COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -Growing up in the segregated South in the 1940s and '50s, Willie Jeffries had to overcome discrimination and racism to earn a college degree.
Years later, the perseverance he learned in his youth helped him become the first black coach in the nation to lead a Division I school.
Jeffries, a South Carolina State University graduate, will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Black College Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Friday.
Jeffries made history when he became coach at Wichita State in 1979, though the 71-year-old retiree said he didn't think of it that way at the time.
Instead, Jeffries knew he would have to prove he was equal to the challenge.
ving the same type job.''
Much of the skepticism came from recruits. During a visit Jeffries made to one player's home in Pennsylvania the prospect told him he couldn't play for a black coach.
``I told him that I was happy to find that out before fourth-and-1,'' Jeffries said.
Plenty of white players who came to Wichita State told Jeffries they had never played for a black coach, but he quickly gained their trust. And Jeffries was able to bring quality players - black and white - to Wichita State, which competed for recruits with other top programs in the area.
Wichita State won only one game in Jeffries' first year, but improved to 8-3 by his third year. He stepped down after five seasons, but thinks his brief time at the school helped other black coaches.
``There were black coaches popping up all over the place in '80 and '81,'' he said. ``There are only about five of us now.''
Jeffries continues to speak about the lack of black coaches at major colleges. ``There are plenty of us qualified. We just don't get that chance,'' he said.
Jeffries went on to coach Howard, then finished his career at South Carolina State, retiring in 2001 after nearly 30 years.
Jeffries said he hopes his award sparks discussion about why black coaches don't get more opportunities. And if he gets some praise for breaking racial barriers, Jeffries doesn't mind.
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