Bohls: Former Texas coach Leon Black left a legacy of admirers of his integrity, decency
- Leon Black, a successful Texas basketball coach and pioneer in recruiting, died Tuesday at 89.
- Black was as genuine and caring as any Longhorn coach ever, and his players loved him.
- "Coach Black was among the most warm, most kind and most genuine people ever," Shaka Smart said.
Leon Black died Tuesday morning.
No, this time he really did.
So this is actually the second obituary I’m writing on the Texas basketball coaching legend who passed peacefully in his home at age 89 after battling failing kidneys and a heart condition.
I call him a legend because Black's legacy had less to do with a won-lost record that didn’t even reach the .500 level but so much more to do with how this humble man touched lives and impacted careers of anyone who came into contact with him. He was as authentic and beautiful as a Texas sunset, a man of integrity and decency.
I penned the first obit about this wonderful saint of a man about 17 months ago when one of his sons, Jason, notified me that his father was on his last legs and hospice was on the scene.
So much for those plans. Death could wait. You learned not to sell Leon Black short.
You see, Black was a fighter if nothing else. But the genuine, Scriptures-reading, gritty but good-natured farm boy from Martin’s Mill in East Texas was so much more than that.
Here’s whom Longhorn Nation is mourning today.
Black was a feisty, competitive, ultra-positive, fundamental-emphasizing coach who never cut corners and produced two Southwest Conference championships and a colossal upset of Houston in a 1972 NCAA Tournament game for a Sweet 16 berth.
He could be dry in personality but had an acerbic wit about him. “I don't know why but we had a bond,” former Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said. “He's been an inspiration for a lot of people. I'm really sad today. I never ever heard him say one negative thing about the University of Texas. I love Leon Black. As a man, I don’t know if I’ve ever met a finer person.” Humility came naturally to Black.
Current Texas coach Chris Beard, too, has hung on Black’s every word. He recently took his entire team to visit the former coach. So, too, did former Horns coach Shaka Smart listen at his elbow.
“Coach Black was among the most warm, most kind and most genuine people I’ve ever come across,” Smart said Tuesday from Marquette. “There are two things that will always stand out to me. One was the absolute presence and authenticity he exhibited every single time I saw him. It was rare. The other was the incredibly special way his former players spoke about him.”
Before that college career as a Longhorn, Black was one terrific, pint-sized point guard, a 5-foot-8 dervish who could dunk after a single step and leap with the best of them. He even jumped center as a UT freshman and told me recently, “I got most of all the first tips.” He may not have been a dead-eye shooter like Jimmy Chitwood in “Hoosiers,” but he had all of Jimmy’s other small-town, country-first values.
He was an ardent patriot, having served in the U.S. Army.
He was a loving husband of 64 years to Peggy, a bursting-with-pride dad of four and granddad of six, just a super human being whom his friends and this jaded sportswriter absolutely adored. There wasn’t a Longhorns home game where we didn’t have a chat in the media room before the game or at halftime over pie. The man did have a sweet tooth.
And he was a lousy golfer. Let’s be real. He rarely missed those 7:30 a.m. tee times three times a week at Barton Creek Country Club with his buddies and, for all his wayward drives, he’d search for other lost balls throughout the course and always end up his round with more balls than he started and then treat himself to a chocolate chip cookie on the 19th hole.
Yeah, he was a teetotaler, whose vices were limited to Red Man chewing tobacco, a nightly tradition of Blue Bell homemade vanilla ice cream not unlike another Longhorn treasure Cliff Gustafson and black bass fishing with friends like David McWilliams and Bill Bethea and Ron Franklin.
He was also a trailblazer, recruiting Black players that previously would look down their noses at one of the whitest schools in the South and sneer at the size of Gregory Gym. Why should they consider a school that marked football and spring football as its top two sports? But he landed the first seven Black scholarship players in school history.
He was a by-the-book gentleman who lived by the rules and didn’t mind turning in those who didn’t. His family still recalls the harassment they endured from Texas A&M apologists who came hard after Leon for reporting rules violations. Mad Aggies would derisively honk their angry horns in his neighborhood and sent taxi cabs to his address at late hours, all the while forgetting who did the cheating.
He was a consummate Longhorns fan, choosing to play for Texas despite offers from every SWC school as well as LSU and Notre Dame. And even after getting forced out for his lacking 106-121 record, he knew no bitterness and, after his dismissal in 1976, sat in his same Erwin Center seats for every home game but three up until 2018.
And even though he didn’t have the best record or produce the most banners that hang in the Frank Erwin Center that he helped lay the foundation for, Black was a champion in the standings that count the most.
He impacted people. And he made it acceptable for Blacks to come to Austin. He was instrumental in lifting the color barrier at Texas, luring exceptional ball-handler Jimmy Blacklock, who later became a Harlem Globetrotter, future San Antonio Spurs point guard Johnny Moore and one of the school’s all-time best big men, Larry Robinson. This pioneer also convinced a Black athlete from the UT track team, Sam Bradley, to join his basketball team as well in 1968.
“He treated me just like he’d treat a son,” said Blacklock, who almost went to Michigan State out of Tyler Junior College before choosing UT. “It was uncomfortable to a degree, and some of the white players didn’t embrace me with open arms except for Lynn Howden, who was such a genuine guy. But Leon was always the same guy, the same then and the same today. He was a man’s man.”
He was indeed, a true legend.
Black is survived by his wife, Peggy, son Chuck Black, daughter Natalie Hetherly and her husband Mike Hetherly. son Jason Black and his wife Kelly Black as well as grandchildren Blake and Brandon Hetherly, Gaston and Chantal Reeder, Ally and Katie Black.
Not to mention a whole host of admirers who appreciated just being called his friend.