Kansas City, Mo. — History was on a lot of basketball minds during the past several days. The 50th National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament culminated here, and to mark the occasion, reels of old game films were removed from the archives. They showed numerous great moments, and such peculiar relics as two-handed set shots and narrow, keyhole-shaped foul lanes. CBS-TV analyst Billy Packer was struck by another aspect of those early games - they were all-white, the players, coaches, referees, and fans.
Packer, a white, shared his observations as moderator of a meeting called by the Black Coaches Association, a group formed in the past year to address the question of greater career gains.
The lily-white nature of those old tourneys hardly needed to be brought to the attention of such panelists as Winston-Salem State University's Clarence (Big House) Gaines, the winningest active college coach, and Johnny McLendon, a retired coaching titan and something of a Jackie Robinson figure in the sport.
McLendon, whose Tennessee State teams won three three straight NAIA small-college national titles, beginning in 1957, recalled with Gaines how they shared coaching strategies and even a car once on a recruiting trip in Kansas City.
There was an important message here for the overflow audience: that today's black coaches can help further one another's careers by networking, or sharing their know-how and experiences.
And from the size of the turnout, it was clear that many are ready to embrace this sense of moving ahead together, from high school coaches to those holding major college duties such as Georgetown's John Thompson, Minnesota's Clem Haskins, and Southern Cal's George Raveling, all of whom were in attendance.
Also present were several former pro players now employed as college assistant coaches, including Quinn Buckner at Indiana and Walt Wesley at Army.
Meeting organizers promised to reserve a ballroom to accommodate the burgeoning membership in the future
Thompson's success at Georgetown, culminating in the 1984 NCAA championship and his selection as this year's US Olympic coach, has made him a public figure. And John Chaney was voted 1987-88 Coach of the Year after leading Temple to the regular-season No. 1 spot in the polls. But such prominence for black coaches has been relatively recent, coming primarily in the 1980s. And while the numbers have risen significantly over the past decade, the black-white ratio still remains well below that of the players.
It is clear that there are still doors to be opened. But part of the association's appeal is its low-key approach, which keeps affiliation from being a liability with prospective or current employers.
``I think sometimes people misread this sort of thing and see it as a threat, but I didn't sense any antagonism, or any militancy,'' said Raveling, who will assist Thompson in coaching the men's Olympic team, just as he aided Bob Knight in 1984. ``What I saw was a group of coaches who want to grow professionally.''
Echoing this comment was Oklahoma State head coach Leonard Hamilton, who said, ``I don't think anybody's complaining about where we are or about a lack of opportunity. The focus is on being better prepared, and then when the opportunity comes to be productive.''
A prime example of how this works is Fred Snowden, who in 1972 became the first black named to a major-college job when he assumed the reins at Arizona.
``They recognized I had the communication and management skills and that I could do public relations and marketing,'' says Snowden, who compiled a 10-year winning percentage of .607 before becoming a California businessman. ``They had confidence that I could sell our product as well as build a winning program.''
Simply being a good chalkboard coach wasn't enough under the circumstances, since the Wildcats were asked to become a commercial as well as an artistic success upon moving from 2,000-seat Bear Down Gym into the 13,000-seat McKale Center shortly after Snowden's arrival.
Another important aspect is for black assistant coaches to avoid being labeled as recruiting specialists, even though their rapport with inner-city athletes can be a major asset.
Even while compiling a terrific high school coaching record in Detroit, for example, Snowden refused to become too narrowly focused. And when the University of Michigan offered to make him an assistant coach before the Arizona post arrived, he turned down the job twice before he got assurances that he would not just be window dressing on the bench.
As he recalls, Don Canham, the Michigan athletic director, had to convince him that he would not be perceived either as a token or as a procurer of black talent, with no real authority or responsibility.
Once Snowden was confident of receiving an across-the-board experience, he felt very comfortable moving into the job.
``I made sure I structured it properly,'' he said. ``That is the responsibility of the individual. If a guy tells you he wants you to go and recruit 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Streets in Kansas City and you say, `I'll take the job,' then I have the right to perceive you as a four-street recruiter.''
For some blacks, eager to get their foot in the door, these recruiting roles have nevertheless constituted an entree into the profession. Naturally, however, they develop greater aspirations.
``They know where the players are and in many cases they've taught them how to play,'' says McLendon, now a representative for Converse shoes. ``As a result, they wonder why they can't coach them.''
The answer sometimes is that they don't have the contacts other candidates enjoy with athletic directors or selection committee people. It's important, therefore, Thompson believes, that blacks not huddle in the corner at coaches' conventions. They need to make themselves, their records, and their qualifications known; otherwise neither he nor other prominent black coaches are inclined to recommend them simply for affirmative-action reasons.
The association is concerned that more blacks be picked for higher positions in intercollegiate athletics, but the members don't want handouts, just a fair shake.
That's something old-timers like McLendon didn't always get.
``Every time I saw an opening I wrote a letter,'' he says. ``I have some of the most beautiful letters of refusal you have ever seen. One of the biggest schools in the country said we're not good enough for you. What they meant was they weren't ready for me.''
Today, however, McLendon believes major universities are ready for black head coaches, and the numbers seem to indicate he is right. Association officials say there are currently between 25 and 30 black coaches at predominantly white Division One schools, and perhaps another 15 to 20 at predominantly black institutions.
That's a little under 20 percent of the 291 jobs available - which may leave room for improvement, but which is a pretty big jump from the figure of 5 percent as recently as 1980. Some black coaches have also been fired, as happened to Walt Hazzard at UCLA last week. But this too can be interpreted as a sign that pure merit, to a greater degree than ever, is having its day on the court.