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A Full Life, On and Off the Court

A Full Life, On and Off the Court

 Alcorn State’s basketball coach travels an interesting route to 500 wins

JACKSON, Miss. — If the story of Davey Whitney’s life is ever written, the fact that he reached 500 victories as a college basketball coach at Alcorn State University here might not make the first chapter.
Head coach Whitney won his 500th career game in the Braves’ 91-72 victory over the Prairie View A&M Panthers on December 20.  But when you’ve replaced Ernie Banks at shortstop, hired Wilma Rudolph to baby-sit and were one of the few African Americans allowed in the gym to watch the legendary Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky teams practice,  more than 500 wins is not exactly the most interesting thing on your resume.
Whitney currently has 514 wins spanning more than 29 seasons, including eleven Southwestern Athletic Conference regular season titles, five conference tournament titles and five trips to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.  He is ranked 17th among the NCAA Division I active coaches in career wins and 57th in all-time career wins.  In addition, this year, he just missed his 14th season in which he would have won 20 games or more during his career at Alcorn State.This year’s team finished 19-10.
In 1980, Whitney led his team to become the first historically Black school to win a game in the NCAA tournament, beating the University of South Alabama in the first round 70-62. His NCAA tournament record includes three victories, a one-point loss to the University of Kansas in 1984 and a three-point defeat to Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown University team in 1983.
But coaching basketball wasn’t Whitney’s dream as a youngster growing up in the 1930s in Midway, Ky., a town of about 500 residents.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do,” Whitney recalls. “I wanted to play pro baseball.”
He fulfilled that dream in 1952, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. The Monarchs had lost their shortstop to the Chicago Cubs. So while Banks was starting a career that would lead to the Hall of Fame, Whitney was becoming Kansas City’s starting shortstop. The baseball career never panned out, but he learned from the experience.
“It gave me the kind of discipline to remain in the middle of not getting too high or too low,” he says. “We would lose five in a row or win three. Before that, if I ever lost I was real low, and when I won I was too high. It gave discipline.”
After his baseball playing days ended in 1955, he moved back to Clarksville, Ky., and became a teacher and coach at Burt High School. That’s where he met a gifted student-athlete named Wilma Rudolph. Before she went on to win three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics, Rudolph did a little baby-sitting for Whitney. He became Rudolph’s friend and, at times, adviser.
As a young basketball player, Whitney also had a most unlikely influence for a Black man in the South. Rupp created a college basketball dynasty in his 41-year career with Kentucky that started in 1931 but didn’t have a Black player until 1969.
While attending high school in Lexington, Whitney and his teammates would go to Kentucky games and try to meet the players. Rupp took a liking to Whitney and one of his friends, and the two teens were allowed to attend practices. Whatever Rupp’s faults, Whitney liked the way the coach ran his team.
“A lot of kids didn’t like me because of that,” Whitney says of attending Rupp’s practices. “We were 14, 15 years old, and the only Black faces in the place.”
But he says Rupp’s practices ran “just like clockwork. Every minute was detailed. I think he is one of the all-time great coaches. I didn’t care about the other stuff. I know what I got from him.”
The willingness to play high-profile teams is another part of Whitney’s legacy in the Southwest Athletic Conference and a reason why the Braves have represented themselves so well come tournament time.
“I was the first coach to go outside of conference playing big schools,” says Whitney, who is in the fourth year of his second tour of duty with Alcorn State. “That’s how we got a jump.”
Whitney, 70, was unceremoniously let go from Alcorn State in 1989. He returned in 1996 to restore the program he had built up before. In just three years, the Braves were back in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Stanford University, 69-57, last season.
Andy Stoglin, Jackson State University’s coach and Whitney’s friend and pupil, says, “it is a tragedy” that Whitney never received a chance to coach at a high-profile program. Whitney himself, however, has no regrets.
“I’ve got to be pretty lucky,” he says, “growing up poor and Black, I’ve gotten pretty far. Even the downs I’ve enjoyed.” 

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