Kay James, a Hall of Fame coach, won big, made it fun

Kay James built a program and won more than 400 games at Southern Miss.
Kay James built a program and won more than 400 games at Southern Miss.

This is the fourth in a series about the inductees into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2016.

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

The record shows that Kay James won 403 games in 22 seasons (1977-99) as women’s basketball coach at Southern Miss. She ranks in the top 25 all-time nationally among NCAA Division I coaches in victories and guided the Lady Eagles to 10 post-season bids.

But even those gaudy statistics do not tell the story of her impact on Southern Miss or women’s basketball — and certainly not on her players.

What everyone should know about Coach James is that she cared as much about her players off the court as she did on the court,” says Joye Lee McNelis, the current USM coach. “She cared just as much about you growing as a young person as she did as a player. I would not be where I am today if not for her and there are a whole lot of people who would tell you the same thing.”

James recruited McNelis to USM in 1980 and McNelis became a four-year standout on teams that won 73 games while losing just 28.

She made the game fun,” McNelis says. “We played fast and we played with a lot of freedom. We led the nation in scoring one year and often scored more than 100 points.

Coach James was well ahead of her time in that respect. Most teams back then didn’t run or play fast like we did. We ran the fast break at every opportunity.”

McNelis believes that style of play helped James recruit a higher caliber athlete to USM, which led to 10 seasons of 20 or more victories.

The thing is, James almost didn’t come to USM.

Then USM-president Aubrey Lucas had been the president at Delta State during the Lady Statesmen’s heyday as the kingpin of college women’s basketball at the highest level. Lucas was determined to bring a winning program to USM.

After two seasons of little success in USM women’s basketball, Lucas went after James, who was the head coach at Berry College in Rome, Ga., where she had compiled an 85-30 season over five seasons, building a program virtually from scratch.

Berry had never won a state championship before hiring James. Under James, Berry won three straight state titles and the 1975-76 national championship. When Lucas offered James the USM job, she balked at first.

I had a good job and I loved it at Berry,” James says. “We had a lot of success and we were going to continue to have success.”

Lucas essentially would not take “no” for an answer. He didn’t stop recruiting James, and James eventually accepted the job. McNelis is certainly glad she did.

She was like an extension of my parents,” McNelis said. “She was far more than a coach. She was a mentor, a friend, a second mother, an inspiration. She believed that USM women’s basketball was like a family.

We think it still is. And she’s still an important part of it.”

These days, James does the color commentary on USM women’s basketball broadcasts.

She’s in our locker room before games, at halftime and after the games,” says McNelis, who spent five years as an assistant coach under James.

McNelis probably stresses defense more than her mentor, who was all about scoring and scoring fast. But McNelis learned much more than Xs and Os from James.

We had players from many cultural backgrounds and different walks of life,” McNelis says. “Coach James taught us not only how to behave, but how to accept one another and love one another like family. She always went the extra mile in that regard. I owe her so much. So does every young lady who ever played for her.”

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To purchase tickets to the BancorpSouth Induction Weekend festivities, call 601 982-8264 or click here and follow the links.

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Read Rick Cleveland’s Mississippi Today column about Gov. William Winter winning The Rube Award for his lifetime contributions to Mississippi sports.

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The first three of the series:

Jackie Sherrill.

Wesley Walls.

Sean Brewer.

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