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Coach Leon Black- visionary who created the formula for Longhorn basketball greatness.
Coach Leon Black a Longhorn Sports pioneer- Blazing trails into unchartered territory.
Great coaches are generally determined by either their won/loss record, successful runs at the conference championship, or national championships, but those standards tend to celebrate transitory successes and minimize a coaches long term accomplishments. Winning should never be the only ingredient necessary for greatness. Many coaches deserve to be judged by more lofty standards then a won/loss record. Coaches with poor records may have to overcome impossible obstacles to succeed. Only history can judge the full impact of a coaches accomplishments and from the prism of history Coach Black passes the test of greatness.
Pioneering in sports is a long term proposition. It requires vision, insight, perseverance, and other intangibles to build or rebuild a losing program. Coach Bible in 1937 and Coach Black in 1968 share a common bond. Each of these coaches chose to build a long term foundation for a winning program instead of building a program to win a game. Coach Bible's first three year record was 8-18 and Coach Black's record was 31-41. For both coaches, the rebuilding process was slow and ugly.
Coaches who build programs around winning the next game may show some promise in the short term but this coaching style eventually collapses under its own weight and leaves the program in worse shape. While I was a fan of Coach Abe Lemmons I now know his short term focus was a major contributor to the collapse of Longhorn basketball program. Coach Abe chose to win games with individual players and not the team. At the end of Coach Lemmons career the Longhorns were 14-0 when Texas lost Mike Wacker to injury. The loss of one athlete should never totally collapse any sports program, but it happened at Texas. The Longhorns ended the season at 16-11. The team was 2-11 without Wacker.
After Coach Lemmons was fired Texas spent the next 6 dark years trying to resurrect long term team goals that Coach Leon Black had implemented. The process was an unmitigated failure. From 1982-1988 Texas record was 77 and 98. The second lowest winning percentage in the history of Longhorn basketball.
In 1968 the Longhorns had no "tools" to recruit the great BASKETBALL athletes.
Most of the problems surrounding the mediocre state of UT basketball in 1968 were not caused by coaching. Recruiting was the main problem with Texas. The Daily Texas stated that Great African American athletes rejected UT because of the Universities past racial history. Larry Robinson also stated in The Daily Texan that "many (Africa-American athletes) weren't accustomed to playing around white players and they felt there weren't enough black students......."
Rodney Page helped Coach Black recruit in a unofficial capacity in the early 70's, and Rodney confirms the concerns mentioned in The Daily Texan.
He says " Soon thereafter in an unofficial capacity, I began assisting in recruiting African-American basketball players, particularly in the Houston area since I had graduated high school and college in Houston. I was well connected with the head coaches at Jack Yates, Phyllis Wheatley, Kashmere, and Worthing High Schools. In addition, I became an ear, mentor, and advocate for the black basketball players that were recruited to the UT basketball program. Tyrone Johnson, James Price, Phillip Davis, Ed Johnson, Ovie Dotson, Gary Goodner, and Johnny Moore were players that I offered a mentoring and understanding presence. I can honestly say that Leon Black was just as concerned about these young men as human beings as well as basketball players. Please understand the challenge of the times for all concerned. I remember sitting in Ovie Dotson’s home in San Antonio and assuring his mother that I would look out for her son as she had concerns about him attending UT. I was true to my word. A few years prior the same was true for Tyrone Johnson, a juco transfer from Tyler JC, as I sat in his home in East Austin assuring his mother that I would look out for Tyrone as she had similar concerns about him attending UT. Again, I was true to my word. Tyrone and I remained close friends until his sudden death in 2001. It’s important to understand the negative image that UT had in the African-American community at that time and the very real concerns that parents possessed. We were pioneering and blazing trails in uncharted territory for UT'.
In addition to losing many great African American athletes due to racial issues, UT also lost many recruits from all ethnic backgrounds due a combination of other non-racial obstacles. By the late 60's Gregory Gyms useful life over. Because the facility was small UT could only offer visiting teams $1300. A laughable amount even in the 60's. No great basketball teams from the East or West coast wanted to play Texas in Austin with a guarantee to lose money on the game. Then there was the huge mistake made by UT media to promote the Longhorns as a two sport school- Fall football and Spring football. Coach Black said “We always had that back seat,” Coach Black said. “Every time I went to recruit somebody, they had that article. And the recruit said ‘Why should I come to Texas? Here’s your SID, he’s saying there are two sports at Texas, and basketball is not one of them."
