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Gaines, Clarence E.(1923–2005) - Basketball coach, Wins NCAA Championship, Receives Numerous Honors, Chronology

wssu national college university

National basketball icon Clarence E. Gaines, popularly known as “Big House,” was one of the country’s greatest collegiate basketball coaches as well as the African American coach with the most wins in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In his forty-seven-year coaching career, Gaines compiled a remarkable record of 828 wins and 447 losses and led his team at Winston-Salem State University to become the first historically black college to win an NCAA basketball title.

On May 21, 1923, Clarence E. Gaines was born in Paducah, Kentucky, where Illinois and Missouri meet along the Ohio River. He was the only child of Lester and Olivia Bolen Gaines. His maternal grandfather, Ambrose Bole, had been a slave on a Kentucky plantation and opened a blacksmith shop in Paducah when the Civil War ended. While Gaines’s mother worked in a cooperage (a barrel factory) and his father served as a hotel cook and jackleg carpenter, young Gaines spent time with his maternal grandmother Ida Bolen, a highly religious woman who had him baptized in the Ohio River. The boy attended public schools in Paducah and graduated salutatorian from Lincoln High School, where he was an All-State football player. Gaines also had a musical background, having played the trumpet in the school band. In 1941, he enrolled in Morgan State College (later University) in Baltimore on a football scholarship. Gaines was a big man; he stood six feet five inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. As soon as James “Stump” Carter, the business manager of Morgan’s athletics department, saw Gaines, Carter made a statement, part of which became Gaines’s permanent nickname. Quoted in Gaines’s autobiography, Carter said “Man! The only thing I’ve ever seen bigger than you is a house.” From then on, Gaines was called Big House, which he thought “had nice style to it” and considered more appealing than Sully, his high school nickname.

Gaines graduated from Morgan State in 1945 with a B.S. and continued his education at New York’s Columbia University where he received an M.A. in 1950. Although Gaines’s ambition was to become a dentist, after graduation from Morgan State he accepted an offer from Winston-Salem State Teachers College (later University, or WSSU), a historically black college in North Carolina, where he became football coach and later basketball coach.

Gaines joined the staff at WSSU in 1946. His was to be a temporary assignment yet his work in basketball became a lifelong vocation. During his tenure at the college, he coached every sport offered-football, basketball, track, tennis, and boxing-and taught classes as well. He spent 1946 through 1949 coaching football, compiling a 20:12:4 record. Once he concentrated on basketball, beginning in 1949, he went on to build one of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s (CIAA) best basketball programs and regularly won games. He headed the Department of Physical Education and also taught courses at WSSU.

Wins NCAA Championship

Among the star players that Gaines produced at WSSU was Cleo Hill, the first African American player to be drafted in the first round by the National Basketball Association in 1961. Another future professional star was Hall-of-Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who led WSSU to its Division II national championship (1966–67), making WSSU the first predominantly black school and the first college in the South to win an NCAA basketball title. With Monroe’s skill and Gaines’s leadership, the games drew enormous crowds of sports fans that were well-mixed racially at a time when racial barriers in the South were gradually breaking down. They wanted to see the up-tempo teams with their fast-breaking techniques and speed that overwhelmed opponents. This was without a doubt Gaines’s best-ever squad. After the Monroe era, Gaines spent most of his time as athletic director while continuing as basketball coach. He also actively recruited athletes in the Midwest as well as on the inner-city playgrounds of the Northeast. Altogether, eighteen of Gaines’s teams won twenty or more games. His success raised WSSU’s profile to national prominence.

Gaines was CIAA president (1970–74); CIAA Basketball Coaches president (1972–80; 1990–92); a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee (1973–76); and a member of the board of directors, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1980–90).

Toward the end of his legendary career, Gaines and WSSU faced the same obstacle as other historically black college athletic programs. Increasingly they became unable to attract the top players due to stiff competition from mainstream institutions that had integrated their sports programs and enticed black athletes with attractive offers. The teams no longer performed well and were less exciting to watch than they had been earlier.

