Believe it or not, no one was keeping track at the time so it’s extremely difficult to know for sure.
This photograph was taken in the spring of 1972. That’s McCoy McLemore in between head basketball coach Don Knodel and head football coach Al Conover. As far as I can tell he was the first African-American to coach any sport here:
But I could well be wrong. If you know something I don’t please tell me. It simply isn’t possible to figure it out from the records we have. I found out the little I know completely by accident.
A Houston native and Yates High School graduate, McCoy McLemore had been a standout big man at Drake University, named to their All-Decade team for the 1960s. He spent eight years in the NBA, ending his career back in Houston with the Rockets in the 1971-72 season before arriving at Rice. He also worked as a broadcaster for the Rockets. The mid-70s were a pretty tumultuous time for Rice basketball but McLemore seems to have been popular with both the players and the rest of the student body. There was some speculation that he might become head coach after Coach Knodel resigned in 1974 but that was not to be. He died of cancer in 2009, only 67 years old.
I have fond memories of Coach Mac as an assistant football coach under Al Conover. He was a very kind man, approachable to all players, and one with whom you could discuss any problems you had. I was hoping that he would have had a longer tenure with Rice athletics. But somehow we let him get away.
“Mac” was a great coach. I’m virtually certain that he was Rice’s first black coach. He was on the payroll of the football team but quickly became our favorite assistant coach on the basketball team. He was an extraordinary people person and was extremely approachable by players of both races. We were very impressed that he had just retired from a successful career in the NBA, telling us stories about winning the NBA championship with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Oscar Robinson in Milwaukee. When Don Knodel resigned in the spring of 1974, several of us players met with President Hackerman and tried to get him appointed as the head basketball coach. Instead, Red Bale, the Athletic Director picked an elderly Anglo, Bob Polk, a “has been” who lead Rice to two of its most losing and dismal seasons. As a member of the Rice Alternative Team (“RATs”), we tried to stage a coup d’etat and replace the existing team with our group of disgraced former players and “Mac” and Greg Williams as coaches. We got national media attention but weren’t able to finalize the coup. “Mac” did go on to have a successful career as a Rockets announcer and real estate executive. And Greg Williams became a very successful coach in women’s basketball.
My rusty neurons occasionally produced fleeting wisps of this alternative team tale.
Long have I sought print references.
There are very few that I can find.
A total of one mention in the Thresher (1976), and a few in regional Texas newspapers (all hiding behind paywalls).
I live in no fear of paywalls. I have the hammer of research (otherwise known as archive subscriptions.). Grungy, check your Messenger.
Actually, the Houston Post and Chronicle both referred to McLemore as Rice’s first Black coach when he was hired. Apparently it was newsworthy. He resigned as a result of the 1975 drama involving Coach Knodel’s successor, Coach Polk, and wound up as the basketball coach at Furr High School before becoming a member of the Rockets broadcasting team.
I met Mac when I was an undergrad at UH. Played summer pick up ball with and against him at the old gym at Coog and the old JCC. When I joined the Rice faculty in 1973 we played IM Softball together with Silent K and Greg on Bob Bland’s Pro Profs. Mac was a class act! Glad to call him a friend. All Honor to his Name.
Nice work, Melissa!
I had a little personal incident with him which relates to your statement, “McLemore seems to have been popular with both the players and the rest of the student body.”
I was among a rotating group of regulars and occasional others in the old Tudor Field house, then the only athletics facilities for students and faculty, who played pick up half court basketball in the afternoons for exercise and a break from studies. These games were half court and usually 3 vs 3 or 4 vs 4, as that was usually all that were around to play. Some players were pretty good, former high school team players, and then others like myself were just OK but not as skilled nor experienced. Everybody played with competitiveness and a pretty good amount of energy, since exercise and winning were the objectives.
This incident was in the early fall of 1972. There was a game I remember where there was a taller, older black player that ended up on my team. The older part was not really noteworthy, since some graduate students played in these games and this was early in a new school year. This black fellow did not really try very hard in the game, not really using his size underneath, expend energy chasing loose balls or rebounding, trying to get open for shots, or playing close defense, as was the norm for almost all the other players in these games. He was a really accurate shooter, however. Since he was on my team, his lack of effort seemed to me to be keeping us from winning or winning more decisively. So I remember once, after the other team scored where he could have tried harder on defense, telling him that he could be trying harder. This did not result in any greater effort on his part, but it was not a big deal, since everybody knew this was only a voluntary pick up game.
I did not see him around playing in the afternoons after that, but did not think much about it. This is until the men’s basketball team took over the main court for a couple of hours in the afternoons starting basketball practice later in the fall. I saw the black fellow working with the scholarship players. Since I was a basketball fan and attended all the home and close away games, I soon found out that this fellow was new Coach McLemore and about his background. I realized that during that pick up game he was probably just getting a little exercise and seeing a little about the interest level in basketball among the student body before he was better known on campus, but that he did not want to take over our little pickup game.
I’m sure Coach McLemore must have had a little chuckle about getting razed about not putting out enough effort by a little nerd student, who was not that good a basketball player.