Once during a basketball game Ben Jobe was coaching at Southern, a fan sitting behind the Jaguars bench called one of the referees “a blind S.O.B.”
The official wheeled around in the direction of the voice and gave Jobe a technical foul.
"After the game, I walked up to the ref and said, 'Mr. Official, someone sitting behind me called you an S.O.B,’ ” Jobe later recounted. “ ‘I do not use that vernacular. But I do agree with him.’ ”
That was Ben Jobe. Passionate. Direct. Intelligent, with a mind as sharp as the impeccably tailored suits he wore on the sideline. A basketball man, certainly, but a man of so many other talents and interests, a man who kept those passions alive until his death Friday at age 84.
"Ben Jobe could've been a success in anything," former LSU coach Dale Brown once said of his longtime friend. "He reminds me of an English teacher. Dignified, classy, a very good coach. He understands his ability to coach."
Jobe might be in heaven now talking basketball strategy with Clarence “Big House” Gaines, the equally legendary coach at Winston-Salem State. Or with Hall of Famer Frank McGuire, Jobe’s boss when he was an assistant at South Carolina.
“Big Frank,” Jobe called McGuire. “I think Big Frank was connected with the mob,” Jobe told me more than once. “You didn’t mess with Big Frank.”
More likely, though, he’s seeking out a chat with Martin Luther King Jr. Or Martin Luther, even.
“He was always searching for something,” said former Southern athletic director Marino Casem, himself a legendary football coach at Alcorn State. “He never reached the pinnacle. He was always looking for something else. He affiliated himself with trying to push the envelope.”
Jobe had to be taken on his terms. But if you did, he opened you up to a perspective on the world that you didn’t know existed. A world much larger than the 94-by-50 piece of hardwood where he made his living and crafted his legend.
"If I wouldn't get fined, or if I could afford to pay the fine, I wouldn't even talk to you guys," Jobe told reporters in Tucson, Arizona, where he had his greatest victory: a 93-78 upset of Georgia Tech in the first round of the 1993 NCAA tournament. "I love you guys, but I'd love you a lot more if you could write about the homeless or poverty on the delta of Mississippi."
“Ben put things in the right perspective,” said former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, a broadcaster for that epic Southern upset.
Jobe could be almost painfully candid. Of one of his less talented players, he once told me, “That boy couldn’t play dead.”
But he cared for them, too, determined that they take the advantage of their college education and make something of their lives once the games ended.
When I covered Southern in the early 1990s, Jobe brought in a gifted player from the Florida panhandle area. In all his years of coaching, Jobe said, the player’s living conditions at home were the worst he’d ever seen.
“I’ve got to help that young man get to the NBA,” Jobe said. “I’ve got to get him out of there.”
His players never forgot. Alabama coach and Southern basketball legend Avery Johnson took time out of Saturday’s postgame news conference at the Southeastern Conference tournament following the Crimson Tide’s bruising 79-74 loss to Kentucky to speak of Jobe, his mentor, his friend.
“It's really been an emotional 10 days,” Johnson said. “He was admitted to the hospital 10 days ago, and you know it was pretty much touch and go from the time he arrived in the hospital. Fortunately, his daughter said that he was alert enough to watch our game against Mississippi State (on Thursday), and he watched the first half of our game yesterday before things took a turn for the worse.
“Special man, pioneer in basketball. Mentor. He was on campus about four, five weeks ago; we had lunch, and he came to practice and talked to the guys. You know, he had a great sense of humor and a bunch of stories about me. Not all of them are true. Yeah, this has been very emotional for me and — but no more than it is for his family. We send all of our love and condolences to his family.”
Shortly after Casem became Southern athletic director in 1986, he was in the market for a basketball coach. A friend in Alabama advised Casem to try to land Jobe, then winning 20 games a year at Alabama A&M.
“I called Ben, and it was a foregone conclusion after one interview,” Casem said. “We developed a great passion for our program.”
Jobe coached Southern from 1986-96 and again from 2001-03, winning 208 games in 12 years with four NCAA trips and one NIT appearance.
For a man named Jobe, Ben didn’t possess the patience of his biblical namesake in a basketball sense. His philosophy was up-tempo all the time, wanting his team to average more than 90 shots per game. Three times at Southern — 1990-91, 1992-93 and 1993-94 — Jobe’s Jaguars led the NCAA in scoring at 104.4, 97.1 and 101.0 points per game.
Covering Southern then was like watching a tennis match. The Jaguars would score, the other team would score and the Jaguars would score again, literally within the span of 10 seconds or so.
“The people who appreciated it the most were the people in the stands,” former Texas Southern coach Robert Moreland said. “When Southern came (to Houston) or we went to Baton Rouge, the stands were packed. People wanted to be entertained.”
“Followers of college basketball know about his great NCAA tournament victory over Georgia Tech,” said Lonza Hardy, former sports information director at Southern and now athletic director at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. “But he was even more widely known because of the great style of play that he taught his teams. Because of his outstanding skills as a recruiter, and because of his overall devotion to seeing his players develop as young men, coach Jobe learned from the best, and he went on to teach those who would become the best. He was indeed an iconic basketball coach.”
He was indeed. But more than that, he was an iconic man.