A View From The Shadow: For The Good Of The Game-PART 1

By Fred Whitted
Updated: February 14, 2005

Alleggrie Guinn
L TO R:John H. Burr, Talmade (Marse) Hill,“Big” Harry Jefferson and John B. McLendon, Jr

WINSTON-SALEM, NC–Coaches from the old school are often described in glowing terms that could lead one to think they succeeded in spite of themselves. Many of the greatest coaches were said to be selfless, caring, and genuinely concerned for their players as students before athletes. We have all heard the stories of how Eddie Robinson woke his players up each morning for breakfast with a cowbell. Jake Gaither never punished his players and was their undying friend. “Big House” Gaines was known to cook for his players when they did not go home for the holidays.

Today, we are bombarded with stories about coaches being detached from their player and how many players basically have to fend for themselves away from the courts and fields. We find too many coaches doing more to cover their own behinds than to deliver complete players once the finish their careers.

In 1946, a group of coaches came together and did something that has lasted through the ages, and, it was their gift to their people. John Burr, Talmade “Marse” Hill, “Big” Harry Jefferson and John B. McLendon, Jr. did not establish the CIAA Tournament for themselves. they did it for us, the good of the game of basketball, the conference and for their people. They especially did it for the young men, and later young women, who have yet to play in the CIAA.

It would be too easy to say that they had selfish motives when they maneuvered to get the vote for the tournament affirmed in their favor. Outwardly, it may have looked that way. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The idea of the tournament was not new. The SIAC had been contesting their conference championship tournament more than a decade before the CIAA got ushered into being. They led the fight among their peers for permission to establish a tournament that would determine the championship in basketball. At the time, many of the top programs on the eastern seaboard were members of the CIAA. Due to the number of schools, it was hard for everyone to schedule all conference members. To this point, the Dickerson Rating was used to determine the champion. This rating system weighed a teams record

The idea was to continue using the Dickerson Rating System to determine the regular season champion, then known as the visitation champion. It would also be used to determine the seeding of the tournament. Even using this system, there was some contention that this best served those who dipped into their pockets and founded the event. A look back at the tournament results tend to disproves the notion that it was self serving. What it did do was to displace a practice on the part of some coaches to pad their schedule with weak teams, or playing strong teams on their home or neutral courts.

As a matter of fact, there was a great uproar on the part of Lincoln University after they were dispatched from the tournament by John McLendon’s North Carolina College Eagles. Lincoln entered the tournament favored to win it all. They had a 12-0 record in conference play. In the first two rounds they had defeated Winston Salem, a surprise entrant, by ten points, and Morgan State, the last team to win conference title before the tournament, by five. In the final game, they were defeated by North Caroling College by ten. To this point, there had been no complaint on the part of the Lions’ staff. After losing to the fifth seeded Eagles, there was vehement protest against the awarding of the conference championship to the tournament winner. Coach Manny Rivero launched a personal attack on conference president John Burr.

At the heart of the complaint was confusion on the part some conference members on the decision to play the tournament as the method of determining the conference champion. While some did not consider the minutes of the meeting to be indisputable on this point, it was Burr’s opinion that it was clear that the reason for the tournament was to determine the championship outright.

The irony of all of this was that Lincoln and Hampton were considered the major offenders of lack of uniform scheduling within the conference. As of the beginning of the tournament, they had not played a team from below Virginia since 1939, except on their own or neutral courts. Virginia State, Virginia Union and Hampton tended to avoid teams from their neighboring state. When the did venture south, they tended to prefer the weaker teams.

The tournament proved to be the great equalizer. It provided a means of determining the conference champion in a setting where competitors met on a neutral court and faced each other in a single elimination format. This had long been the notion of many of the coaches in the conference who felt they were being omitted from schedules by some of the other coaches.

It is a known commodity that in a three day setting, any team can get hot and run the table. Such was the case in the very first CIAA Tournament. It was won by the fifth seeded team, North Carolina College. This remains one of the two lowest seeds to win. Winston Salem won as a fifth seed in 1957 and A & T won as a fourth seed in 1967.

As for the founders, the record reflects that there was nothing self-serving about their efforts to establish the tournament. John Burr’s Howard team finished eleventh in the conference and did not even make it to the tournament. The other three founders finished third (Hill), fifth (McLendon), and seventh (Jefferson). Jefferson was eliminated in the first round, while Hill was eliminated second round. McLendon was an upset winner over fourth seeded West Virginia State in the first round. He followed this up with a win over top seeded Lincoln the following night. This set up a confrontation with Virginia Union, a team they had not faced since 1943. McLendon won the first CIAA Tournament, and again in 1950. Harry Jefferson won in 1947, defeating Hill and McLendon along the way. In his only trip to the finals, Burr had the misfortunate of facing the 23-0 West Virginia State. He retired from coaching after the season.

Within a decade of the founding of the tournament, only Hill remained at the helm of a team in the CIAA. McLendon was in Tennessee, and Burr and Jefferson were out of coaching. It is safe to say that it was not for their own benefit that these men tapped their wallets. It was for the good of the game of basketball and the CIAA as a conference, and the best part of it is that at least one of them lived long enough to see it reach its full potential.