In 1993, Gaines had reached mandatory retirement age in North Carolina at that time. After coaching at WSSU for forty-seven years, he retired in 1993 and was named professor emeritus. He left collegiate basketball coaching with an impressive record of 828 wins, eight CIAA conference championships, and a national title. With this record, he had the most wins in NCAA history up to that time and second only to legendary coach Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky. He had the most wins of any African American coach in NCAA basketball history. He had viewed basketball as a way to help young men enrich their lives.

Gaines retired from college coaching, but he did not retire from athletic service to young people. Throughout North Carolina and beyond, Gaines was known for his involvement with youth, which added to his great reputation. He founded and was administrator of the WSSU National Youth Sports Program. The sports and academic enrichment program continues in the early 2000s to influence the lives of hundreds of youth who attend the sessions each summer. As well, he co-founded the Winston-Salem Youth Baseball League. The numerous professional and civic organizations in which he held memberships included the American Association of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation; Boy Scouts of America; the Forsyth County Heart Association; the old Patterson Avenue YMCA Board of Management; and the Rotary Club. He was also a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church.

Receives Numerous Honors

Gaines received many honors during his career. He was named NCAA College Division Basketball Coach of the Year (1967) and CIAA Outstanding Tournament Coach (1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1970, 1972, 1979). He was honored with the joint National Association of Basketball Coaches and National Invitational Tournament Award (1978); presented the Indiana Sports Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award (1990); and given the Atlanta Tipoff Club Lifetime Achievement Award (1991). Reflecting his excellence beyond the professional arena, in 1973 the National Urban League presented the Gaines family with the Family of the Year Award.



Born in Paducah, Kentucky on May 21


Receives B.A. from Morgan State University


Serves as football coach at Winston-Salem State College


Becomes basketball coach at Winston-Salem State College


Marries Clara Berry; receives M.A. degree from Columbia University


Leads WSSC to basketball championship in NCAA Division II


Serves as president of the CIAA


Serves as president of CIAA Basketball Coaches


Serves as member of the U.S. Olympic Committee


Member of the board of directors, Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame


Retires with 828:447 record


Named Kentucky Colonel at University of Kentucky basketball game; dies in Winston-Salem on April 18

Gaines was honored in January 2005 during the half-time ceremony of the University of Kansas and University of Kentucky game in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. Before a capacity crowd of 24,000, Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher gave Gaines the highest honor a native son of Kentucky can receive, the designation “Kentucky Colonel.” Sometime late in his life, WSSU honored him during the WSSU Rams’ Living Legend Benefit, a gala that raised funds for the Clarence “Big House” Gaines Scholarship. WSSU also named the athletic facility, the C. E. Gaines Center, in his honor; the facility was dedicated in 1975.

The legendary Gaines is enshrined in eight halls of fame: National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Helms (1968); Morgan State College Sports (1973); CIAA Sports (1976); North Carolina Sports (1978); Winston-Salem State University (1980); Nai-smith (1982); Bob Douglas (1985); and National Association for Sport and Physical Education (1990).

For some time Gaines suffered heart problems, but he continued to lead an active life visiting shut-ins. He also participated in several research studies at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. He died in Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem on April 18, 2005, of complications from a stroke. He was survived by his wife Clara Berry, whom he married in 1950, and two children-Lisa Gaines McDonald of Chicago, and Clarence Edward Gaines Jr. of Los Angeles. A memorial service for Gaines was held on April 22, 2005, in the Joel Coliseum Annex, having been moved from WSSU’s campus to accommodate a huge crowd.

In his lifetime, Gaines remained concerned with closing the divide that separated races and cultures. His life’s story is told in his autobiography, They Call Me Big House , published in 2004, and in his record preserved in national sports history. Although basketball dominated his life, Gaines was passionate about his family, young people, his church, his community, and his race. His legend is summed up in the words of WSSU chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr., who was quoted in a sports article on the school’s website: “Coach Gaines was an icon…. His contributions and accomplishments in sport were incredible, but the contributions he made to uplift so many young people during his lifetime … is his greatest legacy.”

Gaines, Ernest(1933–) - Novelist, Chronology [next] [back] Gabor, Dennis

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