Loss of a Giant

April 21, 2005

By: John Dell
Winston-Salem Journal (4/19/05)

Winston-Salem, NC-Clarence "Big House" Gaines, the legendary former basketball coach at Winston-Salem State, died yesterday.

Gaines, 81, died after complications from a stroke he suffered over the weekend, according to Lisa McDonald, Gaines' daughter who lives in Chicago. He died last night at 9:10 at Forsyth Medical Center.

Gaines, who coached basketball at Winston-Salem State for 47 years, compiled a record of 828-447 before retiring after the 1992-93 season. He guided the school to the Division II national championship in 1966-67 as the Rams went 31-1 and were led by Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. Gaines was also the school's athletics director for most of that time. His 828 wins are fifth all-time behind Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Jim Phelan.

Tim Grant, a former player and an assistant coach under Gaines, heard the news last night.

"What I think about with Coach is all the people he impacted through the years," Grant said as he fought back tears. "And you are talking nearly 50 years' worth. Coach was a little bit of something to everybody; he was a father, a coach and to somebody like me he was there to guide me through a lot."

Grant, who played for Gaines from 1976 to 1980, was also an assistant coach at WSSU from 1981 through 1993.

Gaines went to the hospital on Friday with heart problems, according to The Associated Press.

Grant said that Gaines had to be rushed to the hospital twice over the weekend and that he understood that Gaines had suffered a stroke.

Despite his health problems, Gaines continued to lead an active life. He and his wife, Clara, delivered meals to shut-ins. He was active in the Rotary Club and often visited his two children, Lisa McDonald and Clarence Jr., and his grandchildren.

Beaufort Bailey, a member of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners and a 1952 graduate of WSSU, was taught by Gaines in college and they remained friends. Bailey also worked at WSSU and retired from there in 1993.

"He was just so down to earth and he told you what was on his mind and I just loved him to death because of that," Bailey said. "With all his popularity and notoriety he was still just Big House. We would play poker together sometimes and he just loved life and meeting people. I'm going to miss him, and I'm sure a lot of other folks are going to miss him, too."

Philip Stitt, the basketball coach at WSSU, said that Gaines was a big supporter of the program.

"Since I got here with Coach (Rick) Duckett in 1998, Coach Gaines always stood behind us and helped us any way that he could," said Stitt, who has been the head coach the past four seasons. "He was a walking legend and I tried to get our guys around him as much as I could because he knew more about basketball than anybody."

Stitt said that he talked with Gaines at Bill Franklin's funeral. Franklin, the longtime voice of WSSU athletics, died earlier this month.

"I saw Coach Gaines at the Final Four and we talked at Bill's funeral a little bit," Stitt said. "It's just a huge loss for this community because he was a legend and he basically built this school."

"He saw me and just said 'You're as big as a house,'" Gaines said a few years back. "And I guess the name Big House stayed with me all these years."
C.E. "Big House Gaines" As Told To John Dell

During Gaines' long career, his teams won 20 or more games 18 times. He coached the Rams to eight CIAA titles and his 1966-67 team was the first predominantly black school to win an NCAA basketball title. Gaines was also named the national coach of the year in 1967.

He was inducted into several halls of fame and was named coach of the year in the CIAA five different times. WSSU's hall of fame is called the Big House Gaines Hall of Fame.

Gaines was born in Paducah, Ky., in 1924 and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1941 before attending Morgan State on a football scholarship.

He also played basketball there - and that's where he earned his nickname. "I was an All-America in football, but I was just on the basketball team to have something to do," Gaines said late last year.

It was at Morgan State where a student saw the 6-4, 250-pound 18-year-old and quickly gave him the nickname that would stick. "He saw me and just said 'You're as big as a house,'" Gaines said a few years back. "And I guess the name Big House stayed with me all these years."

After graduating from Morgan State in 1945, Gaines had wanted to become a dentist. Instead, he took an offer to come to WSSU, which was a teacher's college at the time. He wound up becoming the football coach and later the basketball coach.

He coached football from 1946 through 1949 and was 20-12-4 during those four seasons.

He ultimately built one of the best basketball programs in the CIAA. He won on a regular basis and recruited some of the best players on the East Coast.

The honors for Gaines continued even this past basketball season when his home state named him a Kentucky Colonel.

Gaines went back to Paducah from time to time and it was there where he was taught to work hard. He helped his family by working in a garage. Next basketball season is a long way away, but Stitt hopes the school will honor Gaines in some way. "Whatever we come up with will never be equal to what he's meant to this entire community," Stitt said.