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The Descent of A Man
Rick Telander
March 08, 1982
Tates Locke was willing to do just about anything to make Clemson a winner, and it almost destroyed him
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March 08, 1982

The Descent Of A Man

Tates Locke was willing to do just about anything to make Clemson a winner, and it almost destroyed him

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Taylor O. (Tates) Locke was having trouble sleeping at night. One reason was the speed coursing through his veins—"diet pills I got from a friendly Clemson booster," he says. Another was the booze he was downing to mellow out the amphetamine peaks. Finally, there was his personality—he was as high-strung, aggressive and gung-ho over college coaching as anyone has ever been.

There were nights when Locke just forgot to sleep, when he'd find himself wired on a South Carolina blacktop racing back to Clemson from some low-country town like Beaufort or Moncks Corner where he'd gone to raise money for the Clemson University athletic fund, or maybe from Ohio or Kentucky where he'd gone to scout a 17-year-old "franchise"—and he had to be in his office in an hour or so and there were calls to make and a luncheon speech and practice after that and, well.... "There weren't enough hours in a day to accomplish what I wanted." Locke says now.

One other thing was interfering with the coach's slumber. His conscience. He'd gone to Clemson in 1970 after successful head-coaching stints at West Point and Miami of Ohio. At West Point, Bobby Knight had been Locke's assistant. They'd been a wild, inseparable pair, but they'd been clean. At Miami. Locke says, he had worked with a couple of his players during the summer, a minor NCAA rules infraction—no big deal. But at Clemson Locke was frustrated, confused, desperate. From the beginning he'd tried everything he knew to gain ground on the other Atlantic Coast Conference schools, but nothing seemed to work. "If we got better, the whole league seemed to get better," he says. "And we started out five years behind everybody else." And so, to close the gap, Tates Locke cheated. Cheated big, paying money to players and encouraging academic chicanery.

Locke's account of those days at Clemson and his subsequent experiences as head coach at Buffalo in the NBA and at Jacksonville University are the subject of his book. Caught in the Net, scheduled to be published soon by Leisure Press. Oddly, after months of soul-searching and thought-collecting, Locke now isn't sure he wants the book released. "It sounds vindictive," he says, "but that's not how I meant it. The book is for young coaches, to let them know about the personal hell they're in for if they do what I did."

Bobby Knight, still one of Locke's best friends, was set to write the introduction to the book, but has now reneged. "I told Tates he shouldn't publish it," says Knight. "The basic premise that everybody cheats is totally wrong. Some do. Most don't. I don't."

The manuscript, written with former sportswriter Bob Ibach, is remarkably frank, a startling account of one man's descent into the netherworld of Division I coaching. Locke's transgressions forced him to resign in 1975 and got the basketball team put on NCAA probation from the 1975-76 season through the 1977-78 season. But the Clemson experience worked its greatest havoc on Locke's own moral fabric. The NCAA proved 40 violations by the school—most of them attributed directly to him. "I really felt when I took the job at Clemson that coaching was still the most important overall factor in winning and losing," he says early in the book. Later he states, "I really thought I was going to die after Clemson.... Why I didn't commit suicide or have a nervous breakdown I'll never really know."

Now, amid the casino noises at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Tates Locke, still lean and steely-eyed at 45, is hoping for a comeback. He pushes the "draw" button on a five-card poker video machine, gets two useless cards and loses 25¢. Locke is in his first season as a part-time assistant at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, thanks to UNLV head coach and friend Jerry Tarkanian, and playing a couple of bucks on the poker machines is one of his game-day rituals. Earlier this season he drew a royal flush, and 600 quarters came clattering out. The UNLV Runnin' Rebels won that night, and Locke, whose own luck has been running thin this last decade, is sticking with a good thing.

At team shooting practice in the Las Vegas Convention Center, Locke talks about getting fired from Buffalo in 1977, after just one year as head coach. It was unfair but understandable, he says; all pro coaches get canned. But his forced resignation from Jacksonville University last spring—that was a shock. Sure, the 1980-81 team went 9-18, but JU was 19-11 and 20-9 in Locke's two previous years and reached the NCAA, and then the NIT tournaments.

Locke is in limbo in Las Vegas. He wants desperately to be a major-College head coach again, but he doesn't know if anybody will give him another chance. His wife, Nancy, and their three children are staying in Florida until the future is settled. He is comfortable financially because he received a substantial settlement on the final 4½ years of his Jacksonville contract, but he isn't at ease. As a part-time coach at UNLV, he isn't allowed to recruit, but, then, he doesn't want to. Recruiting violations were his downfall at Clemson. But if he does become a head coach again, he will have to go out and reenter "that particular arena," as he calls it. And that, he admits, "is a disturbing dilemma."

Everyone agrees that Locke is a fine coach. At Miami of Ohio he was named Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year in 1970. He is even respected by the athletic departments at Clemson and Jacksonville. "We're very appreciative for everything Tates Locke did for us," says Clemson Athletic Director Bill McLellan. Nor has anyone questioned Locke's desire to compete. When Knight first arrived at the West Point gym to start work as Locke's assistant, he couldn't find the head coach anywhere. Finally Knight realized Locke was out on the floor scrimmaging with the team.

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