He would come into the little news booth at the radio station on Wednesday mornings and we’d talk about one of the darndest college basketball teams these eyes have ever seen. Sometimes he’d bring a player with him, which more than filled the little booth for the three minutes or so that we talked with Coach Jonathan Staggers of Lincoln University during basketball season.
In those days, Lincoln University basketball was a major community event in Jefferson City. One night, when Lincoln played rival Tennessee A&I, I got there a little late and was among the crowd standing three-deep under the Lincoln basket in the first half. The second half lasted only a couple of minutes before the opposing coach took his team off the court after disputing a referee’s call, and forfeited the game.
Lincoln averaged 108.3 points a game that year, topped 100 in twenty of their 28 games.. One night, I watched them hang up 75 points in each half.
Staggers believed in three passes and a shot. Forget this dribbling stuff. “We’re going to press them from the minute they get off the bus,” he said in one of our interviews, talking about a big game coming up that week. Press, run, shoot. Win. Lincoln was 25-3 that year, lost in the Division II regionals to Southwest Missouri State, which finished as the national runner-up. And they continued the run-and-gun, triple-digit scoring the next year when they went 20-3
Some longtime Missouri Tiger football fans might remember his son, Jon, as a Tiger football star in the Dan Devine Days. But this reporter will always remember his dad, the coach, who often talked as much about character as about the upcoming games. He once said one of the messages he preached to his players was, “You can’t be a hero on the court and a bum in the classroom.”
He left a few years later to coach at Hayward State, and died in 2001 at the age of 77.
All these years later, those words come to mind every time some college athletes with million dollar bodies act as if they have twenty-five cent brains. “You can’t be a hero on the court and a bum in the classroom.” Or anywhere else, frankly.
It was a life lesson, not collegiate advice, that he was giving. Most people get it. A few never do. And they’re not all athletes.
Glory once tainted, however, might not be lost. And failure early need not be failure always. Perhaps all who seek that glory of the young should be reminded of a verse from A. E. Housman—
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows.
It withers quicker than the rose.
Whether in collegiate sports or adult politics, the coach’s words and the verse of Housman reminds us that the fame of the moment is likely to be temporary. But character will be a constant.