Coach Black said that The UT Administration, coaches, and donors were all aware of these recruiting handicaps and for the next 10 years focused on correcting all of these liabilities.
Coach Black leaves A legacy that is deep, wide, but unheralded.
As an assistant coach to Harold Bradley, Leon Black witnessed first hand the African American basketball players rebuff of UT recruiting overtures. Twice Coach Bradley thought that he had crossed the racial barrier. James Cash was his best chance to recruit a black athlete. To show his commitment to James Cash, Bradley visited the Austin City Council and exhorted the human rights commission to show that Texas was striving to improve race relations. Bradley's attempt was commendable but unsuccessful. Cash chose TCU over Texas.
Coach Bradley also pushed hard to get Lew Alcindor, and coach was so convinced that Lew would select Texas he had a preliminary press released written. Bradley was disappointed again. With a sense of understanding Bill Little said of Coach Bradley's plight "there were legitimate concerns of how do you integrate when you've had nothing that is an example of it."
Coach Black successfully overcame many of the the racial issues that Coach Bradley could not. Coach Black in his early years as head coach successfully recruited seven African American basketball players to play for the Longhorns. Coach Black's recruiting style changed the panoramic view of Longhorn men's basketball forever and Rodney Page was a major factor in the new view.
Two of the 7 African-American recruits were Jimmy Blacklock and Johnny Robinson
Jimmy Blacklock later becomes the coach of the Harlem Globe Trotters.
Coach Black also recruited Larry Robinson
Larry Robinson Two Time MVP in the SWC
Larry Robinson wanted to be a Longhorn. He said "I know I could play and race wasn't an issue." I could acclimated myself to white society; it wan't for me a strange thing."
Coach Black's pioneering spirit and his long term vision were needed to move the Longhorn basketball to the next level. During his years as the head coach racial tensions subsided; African-American athletes and their extended families became great Longhorns; and an arena was built that proved the Longhorns were more than just a football program. Along the way Coach Black's teams won the SWC in 1972 and 1974. The 1972 team made it to the sweet 16 and there are many coaches , players, and fans that still think the 1972 team was one of the best Longhorn basketball teams of all time. Unfortunately, two of Texas best players missed the sweet 16 tournament due to injuries so we will never know how great they were.
Coach Black was an important factor in all of these changes. In a 2015 Daily Texan article Coach Black says "look how far we've come." "We've come so far that it doesn't matter. You look for the best coach. If he's black, he's black, if he is white he is white..........................I think we've come that far."
The Longhorns could not have come "that far" without Coach Black's pioneering spirit and sense of destiny. Pioneers always set the tone and Coach Black was a tone setter. It is no accident that after replacing Coach Black as head coach that in Abe Lemons second year as his team won the NIT. That win was set in motion by Coach Black's vision a decade before.
REMEMBERING COACH LEON BLACK BY RODNEY PAGE AUGUST 14TH 2017
Friendly, courteous, genuine, honest, determined, truthful, concerned, cooperative and gracious are a few words that come to mind when I think of Leon Black. I remember first meeting Leon in the fall of 1972. I was early in my tenure of teaching Physical Instruction classes in Gregory Gym when our paths crossed. His genuine, friendly spirit was the first thing I noticed about him. Little did I know at our first meeting that it would be the beginning of a special mutually beneficial relationship steeped in truth, trust, and honesty.
Our early conversations frequently included basketball coaching strategy, philosophy, and teaching. Relatively soon in our friendship, our conversations turned to the reality and necessity of recruiting African-American athletes. His concern was not just for the necessary competitive balance, but also for the undeniable reality of the shifting racial landscape at UT. This fact was true for all of UT athletics as the department was grappling with the reality of recruiting black athletes to maintain competitive balance with the rest of the national trend in intercollegiate athletics. Leon was not only concerned about recruiting; he was just as concerned about providing a positive experience for the black athletes. He was also open to understanding them as people as well as the realities they were living. It was not as easy as some might suppose for a black athlete to step onto the UT campus at that time. It was truly a different world and reality. For trailblazers and pioneers, the path is seldom easy. Yet, that is the challenge and sense of destiny and accomplishment in these opportunities.
