By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Saturday afternoon will be special at Georgia Tech, where the Institute and will honor the legacy of the late Ben Jobe, the first African-American basketball coach at Georgia Tech.
You should learn about him first.
Jobe was an outlier in his lone season on Bobby Cremins’ first coaching staff in 1981-’82. He could be as patient as his surname suggests, but not always. He had a restless soul and loved fast-break hoops — which his Southern University squad later used to great effect, as when the Jaguars blew ACC Tournament-champion Tech out of the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
Oh, and Cremins – who will be at McCamish Pavilion Saturday as the Jackets host No. 22 Florida State – said Jobe, “probably should have been the new head coach,” back in ‘81. But, “it wasn’t popular to hire a black coach.”
When athletics director Homer Rice went looking for a new basketball coach that year, no black man had previously been tabbed to run a major program in the South. That first happened when Arkansas hired Nolan Richardson in 1985.
Rice chose Cremins, an energetic lad who’d done good things in his first job at Appalachian State University after playing for and coaching with the legendary Frank McGuire at South Carolina.
Soon after moving to Georgia Tech, Cremins hired George Felton, who’d followed him as a player and graduate assistant at South Carolina, where Jobe had been on staff.
Before long, while looking for players and another assistant, Cremins and Felton were “were driving somewhere and I said, ‘What about Ben Jobe?’” Felton recalled. “Bobby said, ‘That’s a great name.’ I told Bobby, ‘He’ll keep you balanced.’ “
Yeah, growing up poor in an enormous family in Nashville, Jobe would play different cards than did Cremins, Felton and even McGuire, who were all from the Big Apple. He was a counter weight, although he favored nothing slow.
In that year at Tech, Jobe pushed, pulled and pontificated.
He also confirmed Mark Price, whom Felton was recruiting like mad.
“I had one Friday night in the early summer when Bobby first got the job, and I said I’m going down to Jacksonville for a big AAU tournament,” Felton said. “They had the AAU team from Enid, Okla., and they had Mark Price. I called Bobby, and told him he’s fantastic. I made like 12 trips out there.”
Cremins went a little crazy about all of his young assistant’s trips to Oklahoma.
Felton recalls Cremins in a staff meeting yelping, “he’s going to spend the whole [recruiting] budget, and we don’t even know if the kid can play.”
So, the head coach sent Jobe to Oklahoma to watch Price play a high school game against a team featuring future college and NBA star Wayman Tisdale.
Then, there was a meeting.
“I was a little nervous because Ben was coming into the office. And Ben said, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing there,’” Felton said. “Bobby starts [ranting], ‘See, I told you, [Felton] doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s running around like a chicken with his head cut off.’
“Ben let Bobby finish, and he said, ‘What I meant was I don’t know why UCLA and North Carolina and all those big schools are not there.’ Bobby said, ‘Well, I gotta get out there.’ “
Price signed in 1982 with Tech, as did John Salley, and their jerseys are in the rafters.
Before they showed up on campus, and after Jobe had already been a head coach at historically black colleges and universities Talladega, Alabama State and South Carolina State, he wanted the Jackets to go, go, go.
But Brook Steppe was a shooter, and he and fellow starters Maurice Bradford, Lee Goza, Brian Howard and George Thomas were not fleet of feet in 1981-82.
“We couldn’t run the way he wanted us to run. I had loved fast break basketball, but he took it to another level,” Cremins said. “Very polished. He could get in a conversation with anybody about any subject. He would talk to us about the old days and the racial times.”
Indeed, there are tales about how Jobe as a teenager tracked former Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State) head coach John McLendon in the 1950s, bumping around local YMCAs, basketball tournaments, clinics and camps, as McLendon spread hoops gospel.
The late McLendon, who can be found in several basketball halls of fame, grew up in Kansas and wound up at the state’s flagship – UK – bumping hips with Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game without likely a clue about what it might become.
Jobe was a talented hoopster, smart as E=mc2, and short. At about 5-feet-8, pro ball was not an option.
After graduating from Fisk University, there was a short turn coaching high school ball in Alabama, and then he worked a few moments in Los Angeles in his first wanderlust thrust, joined the Peace Corps and went to teach basketball in Africa for a few years.
There was cricket, too.
“And he loved it,” said Jobe’s widow, Regina, who will be at Saturday’s game along with daughter, Gina Benee Jobe Ishman and grandchildren Caden and Haley. Bryan Jobe, son of Ben and Regina, and his child cannot make the trip. “He was one of the first coaches. He had to learn and coach all the British sports.”
