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Horizon League honors legacy of John McLendon

McLendon was the first black head coach at a predominantly white institution at Cleveland State

John McLendon
John McLendon learned from Dr. James Naismith while he attended the University of Kansas. McLendon was the first person inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a contributor and as a coach.
Courtesy of the Horizon League

The fast break. The full-court press. Conditioning for basketball players. Integrating college basketball. Minority coaches leading programs at predominantly white institutions.

All these elements are fabrics of college basketball. And many can be attributed to John McLendon.

The Horizon League paid homage to McLendon, who coached at Cleveland State, earlier this month on the weekend of Feb. 10-12. It was the third year the conference celebrated him, but this year was the first weekend-long event.

When McLendon was hired at Cleveland State in 1966, he became the first black head coach at a predominantly white institution.

“He operated from such a place of high integrity and principles while teaching the game and winning with integrity,” Horizon League Commissioner Julie Roe Lach said. “It was just an incredible example. And then others quickly followed suit. You look today, we’ve got several minority coaches in our league, more importantly across the NCAA, not just Division I but Division II and III. To think that he was the first, and it happened in the Horizon League, to me is amazing.”

He coached the Vikings for three seasons. Before CSU, he was head coach of the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL). When he assumed that role, he became the first black head coach in the modern era of professional sports.

McLendon’s coaching career began at North Carolina Central University in 1940. While there, he introduced the full-court press as well as fast breaks. More importantly, he worked to break down racial barriers in the segregated south. In 1944, he arranged the now-famous “secret game”. This contest was between his all-black team and the all-white Duke University Medical School team.

“This is 10 years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Scott Ellsworth, author of The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph, told the Horizon League. “This is 20 years before the Selma march. This is 30 years before the last school in Atlantic Coast Conference got its first black player. This is four years before Jackie Robinson [desegregates] Major League Baseball. You’ve got black and white college players in the South playing their own integrated college basketball game, so that’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Ellsworth added that news of this game inspired political activists in area.

McLendon then coached at Tennessee A&I, where in 1954, his team became the first all-black college team to participate in a national tournament, which was the NAIA Championship. They won three straight national titles from 1957-59 and defeated several white teams along the way.

The idea for the Horizon League to honor him came from Dennis Gates, who spent three seasons as the head coach at Cleveland State and is now at Missouri.

“[McLendon] paved the way for many people,” Gates said to the Horizon League. “An unbelievable person and obviously one that spent time giving back and building bridges for those coaches that wanted to pursue a career. I think ultimately, we have to look at the emotional intelligence that he operated with during the time when racial divide was at an all-time high.

“He was a man that was able and unafraid to break down those barriers and allow the game of basketball to serve as his compass to connect him with other people, no matter what those differences were, whether it was race, religion or even country,” Gates continued. “It’s not just a domestic impact that he’s had, it’s been on the international game of basketball. And obviously watching it grow into what it has grown into is definitely directed and connected to John McLendon.”

Known as “Coach Mac”, McLendon was the first person to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a contributor and as a coach.

He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1936 and was the first black student in the school’s physical education program. While on campus, he learned under Dr. James Naismith.

McLendon passed away in 1999 and was posthumously awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Award, which is the highest distinction the NCAA awards. (The award bears Roosevelt’s name because his work with college athletics that ultimately led to the creation of the NCAA in 1906.)

Years after he coached at Cleveland State, McLendon served as an adjunct professor and advisor to basketball team in the later days of his life. He taught a class on the history of sport and role of minorities for 10 years until shortly before he died.

“What a role model he was to so many who couldn’t quite see themselves in perhaps the role they wanted to be because they didn’t have an example,” Roe Lach said. “And then they see him, and it’s the whole ‘if I see him, I can be him,’ right. It’s at so many levels that he really broke barriers and frankly inspired the next generation if you will.”

McLendon’s legacy continues through the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative (MLI), which helps minorities jumpstart their careers. The Horizon League is one of two Division I conferences with an MLI fellow for the 2022-23 academic year.

“He was not only a pioneer for college basketball, but he was a pioneer for people like me,” said Maddie McConnell, the Horizon League’s McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative Messaging Fellow. “He was a pioneer for people like me that want to be a catalyst for change … Knowing that he left his mark and left his legacy in every corner he touched in his career, that only inspires me to do the same.”