Remembering “Big House” Gaines, Gone But Not Forgotten

By L.A. Batchelor and Fred Whitted
Updated: April 21, 2005

More On The Man They Called “Big House” Is Gone

By L.A. Batchelor

Winston-Salem, NC – Legendary Winston-Salem State University basketball coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines passed away on Monday evening, April 18th, 2005 at the age of 81 following complications from a stroke that he suffered over the weekend.

Coach Gaines was admitted to the Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC on Friday of last week suffering from heart problems, according to WSSU Athletic Department officials. He was released on Saturday afternoon but was re-admitted later that evening.

Lisa Gaines McDonald, the daughter of the legendary coach, told the Associated Press last evening that her father passed away at 9:10 PM on Monday, possibly from the complications of a stroke.

A native of Paducah, KY, Gaines was born on May 21st, 1924. He graduated from Lincoln High School and would then attend Morgan State University on a football scholarship. Gaines would go on to become one of the greatest collegiate basketball coaches in history, as he is still, to this day, the winningest African-American coach in NCAA history.

Gaines would take a job as the head football coach at WSSU (then Winston-Salem State College), a position he would hold for three years (1946-49). Gaines would then become the Rams’ head basketball coach in 1949. He would complete his MA in Education from Columbia University in 1950 and would, that same year, marry the former Clara Barry to whom he would be married up until his death on Monday evening. Gaines served as the Rams’ head coach for 47 seasons retiring in 1993.

Gaines graduated nearly 80 percent of his players over that 47-year span while winning nearly 65% of his games, sending several to the NBA, most notably, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Gaines was named to several basketball halls of fame including the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and his namesake adorns not only WSSU’s C.E. Gaines Center where the Rams play their home basketball contests, but adorns WSSU’s C.E. “Big House” Gaines Athletic Hall of Fame.

“Nothing anyone can say about Coach Gaines can really sum up the impact he had on Winston-Salem State University or the collegiate basketball world. Since I came to WSSU as an assistant coach in 1998, Coach Gaines has always been a huge supporter of everything that we have done, and he has been an invaluable resource in terms of his basketball knowledge and his spirit”, current WSSU Head Men’s Basketball Coach Philip Stitt said late Monday evening.

“He was a legend. He knew more about basketball than anyone I have ever met, and I, and my coaching staff, tried to get our young men around him as much as possible. His passing is a huge loss for the University, the Winston-Salem community, and anyone who is a fan of college basketball. Nothing that we do to honor him could possibly be equal to what he was meant to this community.” Stitt said.

Gaines led the Rams to Eighteen(18) 20-win seasons and guided WSSU to eight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) titles. In 1967 he led WSSU to a 31-1 record and coached the Rams, and future NBA star, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, to an NCAA Championship, making the Rams the first basketball program from a historically black college or university to capture an NCAA national championship.

Gaines was named the CIAA’s coach of the year a record five times during his 47-year coaching career at WSSU. Over the span of those 47 seasons, Gaines compiled an overall record of 828-447, good enough to place fifth in wins in NCAA history behind Dean Smith (North Carolina), Adolph Rupp (Kentucky), Bob Knight (Texas Tech and Indiana) and Jim Phelan (Mt. St. Mary’s). He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.

Visitation for Coach Gaines will be held at the KR Williams Auditorium on the campus of Winston-Salem State University from 12:00 PM – 2:00 PM on Friday, April 22nd, 2005 with the funeral being held at 2:00 PM. A reception in honor of Coach Gaines will be held immediately following the funeral in WSSU’s Thompson Center.

Flowers can be sent to Russell Funeral Home with a physical address of 822 Carl Russell Avenue, Winston-Salem, NC 27101. For delivery arrangements or general inquiries, contact Russell Funeral home at (336) 722-3459. For additional information as it becomes available, contact the WSSU Office of Sports Information at (336) 750-2143 or log on to the Official Website of WSSU Athletics at

Clarence “Big House” Gaines

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — After hearing of the passing of “Big House” Gaines, I went to my computer and began flipping through my photo library. I thought back to the stories behind the 100 plus images of the man known among the CIAA Family simply as “House”.

I will dispense with the usual clichés that usually come up at a time like this and deal with the facts that most of society never knew.

First, some will remember Coach Gaines for his 828 wins. Others will remember his eight CIAA Tournament titles or his NCAA National Championship. Still others will remember that he coached Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.

For those of us who graduated from Winston Salem State, he was big guy around campus that made you sit that hot gym to watch him work his magic. For those who went opposing schools, he was the guy you loved to hate because he tended to win more often than he loss, even on your court.

If your image of “Big House” ends there, you have missed the full measure of the man. Yes, his only career was coaching basketball. He won more games than any other Black man in the history at the college level.

