will look to make its mark in the NCAA Tournament. All season the team has worn warmups with ’67 embroidered on them honoring the national title team. But for now, the coach and his players will take a breath before getting back to the grind.
“We’re going to enjoy it — safely,” Hill said clutching the trophy and sharing a laugh with his players. “Safely enjoy it and take a couple days and we’ll get back and see who’s winning in other conferences and where we’ll be going and who we might possibly be playing against and prepare like we did all season — and for this tournament. But we’re definitely going to enjoy it though.”