Soon thereafter in an unofficial capacity, I began assisting in recruiting African-American basketball players, particularly in the Houston area since I had graduated high school and college in Houston. I was well connected with the head coaches at Jack Yates, Phyllis Wheatley, Kashmere, and Worthing High Schools. In addition, I became an ear, mentor, and advocate for the black basketball players that were recruited to the UT basketball program. Tyrone Johnson, James Price, Phillip Davis, Ed Johnson, Ovie Dotson, Gary Goodner, and Johnny Moore were players that I offered a mentoring and understanding presence. I can honestly say that Leon Black was just as concerned about these young men as human beings as well as basketball players. Please understand the challenge of the times for all concerned. I remember sitting in Ovie Dotson’s home in San Antonio and assuring his mother that I would look out for her son as she had concerns about him attending UT. I was true to my word. A few years prior the same was true for Tyrone Johnson, a juco transfer from Tyler JC, as I sat in his home in East Austin assuring his mother that I would look out for Tyrone as she had similar concerns about him attending UT. Again, I was true to my word. Tyrone and I remained close friends until his sudden death in 2001. It’s important to understand the negative image that UT had in the African-American community at that time and the very real concerns that parents possessed. We were pioneering and blazing trails in uncharted territory for UT.
Through it all, Leon Black and I maintained our warm, trust-based relationship. He allowed me great latitude in my conversations with these players, as he was aware that I understood the life language as well as the different realities they were living. We were of one accord in working for the positive good of both the players and the basketball team. He trusted me, which inspired the best in me and still does. One of the things I appreciated immensely about Leon was that he was willing to enter the worlds of those who were different from him. He was truly trying to understand and come to grips with the changing racial dynamics at UT. His actions, even more than his words, spoke loud and clear about the genuine truth of his convictions. I will go to my grave with memories of many deep, difficult, yet rich conversations I had with Leon and the players.
REMEMBERING COACH LEON BLACK BY RODNEY PAGE AUGUST 14TH 2017 (continued)
As 1973 rolled around, I became the UT Women’s Basketball coach and our mutually beneficial relationship continued and accelerated. Wow! To say that we were on a shoestring budget would be an understatement. Our salvation was Leon Black. Let’s be clear, no money or funds changed hands. Yet, Leon Black’s generosity and benevolence were worth a shipment of gold. Let me count the ways: Equipment, facilities, and manpower in terms of freedom to utilize his managers and trainers. We experienced many firsts in that first year and Leon Black had a great deal to do with that. He was so willing, so genuine, and so true. Specifically speaking, we shared basketballs with the men’s program as we had a very limited budget. Men and women were using the same sized basketball in the early years. Sometimes I would trade a brand new basketball for two lightly used men’s basketballs as I was trying to increase our equipment for the women’s team. Hustling was an everyday thing for me. We had no training budget, but Leon was gracious enough to allow us to utilize his trainers as well as often providing tape and other training supplies and equipment from the men’s supply. We also shared the men’s video equipment and utilized their film room. In addition, everything related to the Gregory Gym clock was shared with us. Last but not least, Leon offered me the use of his basketball office phone for long distance calls for recruiting purposes since we technically had no recruiting budget.
That first year Leon and I collaborated on several doubleheader basketball games with the women’s game preceding the men’s game. Another first made possible by a willingness and generosity of spirit. This proved to be a very successful venture and helped our women’s basketball program to be showcased in a more positive and legitimate light. It was so easy working with Leon, as we were kindred spirits in many respects. I can only imagine how difficult our path would have been without the assistance of Leon Black. That says something about the heart and spirit of the man.
As I close this remembrance of Leon Black, I remain eternally grateful for his friendship and sharing heart. I would say that Leon Black was a true friend. He was sincere, honest and kind. His sense of fairness, his ethics, and his Christian values were obvious as his actions spoke much louder than his words. I firmly believe that his actions were making a statement about the way things were, and about making for a better way. I would also say that Leon Black was a true pioneer and quiet warrior in making a huge impact in terms of the recruitment of African-American basketball players at The University of Texas.
August 14, 2017