Not long after returning to the United States, Jobe took his first head coaching job at Talladega in 1964. Then, there was a brief turn in 1967-68 at Alabama State, in Montgomery, where he met Regina, before taking over at South Carolina State from 1968-73.
And South Carolina State scored, and scored and scored.
Major college freshman were ineligible for varsity competition at the time, and South Carolina — which was one of the nation’s top programs — played a preseason freshman-only scrimmage against SCS late in Jobe’s run, and “they blew us out of the gym,” Felton said. “They ran us out. Transition was their game.”
McGuire hired Jobe at South Carolina.
And after four or five years there, Jobe split to become the head coach at the University of Denver. Wanderlust again.
“Ben [was] the type of person who gets bored easily. He always challenged himself. Denver came up and he applied. His chances I didn’t think were very good, I think over 300 resumes,” Regina recalled. “He was a restless soul. He liked moving. He didn’t want anybody to ask him to move. He wanted to move first.”
There was another job change in Denver, when after two seasons running the college program, Ben joined the staff of the ABA’s Nuggets in 1980-81. That team was coached by Donnie Walsh, a New Yorker who’d coached under McGuire at South Carolina.
That job didn’t last long. Jobe became irked when a Denver front office official – not Walsh – gave him grief for getting into Nuggets superstar David Thompson and trying and help him confront off-court problems. That timed up with Regina’s rare unrest.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at that [story about Thompson and the Nuggets],” Regina said. “Some things as a wife you weren’t told. If you had a problem, and he knew you had a problem, he’d let the front office know the player had a problem. He will not hold his tongue.
“I know this time was my turn. I’m from the South. I laugh and hug a lot, and that didn’t happen much in Denver. was ready to come back to the South.”
So, the Jobes drove to Montgomery, where Regina grew up, to her family.
And Cremins called, and Ben took a job at Tech in 1981.
Regina and the kids stayed in Montgomery because, “There were children being killed [in Atlanta]. And we both agreed that we would not take our kids there. Either I would go there on the weekends, or he would come here.”
Multiple young people were murdered in Atlanta from 1979-81 with similar marking characteristics connecting the killings. Ultimately, those deaths would be attributed to Wayne Williams, who in 1982 was convicted for the murders of two adults and sentenced to life in prison without ever being charged for the child murders.
Jobe didn’t stay at Tech for long.
Alabama A&M called, and he took off.
“They came after him, and he said, ‘Bobby I want to be a head coach and have my own team,’” Cremins said. “I said, shoot, go.”
At A&M, the Division II Bulldogs finished first or tied for it in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and finished second once in Jobe’s four years before he lit out again.
The family moved to Baton Rouge, La., and he coached Southern for 10 years to wild success with four NCAA Tournament bids.
Jobe stayed still for a while, even as his teams routinely scored and scored and scored, leading the nation in scoring four times. Said Regina, “We usually stayed four or five years at a place, but Southern was different because the kids were in school.”
Once the kids were old enough, Jobe took off again. He left the SWAC and went back to the SIAC at Tuskegee. Four seasons were so-so, and he went against his grain, and answered the call to return to Southern.
The Jaguars struggled for two seasons, and he left coaching in 2003.
“Ben always said, ‘You never can go back. Once you leave, however you leave, when you go back it’s never the same,’” Regina said. “When he went back to Southern, he found that to be true.”
Not long after, Walsh called. He was in the front office of the NBA’s New York Knicks, and he wanted Jobe to scout college players around the country. He did, for several years, and his widow said he loved traveling the country and engaging young people.
Ben wanted to move.
“That was the philosophy,” Gina Benee said. “That’s in the book he wrote, ‘Staying Ahead of The Posse.’ Part of his thing was not to get bored; go build a program and take on a challenge.”
Jobe and the Jaguars were up to it in 1993, when they met the Jackets in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Southern averaged about 97 points per game that season, and won rather easily, 93-78.
“They ran us off the floor,” said Cremins, who spoke at Jobe’s funeral two years ago.
The signature win of Ben Jobe’s head coaching career didn’t leave him happy. He was close to Bobby.
“For my dad, it was so bittersweet for him because he was playing his long-time friend. He was so humble in his win,” Gina Benee said. “It was nothing that you would ever hear my dad talk about. His only thing was to think about his friend.”