The nickname stayed with Gaines as his massive build—6'4" and 250 pounds—matured into coachly bearing. At 23, after one year as an assistant, Big House was named head coach of all sports at Winston-Salem. Within three years, every Ram team had a winning record.
His wife, Clara, a graceful woman of abiding patience, compares her husband's coaching style with his approach to another game he loves—poker. "He hates to lose at anything," she says. "I see him sizing up the other coaches and shuffling his players like cards in a poker hand."
Last season Gaines guided Winston-Salem's basketball team to the CIAA Southern division title, after which it lost to High Point in the NAIA District 26 semifinals. Three starters from that 19-9 team are back, along with enough reserves to help the Rams repeat as division champs. Reggie Gaines (no relation), who led the Rams in scoring with 24.5 points per game, is still around, as are Mark Clark, a guard who contributed 13.9 points a game, and Forward Mike Robinson, Winston-Salem's leading rebounder.
Gaines isn't concerned that his players average only 6'3". "I tell them, small animals have to learn tricks to protect themselves from the big animals. Our players just have to be more efficient," says Big House.
For the last 12 seasons Gaines' only assistant has been Bill English, who played for Big House during the glorious late 1960s, when Earl Monroe led the Rams to a national championship. Though Big House is cunning when it comes to game strategy, English insists that the essence of the Rams' style of play is ageless. "Everything is the same as when I played," he says. "Basically we run an open pattern with six or seven variations, but it's all fundamentals and drills." "It's hard for a kid to be All-City Philadelphia and find out he can't execute a stop," Gaines says sympathetically. "You scold or embarrass them, maybe you see teardrops in their eyes, then you know it's time to let up a bit." And his understanding of the joys of youth is evident on such occasions as the night of the homecoming queen coronation, when he stopped practice early. "There are two parts to it," he says. "They have rights, too."
Big House will tell you how integration has made recruiting for a small, black college a more difficult task, though for him it is less a problem than for most. These days many of his players come, sight unseen, on the recommendations of scattered alumni. The kids are eager to play for him, and most of them will graduate. That matters to Big House as much as winning basketball games.
"I like the fact that this is my program, and that it's good," he says with pride. "If a grown man can't outthink an 18-year-old, then he shouldn't be coaching him. I've satisfied myself here, as much as a sociologist as coach."
As Cochran says, Big House is quite a fellow.
Marymount and Winston-Salem are only two of a passel of genuine challengers for the NAIA's national title. Defending champion Drury College of Missouri graduated three starters from its 33-2 squad but nonetheless has hopes for another championship because of the presence of Forward Marcus Peel, a transfer from Tulsa who will be eligible on Dec. 27. Everybody is back at South Carolina's surprise newcomer, Winthrop College, which in its first year of basketball had a 25-10 record and almost won its district under the steady guidance of Coach Neild Gordon and the steady play of 6'10" twins Ronnie and Donnie Creamer. Cameron University of Oklahoma finished at 36-3 last season and was No. 1 in the poll: before succumbing in the tournament quarterfinals. Its terrific trio of Leroy Jackson, Andre King and Ray Franklin could take the Aggies all the way to the title this time.
North Alabama lost three starters but kept All-America Otis Boddie, a 19.3-points-a-game scorer, from the 22-9 team that beat Wisconsin-Green Bay to win the NCAA Division II championship. Bo Clark, the nation's leading college scorer at 31.6 points a game, returns to play for his dad, Torchy, at Central Florida. Philadelphia Textile, Bridgeport, Nicholls State and Puget Sound are other perennial powers that will again challenge for the championship.