RIP Davey Whitney: a great coach and friend

(Writer’s note: Dave Whitney — one of the greatest coaches in Mississippi history in any sport, at any level — died today at his home in Biloxi. He was 85. Davey was a splendid coach, a great friend. He could charm the stripes of a tiger, but scare the daylights out of basketball players twice his size. His players loved him and feared him at the same time. They played for him as if their lives depended on the outcome. There will be much more on Whitney on msfame.com this week, but what follows is a column I wrote about him 2002.)
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Alcorn State coach Dave Whitney has won 548 games in his career. Of those, 493 have come as Braves boss.

Most basketball coaches will tell you that their job has become a young man’s job.

They’ll tell you coaching consumes too many hours a day, too many days a week, too many weeks a year. What with AAU basketball in the summer, recruiting has become a year-round deal.

Burnout has become a malady afflicting so many in the business. You ask me, that’s what happened to Nolan Richardson at Arkansas. At 60, he no longer had the energy or fire he had in earlier days. Others in his own league, including Mississippi State and Ole Miss, caught up. And when critics did what critics do, Richardson basically told them they could take the job and shove it.

They did.

“You just hate to see it end like that,” Dave Whitney says of Nolan Richardson’s situation. “You don’t let a person go like that because of something he said in the heat of the moment. . . .

“. . . On the other hand, Nolan may have gotten tired of the situation he was in,” Whitney continued. “Maybe he was ready to do something else.”

If coaching basketball is a young man’s job, then Alcorn State’s Whitney is the youngest 72-year-old alive. Whitney has just coached his Braves to a 16-2 record in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, an 18-9 mark overall.

Alcorn State rates as the top seed in the SWAC Tournament that begins tonight. Alcorn hosts Grambling in a first-round game in Lorman.

Retirement iffy

Whitney, who early last season said this season would be his last, is not so sure any more.

“It’s up in the air now,” Whitney said Monday. “There won’t be a decision until after the season. Then, I’ll sit down with my president (Clinton Bristow), and make a decision.

“I’ll say this, I feel good both physically and mentally. I’m in great health. My health would not be the reason I retired, because I feel great.”

If ever a man has earned the right to make his own decision when to step down, that man is Whitney. You have to love the Dave Whitney-Alcorn State story.

For newcomers or those who don’t keep up with the SWAC, the short version follows. Whitney coached Alcorn to SWAC dominance during the late ’60s, ’70s and most of the ’80s before three straight losing seasons led to his dismissal. Before he was fired, he took the Braves to five NCAA Tournaments and beat Mississippi State in an NIT game at Starkville in 1979.

Five years after firing Whitney, Alcorn named the school’s gymnasium after him. Seven years after firing him, they hired him back to rebuild the once-proud program. And that’s just what he has done.

You could write it as a movie script, and people wouldn’t believe it. School fires coach, thinking the game has passed him by. School names gym after coach. School realizes it made a terrible mistake and hires old coach back. Coach wins big again in the gym that bears his name.

Born too early

Whitney makes $67,000 this school year to coach Alcorn basketball, and that’s the most he’s ever made.

Unlike Richardson and others, Whitney has never made a million bucks a year. Nobody ever bought him a house on a swank, country club golf course. He’s never had a 22,000-seat gymnasium and a nationally prominent program at a state university to use as recruiting tools.

By the time the big-time schools had begun to hire African-American coaches, Whitney was in his late 50s.

“They weren’t hiring any black coaches my age,” Whitney says.

The truth is, Whitney came along at least a decade too soon. He was Rod Barnes 40 years ago, back when people like Rod Barnes didn’t get the chances they get now.

Whitney says he never thought about it earlier in his career. Nobody his color was getting those jobs, so there was nothing to think about.

“Besides,” Whitney says, “I was too busy trying to win games.

“But I think about it now sometimes,” Whitney says. “The older I get, the more I think about it, about the salary I could have had, about what I could have done for my family.”

And what does he think when he thinks about it?

“I think I would have been successful,” Whitney says. “I have no doubts whatsoever that I could have won at any level. Give me the same resources and the same opportunities, and I think I could have done as good a job as anyone and a better job than most.”

Dizzy Dean used to say that it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it. It says here Dave Whitney could have done it_ at any level.

At 72, he’s still doing it – much better than most.

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