Clarence E. Gaines Sr. Biography
Worked as Bellhop, Alumni Became Recruiters, Served on Olympic Committee, Selected writings
A giant of a man in more ways than one, Clarence "Big House" Gaines Sr. won more basketball games than all but a handful of other colleges in the history of the game. At six feet five inches and 165 pounds, he was an imposing figure. As head basketball coach and athletic director at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina he notched a record of 828 wins and 447 losses between 1946 and 1993. That record included a 31-win season and designation as National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) coach of the year in 1967, but despite his massive victory totals, Gaines had other things on his mind besides the scoreboard.
"Could've won a thousand, had he been all into winning," Winston-Salem State equipment manager Fernandez Griffin told Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated in 1990. "He took the athlete who needed a second chance. He'd tell the players, 'Learn one thing here that will help you live well.' They'd say, 'Coach, what about winning?' He'd say, 'That too.'" The result of that attitude was a series of successful young people who passed through Gaines's basketball program—not only National Basketball Association legend Earl Monroe, but also a host of lesser talents who made something worthwhile of their lives due to Gaines's guidance and example.
Worked as Bellhop
Born in Paducah, Kentucky on May 21, 1923, Gaines was an only child. His mother Olivia was one of the few women of her time who played basketball. Gaines's father managed a small hotel that catered to African American traveling entertainers and others seeking accommodation in the segregated South, and Gaines worked as a bellhop himself, in a different hotel, while playing both football and basketball in high school. Hitchhiking with a Pittsburgh Courier reporter, he visited various colleges in the early 1940s. At Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore, an administrator told him he was as big as a house, and the nickname "Big House" remained with him for the rest of his life. (He wore a size 52 suit and size 14 shoes.) Gaines enrolled at Morgan State and played tackle on the football team, graduating with a science degree in 1945.
After college, Gaines thought about studying to become a dentist. To take a break and perhaps to get some money together, he followed a recommendation from his college football coach and went to North Carolina to take a job at Winston-Salem State, then called Winston-Salem Teachers College, as assistant basketball coach. The school was tiny at the time, with only 575 students, and like most institutions in the historically black branches of Southern state university systems it was poorly funded. Least promisingly of all from the point of view of a coach of men's athletic teams, the little teacher-training school was overwhelmingly female. Only 75 of its students were men, and it took ten of those to make a basketball squad.
But Winston-Salem's administrators knew a good thing when they saw it, and they quickly gave Gaines additional responsibilities. "By '47 I was teacher, 'lawyer,' 'judge,' football coach, basketball coach, ticket manager, trainer, and what passed for athletic director—eight jobs for one salary," Gaines recalled to Wiley. That salary was a minuscule $1,800 in his first year, and it never topped $65,000. Even amidst all these responsibilities, Gaines managed to complete course-work and earn a master's degree from Columbia University in New York in 1950. He married and remained in Winston-Salem for the rest of his life, raising two children with his wife Clara. An athletic directorship at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee tempted him in the early 1980s, but he stayed loyal to Winston-Salem State.
Alumni Became Recruiters
The principle behind Gaines's winning ways was established early: he forged close relationships with his players. That way, one winning season turned into a whole string of them as Winston-Salem graduates sent promising prospects his way. Between the 1946–47 and 1951–52 seasons, Gaines won 80 games and lost 55, raising Winston-Salem State from basketball insignificance to a regional contender. The effect fed on itself, and between the 1953–54 and 1956–57 seasons, Winston-Salem State notched a 93-27 record.
Though Gaines now had to compete with Northern colleges that heavily recruited black players anxious to escape the segregated South, he continued to land talented players. Cleo Hill, who went on to a career with the St. Louis Hawks of the National Basketball Association (NBA), played for Gaines and led the team to a 26-5 record in 1961, his senior year. Between 1959 and 1964, Winston-Salem State's record was 114-26. Gaines turned into something of a local institution, and the school's basketball games became popular beyond the black community. Some even credited Gaines and his successful program with helping to keep the level of desegregation-related violence low in Winston-Salem as compared with other North Carolina cities.
Perhaps Gaines's greatest recruiting triumph was the signing of future New York Knickerbockers star and 1990 NBA Hall of Fame inductee Earl Monroe. In Monroe's last year, 1966–67, Gaines's career hit its apex. With Monroe averaging 42.7 points per game, Winston-Salem State went 31-1, losing only to archrival North Carolina A&T and enduring racial taunts from fans of opposing teams when they played at predominantly white institutions. The team won the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division II national title, the first NCAA championship won by a historically black college, and Gaines was named NCAA Coach of the Year. Despite this taste of renown, Gaines put the welfare of his players first. "Clarence Gaines was a father figure to me," Monroe told Wiley. "I went to school to play ball, but he turned that around in my first year. He let me know what I was there for, no matter how well I could play."
Served on Olympic Committee
By that time Gaines was already a three-time winner of coach of the year honors in Winston-Salem State's Central Intercollegiate Athletics Association, and he would go on to receive a host of other awards including a Basketball Hall of Fame induction of his own in 1982. Twice during the 1970s he served as a member of the United States Olympic Committee. His teams were consistent winners through the 1970s and early 1980s, and late in 1983 he eclipsed a total of 700 career wins. Finally, though, the desegregation of college basketball to which Gaines had helped contribute dried up his recruiting pool; talented players who might previously have attended a historically black college instead tended to opt for larger schools. "The recruiting thing is a major problem," Gaines said in an interview quoted by the New York Times. "The type of kids I'd like, I can't get. Even our graduates figure, as good as they were when they were here, now their kids are ready for the Big Ten."
Gaines topped 800 victories in 1990, but retired in 1993 after a losing season. Some felt that he had been unfairly forced out, but with a lifetime record of 828 wins and 447 losses he was the second-winningest college basketball coach of all time, behind only the legendary Adolph Rupp. He continued to serve Winston-Salem State as an institutional advancement adviser and special lecturer. Gaines penned an autobiography, They Call Me Big House, and Winston-Salem State's field house and school hall of fame were named after him. When Clarence "Big House" Gaines died from complications of a stroke on April 18, 2005, he remained in fifth place on the all-time college basketball coaching wins list.
(With Glint Johnson) They Call Me Big House, Blair, 2004.
Gaines, Clarence E., with Glint Johnson, They Call Me Big House, Blair, 2004.
Black Issues in Higher Education, June 2, 2005, p. 15.
Ebony, February 2002, p. 60.
Jet, March 15, 1993, p. 48; May 9, 2005, p. 48.
New York Times, April 20, 2005, p. C19.
News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), December 19, 1996, p. C1.
Sports Illustrated, November 28, 1983, p. 27; November 15, 1990, p. 116; May 2, 2005, p. 17.
Winston-Salem Journal, January 2, 2003, p. C1.