Krueger is a screamer gone gradually mellow since he took over his first team, at Cameron (Texas) High, in 1957. (A measure of what it's like to be a basketball coach in Texas: The first time he ordered his players to run sprints, every guy on the team reflexively dropped into a three-point stance.) "I used to be Daddy Redlegs, meaner than hell," he says. "But you have to adjust. Over 38 years the kids have been constantly changing. The adjusting kept me younger and up to date. Certain things I go to war over, sure. But others I let run off my back."
He calls out the cavalry to defend one proposition: "There is no I in team. I don't think there's any sport better than basketball when it's played as a team. And there's no sport worse when one guy goes down and jacks it."
Krueger's current home, Clear Lake, is a NASA bedroom community southeast of Houston, where the garages are two-car and the families aren't just two-parent, but two college-educated parents. Recent cutbacks in the space program have left the community a little more firmly rooted in the real world, and the socioeconomic texture of Krueger's teams has changed accordingly. As a result you'll see tattoos and exotic haircuts on some Clear Lake kids. Krueger will also go much further down his bench than he used to, an acknowledgment that every boy on the team expects to play. "A few years ago," he says, "I wouldn't have substituted unless a bone was sticking out."
No loss disappointed Krueger more than the one eliminating the Falcons from the state tournament in 1988, when he got a technical—for wandering over to the scorer's table to resolve a foul discrepancy—and Clear Lake suffered a one-point defeat. Even the state title that Clear Lake won the following season by reeling off 21 straight points to beat a 38-0 Jay High team from San Antonio in the championship game didn't make up for that disappointment, and that fact highlights something common to all four coaches: It's the relatively few defeats, not the many victories, that tend to stick in their minds.
Another loss haunts Krueger still, and it wasn't a game. In 1957, two years before he began coaching at San Marcos (Texas) High, an all-white school, the board of education closed the black high school in town and ordered all the students there to attend San Marcos. That might have proved beneficial to Krueger, but the board also ruled that blacks couldn't play inter-scholastic sports. Among the players who might have suited up for him was a 6'9" young man named Lucious Jackson, who would later star on the 1964 Olympic team and be named rookie of the year in the NBA. Jackson ended up going to high school in Louisiana instead.
"Till Shaq O'Neal came along, he was the best player to come out of Texas," says Krueger, who has won all his games without the benefit of a single future NBA player. "It was the times. But if I'd have had him, I'd have had a bunch more wins."
For most of Hughes's career, Jim Crow laws in Texas weren't a source of wistful might-have-beens but an abiding reality. There was that time in Texarkana in the '60s when the team pulled into a drive-in restaurant in its two station wagons, only to watch the waitress roller-skate contemptuously by. Yet during that decade Hughes won three black state titles at Fort Worth's I.M. Terrell High, and after Terrell closed in '73 and he moved to Dunbar, Hughes set about putting wings on the Wildcats. Is Texas really a basketball wasteland? High-profile national programs like Verbum Dei of Los Angeles, which found itself on the business end of a 40-13 deficit at halftime against Dunbar in 1983, and Oak Hill of Virginia, which had its 55-game winning streak snuffed out by 28 points in '87, would say emphatically not.
Now 67, Hughes is a 6'6" reed of a man whose only perceptible physical change since 1955, when he was drafted by the Boston Celtics out of Texas Southern, is the dusting over and faint thinning of his hair. His principles are unchanged, too. "All the things from the '60s are coming back to hurt us now," he says. "Do your own thing, lack of respect for your elders. I know it's a new day. Have to change and all that. But guess who's a dinosaur? Me."
That means no earrings, no dreadlocks—"He's just plain vanilla," says Swarn Lacy III, who won a blacks-only state title playing for Hughes at Terrell in 1967, and whose son Swarn IV won a title at Dunbar 26 years later, after integration. Well into the '80s, even after bureaucrats went into conniptions over the practice, Hughes would require miscreant players to meet up with his "board of education," a paddle he considered an essential teaching tool.
But there's nothing hidebound in Hughes's approach to the game, a style he calls "flat out." During a stretch in the mid-'60s Hughes ordered up an alley-oop dunk off every opening tip, a signature play that bamboozled referees who, not knowing any better, often disallowed it as offensive goaltending. Others reviled Hughes's brand of ball as "hully-gully," "street" or—this is the coach talking now—"the name only Mark Fuhrman uses" basketball. "Now it's 'up-tempo,' " he says. "My game hasn't changed. A lot of other folks have just joined it."