When workouts began for the Southern University at New Orleans women’s basketball team this month, Elston King was in a familiar place.
King had just retired after 34 years coaching at his alma mater. But it quickly became apparent, he said, that rather than help new coach Roshaun Ambrose, as they agreed, he needed to get out of the way and let her have the team all to herself.
But staying away from SUNO will be difficult after 41 years there, including his time as a student.
“He’s like a member of the family,” Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said. “He still comes around and says hello to people. He transcended the title of coach, like someone who supported all aspects of operations here.”
King’s time at SUNO began in 1974 as a student, continued as a volunteer women’s assistant coach in 1981 after he was spotted coaching a semi-pro league team, then progressed to men’s assistant coach and women’s head coach simultaneously before ending his tenure as the school’s athletic director and women’s coach.
“SUNO was the best thing to ever happen to me,” King said. “I would never have thought that I would have gone as far as I had.”
Those who know him well said it’s easy to understand how King could last at one school for so long, advance up the ladder and finish with his most successful seasons at the end of his coaching career. King’s last team, the 2014-15 women, went 23-5, won the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships and stunned No. 5 Vanguard in the first round of the NAIA tournament on their way to the Round of 16. In King’s final three years, the Knights were a combined 57-16 with three conference titles.
“He’s one of the best people you’ll meet, he really loves the game and he was a student of the game,” said Earl Hill, who was SUNO’s men’s coach from 1990 to 2006. “Coach King’s background really was in baseball, but he taught himself a lot, he learned from his head coaches (at SUNO) and he went to clinics run by Coach (Rick) Pitino and others.”
King, 59, said he learned the most from two coaches he served under at SUNO. Veteran coach Harold Hunter was hired as women’s coach in 1985 and stayed until 1990, retaining King. Hill becoming men’s coach took place as Hunter left the women’s job. Hill had heard about King’s dedication and loyalty through coaching contacts and brought him over to the men’s side.
King, who worked for a prescription drug company during the day, “was only making $150 a month,” said Hill, who got King a much better salary.
Hunter had played and coached at Tennessee State under coach John McLendon, who learned basketball at Kansas under Dr. James Naismith, inventor of the game. Under Hunter, King learned a lot about offensive basketball, particularly high-level fast breaks.
Hill provided the other side.
“I learned a lot about discipline, defense and toughness under Coach Hill,” King said. “His first meeting, an all-conference player came about a minute late. Coach Hill suspended him. I knew we were going to win then.”
SUNO’s men won a combined six GCAC regular-season and tournament titles under Hill with King as the top assistant. But when the women’s coach was fired in 1998, Hill, who also was athletic director, asked King to take over. During his 16 years in the position, he had a record of 250-154, had two losing seasons and won four conference titles — all while remaining the men’s top assistant.
“The game is similar, but when you’re coaching men and coaching women, that’s a lot of mental wear,” said Bo Browder, coach of rival Xavier, where he is entering his 17th season. “When you’re coaching young ladies, your communication skills have to be excellent. When you’re coaching young men, you have to let them understand that you mean business when you say something.”
The Knights meant business on the court under King. Browder said he saw SUNO’s women’s teams evolve from ones focused mainly on outscoring foes in the early years under King to ones that played stifling man-to-man defense.
“You had to be ready for their full-court pressure,” Browder said. “They became a mentally tougher team, and that’s when his program got better.”
King and Browder were GCAC co-coaches of the year in 2013, and King was coach of the year last season. Upkolo said he liked the togetherness with which the Knights women played.
“They were like sisters,” he said. “If you came to one of their games for the first time, you would not be able to tell who was the star.”
King was not just a good assistant coach to Hill. Hill said King’s knowledge of NAIA rules, regulations and compliance was invaluable to him and SUNO, and he’d made sure Ukpola knew. So when Hill left in 2006, Ukpolo said it was a no-brainer who the next AD would be.
“There was a lot of competition for the job,” Ukpolo said. “But I had a lot of confidence in his ability to unite the athletic programs of SUNO and to push the academic preparation of our students. I never had any problems with any of our athletes, and they are actually leading the way at the university in terms of their (grade-point averages). It was always about service with him and putting the athletes first.”
King said his tenure was a labor of love.
“I wanted to help uplift the program, athletics-wise and also academically,” he said. “I think I helped do that. It was just time (to retire), and I felt I went out on top.”