To the hundreds of young men he coached, he was a demagogue who drove them relentlessly to make them champions. Working at a school where for many years he could only offer a degree in teaching, he built them into winners. From there, they went out and won at life.

According to George Raveling, John Thompson and many other Black coaches, he was their role model, for it was his success at his level that opened the doors for them at higher levels. Many of them called him their friend because when they hit snags, they could always call him for advice.

He made a similar impression on Kentucky’s Tubby Smith. Smith played against him in college while at High Point College. Smith recommended that he be honored by his home state of Kentucky as a colonel, which took place in February.

Coach Gaines was one of those rare, selfless people that we meet in our lives. He had a thin crust that he liked to show. He hid behind his size, and had a caustic tongue that could cut right through you. He could intimidate those who got caught up in his exterior.

For those who truly knew him, he was a pushover, a sentimental, soft hearted man who would do anything for those around him. At times he tried to act like the spoiled only-child that he was, but that was a façade that hid his kind heart.

So, who and what was “Big House”? He was a man who was robbed of many advantages because of his race. He was one of the best football players ever from the state of Kentucky, but was not allowed to play at the University of Kentucky. He went on to become All-CIAA and All America at Morgan State.

He took a job as an assistant coach because Blacks were not yet allowed to play in the NFL. After a year as an assistant, he was named head coach of a small school that had only a few male students. Undaunted, he built a program into a winner. From the beginning, he believed that he could win, and instilled this into his players, and the school.

Still, his true greatness was away from the basketball courts and gyms. He was an ambassador for city of Winston Salem and the state of North Carolina. Basketball was his platform from which he represented us all with great dignity through his career as he toured numerous countries. In China, he was known as “the mansion.”

Closer to home, Coach Gaines never participated in nor strongly supported marches for civil rights. He was all for equality, and was well aware that racism existed. He used basketball to bridge the gap. It is a little known fact that during a time when Blacks were an enigma to the ACC, players from Wake Forest played against players from Winston Salem State on a regular basis.

Yes, Len Chapel and Billy Packer were regular visitors to the East Winston campus. Players from Winston regularly visited Wake’s campus and played in their gym. Gaines built a strong relationship with Bones McKinney and they allowed this to go on, and, Billy Packer attended Winston Salem games when they were not playing.

An added dimension of his greatness came from the high quality teams he put on the court. Before there were Blacks playing in the ACC or SEC, whites could be seen attending games. At one point, a number of games were moved to Memorial Coliseum because of the demand for ticket by whites.

It could even be said that because so many whites were attending his games, powers in the ACC recognized that whites would come to watch Black players. Even when they played in Raleigh, whites came to Dorton Arena to see them play in the mid-60s.

Beyond that, Coach Gaines was the voice of reason in troubled times. His bluntness and honesty was recognized and respected by those who knew him. You may not have liked what he had to say, but we all knew that his word was his bond.

His players soon learned that the worse punishments from him were for telling a lie. It was this that served to endear him to so many who sought him for advice. He simply told you like it was, and let the chips fall where they may.

This also served a calming factor when racial tensions threatened to explode in the city. Much of the progress that came in the area of race relations in Winston Salem came because of Coach Gaines giving his word, or getting others to commit to his side of things, and his refusing to allow either side to back out of what they had committed to.

There are hundreds of stories of kindness on the part of the man who wanted people to think he was so tough. When one of his students could not handle the riggers of his physical education class because of a respiratory problem, he gave her administrative duties in his office.

When she died from complications of that illness, he flew across country to be at her funeral, then, returned for a speaking engagement.

Basketball broadcaster Gil McGregor often speaks of how when he came to Wake Forest in the late 1960s, Coach Gaines called and welcomed him to Winston Salem.

Knowing that there were only a few Blacks on the campus at the time, Gaines would pick him up and bring him to his house for meals on the weekend, and served as a confidant during trying times.

We have all loss a great friend with the passing of “Big House” Gaines. This is especially true for those of us who knew him well. For those for whom he is a mystery, you can get to know him through his autobiography, They Call Me Big House. You will get a glimpse of a great man with a common touch.

I will end with a quick look into that common touch. Coach Gaines came to a game between FSU and Winston Salem. Because it was so crowded he chose to sit in the lower area where students sit. None of the students knew him, but suggested he move to the other side because he had on red.

He started talking to them as if he did not hear what they were saying to him. After finding out where a couple of the young men were from, he began to ask them about a number of teachers in their schools and people in their community that he knew.

It surprised them that he knew people who had taught them. After the game, a friend of his told them who they had been sitting with, which shocked them. They had been sitting with one of the greatest coaches in history, but never let on. The real shock for a couple of them came a few months later at the CIAA Tournament. He met them in the concourse and knew them by name.

To “Big House” you were no little or big person, you were just a friend. We have all lost a friend.