Remembering the lessons from Coach Jobe

When I was a young sports writer in the 1980s and early 1990s working for The Advocate’s former sister publication, The State-Times, I had the privilege of covering the Southern Jaguars basketball team during its heyday.

The first two coaches I covered, Andy Stoglin and Bob Hopkins, were somewhat successful, but then came Ben Jobe, who beginning in 1986, turned the Southwestern Athletic Conference upside down with his up-tempo style of basketball.

I was saddened to hear Coach Jobe died March 10 in Montgomery, Alabama, after a brief illness.

Covering Ben’s first three years as Southern’s coach, I got to know him very well. Without exaggeration, more than anyone else I followed in my sports writing career, Ben had the most lasting impact on me.

We connected on a basketball level because in the football-crazy South, I was a basketball guy, having played the game most of my life.

I loved watching Ben’s run-and-gun teams. His first two years at Southern, Avery Johnson was his starting point guard and led the nation in assists. The Jags also were among the nation’s leaders in scoring per game.

Ben taught me about the nuances of the fast-break, why basketball was meant to be played 94 feet back when most coaches preached half-court offense. The minidome was often packed to the rafters with fans as Johnson and Kevin Florent led Southern to two straight SWAC conference and regular season titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances. The next year, Carlos Sample, now a coach whose Scotlandville squad just won the Class 5A basketball title, and Bobby Phills, who later played in the NBA, guided the Jags to a trip to the NIT.

After I had moved on, perhaps Jobe’s most memorable moment in 12 seasons as Southern’s coach was the 13th-seeded Jaguars’ 93-78 win over fourth-seeded Georgia Tech in the first round of the 1993 NCAA Tournament. It stands as one of the greatest upsets in history.

But Ben, who really considered himself a professor of life, taught me so much, what I can sum up as the four Ps: passion, perspective, priorities and principle.

Ben was passionate about the game of basketball, his players and his team. Teaching was his profession, and basketball was his subject. He won more than 500 games during his career, and at the time I covered him, he’d never had a losing season at any level.

He brought a sense of perspective to his job, too. He introduced me to Clarence "Big House" Gaines and many of the other historically black college or university coaching legends I didn’t know who had paved the way for him. Once, I met and wrote about his mentor John McLendon who was a giant in basketball history. McLendon learned the game from its inventor James Naismith, and he innovated the up-tempo fast-breaking style of play so prevalent today.

Many of the real lessons I learned from Jobe weren’t related to basketball. We often talked about his experiences while growing up poor and black during segregation and the struggles of the Civil Rights era.

I believe his sense of priority was based on those experiences. He wanted his players to understand basketball was just a means to an education. They could make a bigger difference not with a ball but with their minds. He tried to discourage them from pursuing professional careers because he was more concerned about the development of their intellects. He prepared them to be men and to be proud of their heritage. He used to admonish me for wasting my time covering sports.

“Arceneaux, why don’t you spend your time and use your talent to tell people about poverty and inequity?” he once asked me.

He was a man of principle, too, who was not afraid to speak his mind even if it was controversial. He spoke out often that it was an injustice McLendon and other HBCU coaches weren’t given more recognition for their contributions to the game’s history. He also taught his players that who they were outside of sports was more important‚ in terms of education, family and faith than how many points they scored.

In the 1990s, after I left the newspaper and taught a sports writing class at LSU, I asked Jobe to be a guest speaker. The students were mesmerized as he spent almost the whole class period lecturing on the importance of making a meaningful contribution in society.

Jobe’s basketball legacy is secured as the NCAA annually presents the Ben Jobe Coach of the Year Award to the top minority coach in Division I basketball.

I lost touch with him over the years after he retired from Southern in 2003 and moved to Alabama. But I will always remember him for taking the time to teach a young sports writer about the most important things in life, most of them outside of sports. The times we shared and the conversations stay with me all these years later.

Thank you, Coach Jobe.

Send sports news, photos and stats to Howard Arceneaux at harceneaux@theadvocate.com.