Teaching The ‘Panther Way’

By Tony McClean
Updated: December 7, 2008

Willard Coker

Willard Coker

NEW YORK – They still wear No. 4 jerseys in Green Bay.

The basketball court at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion bears the name of long-time head coach John Wooden. Even when the new Yankee Stadium opens in 2009, the plaques of Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle will be there for fans to see.

Many times in sports, fans and us in the media can make it difficult for someone to replace a legend. However for some, replacing that legend gives one a chance to create his or her own history while honoring past legacies.

For Virginia Union’s head basketball coach Willard Coker that task is currently at hand. While six games into a long season can’t be really used as a gauge, it appears that the long-time assistant under Dave Robbins has the right attitude in the early stages.

Named VUU’s new head man back in April following Robbins’ 30-year retirement, the Winston-Salem, N.C. native spent 23 seasons as an assistant coach under the tutelage of the legendary head coach.

“The biggest change for me so far has been overall game management,” said Coker following the Panthers’ 52-21 victory over Bowie State (4-4) in Saturday’s opening game of the Big Apple Classic at Madison Square Garden.

“As an assistant, you deal with certain areas. But as the head man, you have your hand in everything from practices to scholarships. The days are a little longer, but there’s great satisfaction when it all works out.”

Over the years, Coker has had a huge hand in the Panthers’ previous success.

As a four-year basketball letterwinner at VUU, the Panthers captured two CIAA Championships, a NCAA Regional Championship and a Division II National Championship in 1980 under Coker’s tenure as a player.

As a Virginia Union assistant coach, Coker has also helped guide the Panthers to two more Division II National Championships, 19 NCAA Tournament Appearances and 10 CIAA Championships.

Enheriting a team that went 22-8 last season, some might look at the Panthers’ 3-3 start as a bit of a surprise. However, Coker stressed that he’s looking at the team’s chemistry as whole in the early stages of the season.

With returnees like Brandon and Braxton Byerson as well as Gregg Thondike (the CIAA’s 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year) on the roster, Coker has plenty of players that know the team’s system.

“We need to get the new guys on the roster ready to make the adjustment to our style of play and most importantly what it means to be a Panther,” Coker added.

Coker related an incident following an early season loss to Arkansas-Monticello as a source of motivation and education to his younger players. “At the end of the game, they (AMU) were running off the court like they had just won a championship,” Coker said.

“Some of the guys were looking at the celebration as a bit odd for an early game. We told them because of our history and reputation that schools that defeat us will look at it as a huge feather in their caps”.

“We always want to remind them what it means to play and be successful here.”

If Saturday night’s win is any indication, then the youngsters and veterans are starting grasp Coker’s concept. Tied 21-21 at the half, the lead would shift back in forth. However, Bowie State would take some control and took its largest lead of the game (49-44) with 3:34 left to play.

Following a timeout, Braxton Byerson (14 points) hit his third three-pointer of the game to make it 49-47. Bowie State junior Cassin Diggs gave the Bulldogs a little breathing room by scoring a second chance layup.

Brandon Byerson (13 points) trimmed the BSU lead down to one (51-50), after scoring a traditional three point play following a foul by BSU’s Corey Camphor. With 21.7 seconds left on the clock, Bowie State’s Diggs committed his fifth foul on Thondique.

The 6-foot-6 senior, who finbished with 11 points and nine rebounds, put VUu up 52-51. Bowie State still had a chance, but Camphor missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. “Bowie is tough team”, said Coker.

“We stepped it up on defense in the second half and I think that’s what really helped us win this game.


The Pirates of Hampton University faced off against the Bison of Howard University in the second half of the Big Apple Classic. Hampton came out on top 45-39 in one of the ugliest victories of the season.

The Pirates improved to 5-3 on the season and 1-0 in the MEAC while the Bison suffered their sixth straight loss of the season and drop to 1-6 on the year and 0-1 in league play.

Hampton shot just 33.3 percent from the floor in the first half and the defense was able to hold Howard to just 19 percent shooting from the floor. The Pirates held on enough to go into the half ahead of the Bison 21-17.

The Pirates came back in the second half and make 6-of-18 shots on just 33.3 percent shooting from the floor in the half. Howard did not bow out, as they shot 47.4 percent from the floor making 9-of-19 shots from the floor.

Hampton was led by junior guard Vincent Simpson (Philadelphia, Pa.) who scored game-high 16 points, while the Bison was led by Paul Kirkpatrick who scored 10 points in the effort for Howard.