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Legend gets his due
Jeffries reflects on his journey through college football history before Hall of Fame induction
Willie Jeffries, his wife, Mary, and two of his children have a road trip on tap this week to South Bend, Ind.
It’s not a pilgrimage to Notre Dame.
No, Jeffries is going to take his appointed place in the College Football Hall of Fame. The 2010 Enshrinement Festival runs Saturday and Sunday.
“It is quite an honor for me,” said Jeffries, whose 29-year college coaching career netted a 179-132-6 record, including a 128-77-4 mark in 19 seasons during twostints at South Carolina State, his alma mater.
“Being inducted into the college football hall of fame is the apex of my profession. In all my years of coaching, I never thought about any halls of fame, especially this one. There is no greater honor for a coach.”
Jeffries is a beloved South Carolinian — a man whose influence reaches beyond the field. In addition to being a member of several athletic halls of fame (South Carolina State, South Carolina, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Wichita, Kan., to name a few), he is the recipient of two of the highest civilian honors in the state — the Order of the Silver Crescent for outstanding community service, and the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian award.
A scholarship fund and endowment have been established in his name at S.C. State, where he was named head football coach emeritus this year. Jeffries will work as a liaison between the university, its alumni and other constituents while helping market the university.
The Willie Jeffries story is well known not only in South Carolina, but across the nation thanks in part to the exposure he still receives on ESPN, especially during Black History Month. He was the subject of a SportsCentury episode in 2002 that focused on his being the first African-American head coach hired by a Division I program — Wichita State in 1979.
But here are a few things that are not widely known in the Willie Jeffries story.
The first is his wife’s influence in setting his remarkable career in motion.
From 1961-67, Jeffries had great success as the coach at Granard High, an all-black school in Gaffney, posting a 65-7-2 record and winning three consecutive Class 3A championships. Jeffries, who was toying with the idea of coaching at the college level, decided to stay in Gaffney in 1968 when Granard was scheduled to merge with all-white Gaffney High, two years before the mandatory integration deadline issued by the federal government across the South and the country in 1970.
“I had an offer to become an assistant at North Carolina A&T, at double my salary at the time, but I was just going stay put and join the staff at Gaffney High,” he said. “I had made a lot of friends in town, black and white, and was content where I was. But that all changed when my wife learned about the offer from North Carolina A&T.
“We talked, and she strongly recommended that I make the move. She has always steered me in the right direction, and she was certainly right about that. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Gaffney.”
Then, there is the Dallas Cowboys connection.
Though he is a fierce competitor come game time, Jeffries’ quiet, respectful nature has netted him a legion of friends in the football community. From 1973-78, Jeffries and S.C. State won five MEAC championships and were 50-13-4. Jeffries found to his surprise that he had gained some powerful allies in Gil Brandt and Dick Mansberger of the Dallas Cowboys. Brandt was the head of scouting for the Cowboys, while Mansberger discovered many great prospects on the then-ignored HBCU circuit in the South.
In 1977, Brandt and Mansberger recommended Jeffries to new Atlanta Falcons coach Leeman Bennett, who was looking for a defensive line coach. Jeffries declined the offer.
Two years later, Brandt, Mansberger and others brought Jeffries to the attention of Wichita State athletics director Ted Bredehoft, who had tried to hired HBCU coaching legends John Merritt (Tennessee State) and Rudy Hubbard (Florida A&M).
“Obviously, (Wichita State) knew about me when I was contacted by them, and that was because Gil and Dick and some others recommended me to Ted,” Jeffries said.
“I had no idea that Ted previously had tried to hire a black coach. I wasn’t pursuing that job or the idea of being the first black coach at the Division I level. They brought me out there and told me I was their top choice. It really didn’t hit me that I was any kind of trailblazer until it started to be played up in the newspapers and I started hearing from my coaching colleagues from around the country.
“At first, I thought the goal was just to win football games, but in the grand scheme of things it was bigger than that. That’s when I started to feel like I had a huge bail of cotton on my back. In retrospect, I’m proud of the role I played to leave a mark in history.”
The highlight of his five-year stay in Kansas was the 1982 season. The Shockers finished with their first winning season in 10 years and upset instate rival Kansas, 13-10, in the first meeting of the teams in 36 years.
Jeffries refutes or downplays the rough spots he encountered during that time.
“I have nothing but great memories of the people I encountered while I was at Wichita State,” he said. “Yes, there were racial incidents, some threats, comments and the like, but to me they were just a minor part of that portion of my career, not something to dwell on.”
True to form, Jeffries continues to stress the positive in life. And now, he can admit to taking great pride in what he has achieved.
“It still feels pretty good when a black coach comes up to me and thanks me for opening the door,” he said. “But the thing I take the most pride in is winning that first MEAC title for SC State in 1974. It was the biggest thing in the football program’s history to that point, and to do it for my alma mater meant a great deal to me — maybe even more so now than back then.”
About Willie Jeffries
• Winningest coach in S.C. State history (128-77-4) in two stints as head coach (1973-78 and 1989-2001).
• First African-American head coach at a Division I school (Wichita State).
• Record of 179-132-6 at S.C. State, Wichita State and Howard.
• Only person to coach against Bear Bryant and Eddie Robinson.
About the Induction
WHAT: College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010.
WHERE: South Bend, Ind.
OF NOTE: Former Blackville-Hilda High player Troy Brown also will be inducted. Brown, a Barnwell native, played at Marshall University before spending 15 years with the New England Patriots, winning three Super Bowls.
By JOHN DEVLIN