On the eve of MLK Day and Inauguration Day, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the deans of African American coaches, Ben Jobe. Best known for his time as the head coach at Southern University, Jobe also logged time as the head coach at Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Talladega, Tuskegee, South Carolina State, and Denver. At the age of 80, Jobe is still involved in the game, as he scouts for the New York Knicks.
Asked if he had ever envisioned a day when there would be a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and the United States would have an African American president, Jobe responded, “I certainly did not expect to see this happen. When Dr. King first came on the scene, I for one, never thought he would be successful in what he had on his mind--in fact, I don’t think he had any of this on his mind at all...Now, I am not a religious man, but I do believe in certain things. I believe that there’s a Creator and I believe there’s a Holy Spirit, and I’m pretty sure that this is orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. When they asked Dr. King to help them with this bus boycott, he got involved, and the rest is history.”
When asked about his mentors and role models in coaching, Jobe first shared that has family was pushing him to go into medicine, saying he grew up across the street from a medical university.
“Then I heard of a guy named John McLendon. They said he was the only man alive who had studied under Dr. Naismith. He was so charismatic, and I listened to his words, and I stayed with him and his philosophy that he taught us--there were only about eleven of us. He told us that ‘if you take my philosophy and you use it, you’ll always be winner.’ And the eleven of us, it worked...For half a century I never changed,” said Jobe.
“There was also Clarence “Big House” Gaines from Winston-Salem. He was also a strong influence on us. He had great players, maybe one of the greatest to ever play in Cleo Hill. Cleo had about eight different weapons. But John McLendon is the father of black college basketball,” continued Jobe.
Jobe laments the big money atmosphere of sports today. “The world of sports is really a plastic world. It’s not real. It’s like the whole entertainment business of Hollywood, and a lot of coaches are falling into that--they like that. But there are some young coaches I like on the high school and small college level and some of the coaches in foreign countries that I have met and they are dedicated to the whole game. The kid at Butler (Brad Stevens) and the kid at VCU (Shaka Smart)--one thing that impresses me about those kids is that they turned down the big money,” observed Jobe.
Jobe was certainly a fan of playing the game at a fast pace. When asked about the state of the game, he recalled, “I watched a game recently and at halftime, the score was 21-14, and I thought ‘there is something wrong here.’ I don’t know what they are doing. I don’t understand that. I grew up in a time with John McLendon’s philosophy when we scored 100 points in every game.”
Some of Jobe’s friends in the game have told him kids these days aren’t strong enough to implement McLendon’s running philosophy. Jobe described McLendon’s philosophy, saying, “We would run six miles in the morning, practice 2 hours in the evening, and then run another six miles before bedtime. Then your kids could play 40 minutes. Our kids are not strong enough. They don’t walk to school. They don’t walk to church. They don’t walk to the rec center.”
One thing is for sure. The game is better today due to the contributions of coaches like Ben Jobe, Clarence “Big House” Gaines, and John McLendon. As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King and inaugurate Barack Obama, we should remember those iconic African American coaches who have paved the way in the game we love.