They Called Him Bighouse: Profile of a Legendary Coach

Harold BellContributor IIIJune 9, 2009

On Monday April 18, 2005 college basketball lost one of its true giants, a man of not only mammoth size, but of huge influence also.


Winston-Salem State University’s Clarence Bighouse Gaines died at the age of eighty-one.  Bighouse won more games (828) than any other black coach in the history of college basketball.  


When Bighouse retired in 1993 at the age of 72, he had more wins than any active coach, black or white, in the country.  Despite the naysayers, Bighouse could have easily coached deep into his seventies if the talent pool was still available. 


Penn State’s Joe Paterno won the Big Ten football title and celebrated his 80th birthday shortly thereafter.


The athletic talent pool at historically black colleges and universities has been depleted by larger, Division One schools. 


HBCUs, as they are commonly known, have remained relevant without the financial success of a Final Four or Rose Bowl appearance. 


HBCUs are the losers. 


For example, the once vibrant CIAA Tournament is almost down to a “Skeleton Crew” as schools jump to Division One (the latest Winston-Salem and North Carolina Central) and the conference moves from city to city like a gypsy caravan chasing the almighty dollar.  The price paid—the loss of Black history. 


This made Bighouse sad as he was deeply concerned with Black history.


Despite the raids conducted by Division One schools for the black athlete Bighouse leaves behind a legacy of a winner on and off the court.  He touched and won thousands of student/athletes’ hearts and minds with “ Tuff love” during his 47 years on the Winston-Salem campus.


He left behind two families, first, his one of a kind wife Clara, a daughter Lisa and a son Clarence Jr. The second family was the athletes and students who called him “Daddy” on campus. 


There were hundreds more he touched on other HBCU campuses around the country.  He was like a rock star during games and at the CIAA Tournament, many of his players thought they were the stars, but Bighouse usually stole the show.  It seemed like everyone wanted to talk with or touch him in those two settings. 


Many thought it was often like a scene from the movie “Godfather.”


I met Coach Gaines through an introduction by my Spingarn High School Coach Dave Brown. He was no stranger to the nation’s capitol. He was a graduate of Morgan State University in nearby Baltimore where he was chemistry major and an All-American football player.  He coached in the first ever CIAA Tournament in D.C. at old Turner’s Arena in northwest DC. 


I will never forget that summer day in 1958 when he walked through the pool room door.  He walked in like he owned it and asked, “Which one of you guys is Harold Bell?"


I took a minute before I responded I was not sure if he was a cop or a Bounty Hunter, but I thought to myself “I had never seen a cop or Bounty Hunter that big.”  After I identified myself he sat down in a chair and waited until I finished my game. 


His first question to me, “Son are you interested in going to college?”  My response was ‘Yes sir.’ 


His next words were "I am Clarence Gaines and I am the coach at Winston-Salem Teachers’ College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  If you interested in going to college you must first graduate from high school.  Check with Coach Brown when you do."


He got up and left the pool room without another word.  I was left thinking “Where in the hell is Winston-Salem Teachers College?”


The visit from Bighouse would turn out to be a lifesaver.  The life that would be saved would be mine.  Bighouse and Winston-Salem for almost five decades would be the lifeline in the East Coast corridor (Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C.) for many lost souls like me.


My successful work with at-risk children in the streets of the inner-city Bighouse deserves an assist. 


During the summer months I would often try to give the youth camping experiences out of town. 


Dave Bing, a native Washingtonian and NBA Hall of Fame legend provided them with their first camping experience in 1969. His camp was in the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania.  Here they would meet Detroit Piston NBA Hall of Fame player Bob Lanier and the late John Brisker. 


There were camps run by NBA pioneer Spencer Haywood in New Jersey, the John Chaney/Sonny Hill camps in Philadelphia it was here they met NBA legends like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Bill Bradley. 


Last but not least was the Bighouse Gaines camp on Winston-Salem State campus in North Carolina. This was the camp that made the biggest impression on the young men. 

With the exception of Brisker and Haywood all the NBA players they met were all voted into the NBA Hall of Fame. They were also among those named the Fifty Greatest Players in NBA history. 


The man they remembered most never played in the NBA--his name was “Bighouse.” 


Bighouse and I were born on the same day and month May 21.  We shared several birthdays together here in D.C. during our forty-five year relationship. 


It has been said, “They are like two Bulls in a China closet.”  Others have described our relationship as one of “Love and Hate.”  I loved him and he hated me or vice-versa, but loved was always the common denominator.  He reminded me of three other sports icon friends of mine Muhammad Ali (Boxing), Red Auerbach (NBA) and Jim Brown (NFL).  Ali, Auerbach, and Brown just by their presence in a room made other men feel small and insignificant.  Coach Gaines, had that same kind of effect by just being himself—BIG!


Coach and I didn’t get a chance to have one of our face-to-face discussions at the last homecoming because of his health. I missed last year’s CIAA Tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina. 


But it would be in Raleigh, where Coach would receive his last living tribute. The CIAA honored its All-Time greatest team, three of the ten players honored played for him, Cleo Hill, Earl Monroe, and Carlos Terry. 


He was also honored and named one of two coaches on the All-Time greatest team.  He was still stealing the spotlight even as he made his exit. 


On June 25, 2004 in Chicago, I received the first annual Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines Scholarship Award for Unsung Heroes award for community service. 


I am honored that I had an opportunity to go one on one with him Up Close & Personal.