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Coach Leon Black a Longhorn Sports pioneer- Blazing trails into unchartered territory.
Great coaches are generally determined by their won/loss record, successful runs at the conference championship, and national championships, but these standards tend to celebrate transitory success and minimize a coaches long term accomplishments. Winning should never be considered 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 programs. 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 technique eventually collapses under its own weight and leaves the program in worse shape. Abe Lemmons is a good example of a coach whose short term coaching approach led to a collapse with long term consequences. While I was a fan of Coach Abe Lemmons during his tenure at Texas, his short term focus was unhealthy for the long term foundation of Longhorn basketball. Lemmons 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.
Lemmons ability to build a program around individuals proved to be a short sighted , and after Coach Lemmons was fired Texas spent the next 6 dark years trying to resurrect the team over of the individual. 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.
For more about Abe Lemmons please click on "men's" in the Navigation page then "basketball 1968" and scroll down to "Abe Lemmons." He is a fascinating individual
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 because of the outmoded basketball facility that only offered visiting teams $1300 , and because the University bragged about being a two sport school- Fall football and Spring football. Coach Black said “We always had that back seat,” Black said. “Every time I went to recruit somebody, they had an article. And they 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.’” He also 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.
But by 1976 Coach Black states in the "Cactus" surmises that his inability to recruit a big man and the rise of recruiting violations in the SWC were the primary reasons he left Basketball . When he reported two A & M players to the SWC s for accepting $6000 each , Coach Black learned just how clueless the SWC officials were.
After Leon received many hostile phone calls from individuals all hours of the night, he read articles from the media that associated sinister motives to his report , and dealt with the anger of some Unsympathetic fans, he decided it was time to move on. Like Coach Royal, Coach Black learned that recruiting by the established rules in the late 70's and during the 80's only resulted in losing games. To win a coach had to cheat, and that aspect of NCAA sports needed to remain muzzled. It was necessary to minimize Coach Black's allegations in order to protect the public image of the members of the SWC. It did not work and by the 80's recruiting violations reached their peak.
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."
We could not have come "that far" without Coach Black's pioneering spirit and sense of destiny. Pioneers set the tone and Coach Black was a tone setter.
It is no accident that in Abe Lemons second year as head coach the team won the NIT. That win was set in motion by Coach Black a decade before.