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Original Issue

History Lessons

Alcorn State coach Dave Whitney imparts the wisdom of his five illustrious decades in sports

It's understandable that Alcorn State guard Jason Cable would fall for the trick. After all, who would expect a 72 year-old coaching legend with an arena named after him to act so, well, goofy? So when Braves coach Dave Whitney surreptitiously dropped a $100 bill in a gym garbage can, then returned a little later, sure that his team was looking, to pull the Benjamin out with a look of astonishment, hollering out, "Oh my God! Look what I found!" of course Cable believed him. "He got me about two or three times on that one," says Cable, a senior, sheepishly. "Coach likes to joke around. But when he's serious, he's serious, and we all pay attention. He just fills you up with knowledge."

It's a wisdom Whitney has gained from an extraordinary career. In more than 26 seasons at little Alcorn State, in Lorman, Miss., he has put together a 496-274 record, with six NCAA tournament appearances and three victories. He was the first coach from a historically black college to win an NIT game and the first to win in the NCAA tournament. Last March he again led the Braves to the NCAAs. (They lost the playin game to Siena.)

All last year Whitney had intimated that he would retire after the 2001-02 season. But players like Cable pleaded for him to return, and Whitney's wife, Bernice, 72, and oldest daughter, Gail, 49, weighed in as well. "They keep a record on me," says Whitney. "They said, 'You only need four more victories to get 500 at Alcorn. If you don't do it now, you'll always wish you did.'"

So Whitney is back for what he insists is one last season. "It's the bottom line, the finality, whatever you want to call it," he says. Last spring, when he announced his return, he said, "I don't want to be a dead legend. If I'm a legend, I want to be a living one."

The legend began more than a half century ago, when Whitney starred in football, baseball, basketball and track at Kentucky State. On his graduation day in 1952 he shed his cap and gown directly after the ceremony and boarded a plane to Dayton, where that night he played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues. Though Whitney had a promising baseball career ahead of him--as a Negro league AllStar who succeeded Ernie Banks at shortstop for the Monarchs, he could have jumped to the majors--he chose coaching for financial security, landing a job as the basketball coach at Burt High in Clarksville, Tenn. At Burt he would compile a 217-72 record and win two state titles. He also settled down with Bernice, his high school sweetheart.

While at Burt, Whitney hired an outgoing track runner named Wilma Rudolph to look after his growing brood (which would eventually include four girls and one boy). "She was our very first babysitter," says Whitney of Rudolph, who would win three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics. "She always kept in touch after that. She'd bring her relay team by the house, send us postcards from Rome."

After a stint coaching at Texas Southern, Whitney joined Alcorn State in 1970. Three decades, 12 regular-season titles and seven SWAC tournament crowns later, he is the winningest coach in conference history. The man for whom the Alcorn State arena is named built that record by preaching defense, rebounding and half-court basketball. His hard-nosed approach to the players--"like the military," as Cable puts it--is based on the tenet that, says Whitney, "you kick 'em in the ass when they do wrong and pat them on the back when they do right."

Despite his superb record--during one stretch between 1977 and '82 the team went 95-23--Whitney never got an offer from a bigger school (though he was interviewed in 1980 by Oklahoma). "That was the period when they were not looking at black coaches," Whitney says matter-of-factly. But he says he still feels he has left his mark in more than the record books. "I think I was a big influence on black schools not being called run-'n'-shoot teams," he says. "We were successful against big schools because we rebounded, played defense and developed a frontcourt offense. I'm proud of that."

Whitney's players are just as proud to be playing for a man with such a rich history. "He never talks about any of the stuff he's done, but he will if you ask," says Cable. "Everything he teaches you, you can apply to life." Not the least of which is that, as Cable now knows, money doesn't grow in trash cans.

COLOR PHOTO: AL BEHRMAN/AP LIVING MONARCH Whitney starred in the Negro leagues before becoming hoops royalty.


The 500 Club

Alcorn State's Dave Whitney needs four more victories to reach 500 for his career and join this elite group of active Division I coaches with 500 or more wins at their current school.

Coach School, Years Wins

1. Jim Phelan Mount St. Mary's, 1955-- 871 2. Jim Boeheim Syracuse, 1977-- 623 3. Mike Krzyzewski Duke, 1981-- 558