Bert Jenkins: His only losing season defined him

Cleveland
Cleveland

Hall of Famer Bert Jenkins, perhaps the best coach I ever covered and certainly in the top two or three, was not a screamer. Hollering and yelling – and certainly cussing — weren’t necessary for this gentleman to make his points.

Nevertheless, Jenkins, the legendary Gulfport basketball coach, enforced firm rules, all based on what was good for the team. He was a disciplined man, teacher and coach, who demanded discipline from his players. You don’t win 83 percent of your games over 27 years without discipline.

Jenkins, who died last week at age 90, coached through the ’60s and ’70s when teens made challenging discipline something of an art form.

I used the bench,” Jenkins once confided when asked how he kept order. “I always had a seat for a player who didn’t follow the rules. You know, all kids are uniquely different but there’s one constant. They all want to play. If you want to get their attention, find them a seat on the bench.”

As Bob Knight, who has an entirely different personna, once put it, “It’s amazing how quickly a message gets from a player’s buttocks to his brain.”

Sometimes, benching a player is difficult, especially when the player you are sitting is the best player in the gym. Jenkins never wavered. He understood: You have to be disciplined to teach discipline. You must be consistent, no matter what. Playing sports, especially a team sport, is a privilege, not a right, Jenkins firmly believed.

Never was that more challenged than in the 1981-82 season. Gulfport was playing in a Thanksgiving tournament at Mobile. One of Jenkins’ best players directly disobeyed Jenkins, broke a cardinal rule and cost the team the game.

Jenkins never hesitated. He dismissed the youngster from the team. A couple days later, 10 players, practically the entire varsity, boycotted practice in support of their ousted teammate, breaking another cardinal rule.

Once again, Jenkins never hesitated. All were dismissed. Jenkins knew what was coming. He knew the proud Gulfport program, which he had built, was about to become a whipping post. A winning program was about to lose.

But this was a point that had to be made, no matter what, Jenkins believed.

A day or two later, several players asked to come back. No, Jenkins said, rules are rules. We will play without you. Lindy Callahan, the Gulfport athletic director, supported Jenkins. So did the Gulfport School Board.

Parents of the dismissed players challenged Jenkins’ authority in court. This went on for weeks. In the end, the judge ruled in favor of Jenkins and Gulfport High: Playing high school sports is a privilege, not a right, the judge said.

Sound familiar?

Says the retired Callahan, a national force in high school athletics, “It set a precedent and has been used in case after case across the country. It has become one of the guiding principles of high school athletics in this nation.”

The Gulfport B-team played out that season, finishing with a 12-19 record, 4-17 after the walkout. It is the only losing season of Jenkins’ Hall of Fame career, but perhaps the season that most defined him as a coach.

Bert always said what he meant and meant what he said; there were no exceptions,” said Gerald Austin, his long-time assistant and the man who succeeded him at Gulfport. “We took our lumps that season, but the boys kept learning and getting better. Bert never second-guessed himself. He knew he was doing what had to be done.”

The next season? Why, Gulfport won the state championship, one of Jenkins’ seven, as if Bert Jenkins needed any further evidence that what he had done what was in the best interest of the players, the school, the sport and, most of all, the team.

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