The Legacy of Clarence Edward “Big House” Gaines, Sr.
When Clarence E. Gaines arrived at Winston-Salem Teachers College to serve as assistant basketball coach, he intended to stay just long enough to earn enough money to enroll in dental school. Instead, he served the Winston-Salem community for almost fifty years, becoming the second winningest college basketball coach in history with a lifetime record of 828 wins when he retired in 1993. But Coach Gaines was about more than basketball. According to equipment manager Fernandez Griffin, “He’d tell the players, ‘Learn one thing here that will help you live well.’” Gaines’ attitude fostered the success of young people who passed through his basketball program.
Clarence Gaines, born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1923, excelled in academics through out his school career and participated in extra curricular activities including basketball, football, and trumpet playing. Graduating as salutatorian from Lincoln High School in 1941, he could have attended any of a number of colleges, but chose Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland. At 6’3″ tall and 265 pounds, Clarence played tackle on the Morgan football team and earned the nickname “Big House”. When he graduated in 1945 with a degree in chemistry, he intended to become a dentist. His college coach Eddie Hurt encouraged him to go for the job as assistant basketball coach at Winston-Salem Teachers College to earn money for dental school. “Big House” did just that, and the legacy began.
Coach Gaines was undaunted by the low enrollment of men (only 75 out of 575 students) at the Teachers College. He soon accepted additional responsibilities, and by 1947 he was a teacher, football coach, basketball coach, ticket manager, trainer, and athletic director. His starting salary was $1,800, and it never topped $65,000. Yet, at the small, underfunded college, Clarence Gaines recognized his calling: he was born to coach young men.
Gaines continued to work at Winston-Salem Teachers College while earning a master’s degree in physical education from Columbia University. Although he was named CIAA “Football Coach of the Year” in 1948, Gaines soon left football to others. From 1949 until 1993, he served as basketball coach and athletic director at the school that he helped to grow into a University. Always encouraging his students to better themselves, he would scold, “I drove around my campusâ€¦I saw a lot of people outside â€¦doing all sorts of things. But I did not see one person sitting with a book and studying…We have to reverse thatâ€¦and we can’t do it by crying and moaning. It takes hard work.”
In 1950, Coach Gaines and Clara Berry, a Latin teacher in Forsyth County public schools married. Although Gaines received tempting offers to work for other universities, he and Clara turned them down, preferring to make Winston-Salem a permanent home for themselves and their two children.
Coach Gaines’ basketball strategy was to build close relationships with his players. One winning season lead to another, and graduates of Winston-Salem sent promising prospective students back to their coach. One of these students, Cleo Hill, played for Gaines and led the team to a 26-5 record in 1961, his senior year. Cleo, who went on to a career with the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA, would later appreciate Gaines’ insistence that he succeed in the classroom as well as on the court.
Between 1959 and 1964, Winston-Salem State’s record was 114-26. Gaines became a local hero, and the school’s basketball games became popular beyond the black community. Some 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. One example of interracial collaboration directly related to Gaines’ program was the scrimmages organized by Billy Packer, a Wake Forest guard, and Cleo Hill. In 1959, oblivious to Jim Crow laws that outlawed integrated athletics and without permission from their respective coaches, the two players held scrimmages between their two squads on Sundays at each other’s gyms.
In 1967, Gaines’ team became the first African-American college to win a national basketball championship. Thanks to Gaines’ guidance, athlete Vernon Earl “the Pearl” Monroe led the Winston-Salem State College basketball team to the NCAA Division II Basketball Championship title. According to Monroe, Clarence Gaines was a father figure. Monroe said, “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.”
Gaines became the first African-American coach voted NCAA Division II Coach of the Year in 1967. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982 and was a five-time winner of the CIAA Coach of the Year Award. Twice during the 1970s Clarence Gaines served as a member of the United States Olympic Committee. He was involved in numerous professional and civic activities and organizations, serving as officer of many. Gaines was also awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor that is reserved for individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to their communities.
As Shirley McRae writes, “Clarence Gaines won many awards, but was much more than a coach. He was also a teacher who taught young men and women the fundamentals of living well in and out of sports. A sensitive, caring man whose heart was as big as his nickname, he brought students, the university and community together within his loving embrace.”
Barrier, Smith. “‘Bighouse’” Gaines”, Black College Basketball Yearbook, 1979, pp. 92-94.
McRae, Shirley and McRae, Norman. “Clarence Gaines,”, in: Strong Men & Women, Excellence in Leadership. Virginia Power/North Carolina Power, Vol. 5, 1995, p. 3.
Parent, Anthony S. “Weathering Wake: The African-American Experience”, Founders’ Day Convocation Address, February 26, 2009, Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University. Accessed at www.wfu.edu/wowf/2009/20090226.parentsspeech.html on March 4, 2009.
Winston-Salem State University Archives, “Clarence Edward “Bighouse” Gaines, Sr. Collection”.
Wiley, Ralph. “Big House,” Sports Illustrated, November 19, 1990, pp. 116-132.
See also: Gaines, Clarence E. and Johnson, Clint, They Call Me Big House, Winston-Salem, NC: J.F.Blair, 2004.