We buried Charlie Coles late last week in Oxford, Ohio, where he once coached the Miami RedHawks. I use the word “we” because Coles was a Black man who belonged to all of us folk who obsessed over college basketball.
For those who got lucky enough to befriend him – and hundreds did, me included – they found Coles a man who cared about people, particularly those who played on his basketball teams. He was honest with his players, demanding of them but caring of them, which are three things you can’t say about college coaches whose formative years were forged during the Bob Knight era.
Those coaches were expected to beat the will out of each of their players. Those coaches were expected to condemn media and chastise fans and critics for sins that didn’t exist. Those coaches put winning over all else, which is doubtless the reason they earned more money than Coles ever did.
The worth of a man ought not be measured in how fat his pockets are. Wealth alone has never brought a man class or respect or adulation, because if it did, billionaire Donald Trump would be the most popular man in the world.
Coles wasn’t quite that either, but, hell, he sure was high on the popularity charts.
I first met Coles in my journalistic adolescence, although, as I look back at it, he wasn’t too much older than I was. But in my mind, he was always that old coach who led Central Michigan teams. In the late 1980s, I traveled to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, once to write a story about two of his players, Dan Majerle and some guard whose name slips my mind.
Coles hustled me into his office, and he and I chatted for an hour or so about Majerle and the Chippewa. He told me I had to stick around that night to see what happened inside Rose Arena. I stayed, and Coles was right: Fans filled the air with toilet paper after the first Chippewa basketball.
People called it a “White Out,” a practice the NCAA later outlawed. It was intimidating; it turned Rose Arena into the toughest home court in the Mid-American Conference.
Coles didn’t ease up on opponents from there. He kept his foot on their necks, displaying the savvy that would keep him employed as a college coach for most of his adult life. He won 218 games in the MAC, more than any other man who roamed the sidelines in this competitive, mid-major conference.
His dossier, however, doesn’t include a NCAA championship, but what coach from a mid-major has one? That’s not going to be Coles’s life story, though; that’s not what will be his endearing legacy.
What will be his legacy are the wit and charm he brought to the coaching ranks, his unwavering love affair with the game, even after the game almost killed him when he had a heart attack courtside in 1998.
God wasn’t ready to take Charlie Coles in February 1998; He wanted to give him more time – more time to shape young men’s lives. For God saw in Coles what all of us saw: a candid, thoughtful man without pretensions.
Inside his warmth was a hardboiled college coach who could squeeze as much out of his players as any coach around, and Charlie Coles, who retired in 2012, did so his way: with old-school caring.
We will miss him.
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