He is awake and in a sober mood now, even at times like these, times when he doesn't have the best teams and the best players. Not even a Cleo Hill and a Vernon Earl Monroe. "I've hurt too many feelings," he says. "Had too many good players. Fact is, I never did have a player who was as bad a player as I was." Soon he is sitting on his own couch and growing sleepy again. Clara Gaines has walked in with her mother, Emma Berry, 92 and looking 20 years younger. Later, Clara spreads a lifetime of photographs over a table and smiles. Gaines's eyelids have dropped with a nearly audible thud.
Gaines, what about Cleo and Earl?
"I treated them like great musicians," he says, "like the artists they were. Then I treated them like kids because that's all they were when I had them. Cleo was completely scientific. I'm talking scientific. There was no phase of the game he didn't have in hand. Earl was innovative, creative. Blessed."
To understand Bighouse Gaines the coach, you have to understand that he was becoming a legend long before Hill ('57-61) and Monroe ('63-67) ever showed up. Gaines was 18 and the year was 1941 when he left Paducah, Ky., for college, holding acceptance letters from three schools that would have him: Howard, Morgan State and Lincoln of Pennsylvania. He was already a worldly young man. The only child of Olivia and Lester Gaines, he grew up Methodist on the banks of the Ohio River in a city that was a way station between Chicago and the spreading South. People came through Paducah, and because his parents managed, and later owned, the Metropolitan House—nothing luxurious, but it was clean and was one of the only places between Memphis and Chicago where blacks could get room and board—Clarence had seen Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald sing, and he had eaten with the bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway and had listened to the sidemen improvise. These were talented people. Talented people were always going somewhere else. Paducah was just a pit stop.
Lester was a quiet sort, at various times a chef, a fisherman, a carpenter, a hunter and a herder of other peoples' livestock. Olivia was a strong woman who had played some basketball herself. When her son was young, she often asked him what it felt like to lose. He took pains not to learn much about it. A star in football and basketball at Lincoln High, he played in the W-41 league—other high schools from the dark sides of places like Hopkinsville, Earlington and Morganfield, coal mining towns all.
Young Clarence spent his summers in Newark with his mother's brother, Lawrence Bolen, a trucker and union shop steward. Bolen would put his large nephew on the sightseeing side of the cab and drive to places all along the East Coast. Working as a bellhop and night watchman, Clarence spent spring evenings at the Palmer House Hotel in Paducah, where another uncle was also a bellhop. Traveling businessmen, white men, would ask him for the phone numbers of the friendly girls. Gaines carried a list supplied by his uncle. The girls got two dollars for their time; Gaines got one, which matched the one he earned for being the night watchman. "We were fresh out of the Depression," says Gaines. "My family was lucky. We had a four-room wood-frame house. We finally got enough money to underpin it. Outdoor toilet. No telephone. Old-fashioned icebox. Kerosene lamps. We went to a radio like a party. Most of the kids were successful later. Most got the hell out of there."
Gaines hitched a ride out of town with Buster Lee, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier. His choice of colleges was limited for reasons that had nothing to do with test scores. Gaines first went to Howard, in Washington, D.C. He was told that the school had just fired its football coach, Harry Payne, and wasn't really all that interested in the sport. Youth not needing much encouragement, Gaines caught a ride to Baltimore, to Morgan State, the powerhouse team of the CIAA, a grouping of 14 small colleges founded in 1912. It was there that he met the school's business manager, a fellow named Jimmy Carter, who told him he was as big as a house and thereby coined the nickname that remains to this day. "I never did make it to Lincoln," he says.
The next time Gaines saw Washington, D.C., he was a mammoth yet agile tackle leading a runner named Cal Irvin through the 7 hole as Morgan State beat Florida A&M 50-0 in the 1943 Capital Classic. Two years later, bachelor's degree in hand and with some vague notion about becoming a dentist one day, Gaines gypsied down to Winston-Salem at the recommendation of his college football coach, Eddie Hirt, to take a job as an assistant to basketball coach Brutus Wilson. On the way, Gaines stopped at the Slaughter Hotel, the only place on the highway between Washington and Winston-Salem where a black man might get a home-cooked meal. When he reached his destination, Gaines found Winston-Salem Teachers College, a school of 500 women and 75 men training to become schoolteachers. Gaines didn't plan to stay very long. Gypsies never stay long.
"By '47 I was teacher, 'laywer,' 'judge,' football coach, basketball coach, ticket manager, trainer and what passed for athletic director—eight jobs for one salary," Gaines says. "I looked at myself. What would I look like hovering over a bunch of eight-year-olds, or an open mouth? I was born to coach young men."
Dr. Kenneth Williams lived not far from the Gaineses in Winston-Salem before he died last year. He was president of the college between 1961 and 1972, then the chancellor until 1977, and had been an instructor there since 1939, except for four years in the service, from 1943 to 1946. "The college was so small then," he said. "Small number of men. We hardly had intramurals. The football was only of a sort. Gaines had a reputation as a football player. No one knew much about his basketball. This was supposed to be temporary. But the college discovered he had a great deal to offer. He discovered he could do something with the fellows. He began to win. That led to relationships. He set up a network of former players as recruiters up and down the East Coast. The salvation of his program became these fellows he coached."