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Louisville basketball and Wade Houston's trailblazing path

The former Cardinal broke barriers in Louisville and beyond, becoming the first Black head coach of a major sport in the SEC.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville men's basketball trailblazer Wade Houston grew up in Alcoa, Tenn., a small town about 20 minutes outside of Knoxville.

"It was not only an industrial town but a sports town," Houston said. He said families moved to the area because of jobs provided at the Alcoa Aluminum Company.

"The company created about 30 streets for African American families. They were like cookie-cutter houses," he said.

Every other street had a basketball hoop. Houston started playing basketball then and would travel with his aunt and uncle to Knoxville to play at the YMCA against older players.

"It didn't scare me," he said. "Running with those guys for a month or so - it was almost like I fit in."

Houston grew into a standout at Hall High School before integration. His team had to travel to places like Asheville, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., Nashville and others for games.

Of course, they felt the immediate impact of segregation, only being able to stay in certain hotels, eat in certain restaurants, etc.

"Outside of our immediate team, you got the Civil Rights Movement going on, you got the (Ku Klux) Klan coming through the towns of East Tennessee where we live," Houston said. "You hear they're coming and so you got to run, you got to get out of the way, you go hide.

"The worst part to me I think was just remembering how your parents and grandparents were treated. They weren't treated like humans. So, I just never quit. ‘I said, You know what, this is bad, but it's nothing like what my dad and granddad had to go through.”

MORE MOMENTS THAT MATTER: Celebrating Black History in Kentucky and southern Indiana

Houston caught the attention of a man who worked at the local post office. He happened to be an old friend of former Louisville head men’s basketball coach Peck Hickman. The two went to Western Kentucky together.

“He said, ‘Coach, you need to send somebody down here to see these guys play in Alcoa,’” Houston recalled. “’Because they are really good.’”

Cardinal assistant John Dromo came to watch and wanted Houston to come visit UofL. The senior went with his dad and high school coach, becoming immediately impressed by the size of Freedom Hall. But it was two former Cardinals who played a different sport that really left a mark on him: football players Lenny Lyles and Ernie Green.

“It didn't take me long to understand that I was standing on the shoulders of these guys who had come before me,” Houston said.

While they certainly impressed him as pro football players, with Lyles as a Baltimore Colt and Green as a Cleveland Brown, Houston saw them as something else.

"I didn't really come here thinking in four years, I'm going to be playing in the NBA,” Houston said. “I just saw these guys as businessmen."

Green had his own business and Lyles worked for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. The latter provided an "aha" moment for Houston’s father.

"He reached in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette lighter,” Houston recalled. “It had Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company on one side and Baltimore Colts on the other. And he gave that to my dad. It was like Christmas day for my dad and he fell in love with Lenny. We started watching Baltimore when we could. He looked at me and said, ‘This is where you need to go.’”

So Houston did, along with Eddie Whitehead and Sam Smith, to become the first Black basketball players to sign with Louisville. Whitehead was from Cincinnati and Smith was from Hazard.

Credit: Daniel Thornberg - stock.adobe.com/Louisville Athletics

"When I first met Eddie and Sam, I just knew they were good people,” Houston said. “We bonded because we had the same challenges coming in."

Those included name-calling and cheap shots. But one incident stood out to Houston: an 11 to 12-hour Greyhound bus ride back home to Tennessee for Christmas break during his freshman year.

“That bus stopped in some places that I was afraid to move,” Houston said. “I wasn't about to go into some of those places where that bus stopped. And it was an eye-opening experience for me. We’re thinking about some of the things we had to make sure we didn't retaliate against. My mind was going all kinds of different places.

“When I got home, I said, ‘Dad, I don't know if I can go back.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You're going back. You're not staying here. You don't have anywhere else to stay. So you get out of here and go back to school.’ And I thought about it. I said, ‘You're right. I got nowhere else to go.’”

What followed was a Cardinal career that helped lay the foundation for Louisville basketball. Houston was a part of two teams that made the postseason after moving up to the varsity squad in the 1963-1964 season.

“I was pretty much just versatile,” Houston said. “I don't know that I was just great in one area. But I just figured out a way to make some things happen and to be effective on the court.”

He knew the program was picking up more steam once it brought in local Seneca High School star and future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Wes Unseld.

“I knew that we were doing some things that would pay off,” Houston said. “But I didn't really think of where the program would end up nationally until I saw Wes play. When I saw Wes play, I said, ‘This is going to have a chance to be special.’”

After Louisville, he eventually resigned from high school teaching to play in France. The team wanted him to come back after one year. But already married with a newborn son, plus an offer from UofL to get his master’s degree, he decided he was done playing.

“I can’t leave him and the wife at home and I’m missing my chance to get my master’s at UofL,” Houston said. “It’s just too much to leave behind.”

Houston had always been inspired to teach and coach from observing as a student-teacher. He led Ahrens and Male High Schools, winning a state title at the latter. But he was becoming frustrated with the salary and busing plan implemented in Louisville at the time.

“That’s when I just said, ‘Man, I don’t know where I’m going from here,’” Houston said.

It turned out to be not very far. In 1975, Louisville head coach Denny Crum offered him a spot on his staff as the first Black assistant coach in UofL history. Houston had stayed close with Cardinal coaches, who mentioned an opening for him after two of his Male stars, Darrell Griffith and Bobby Turner, decided to become Cardinals.

Credit: Louisville Athletics

Griffith, Louisville’s all-time leading scorer, would become the centerpiece of a golden era of Louisville hoops. With Houston leading recruiting efforts to continue bringing in local and national talents, the Cardinals climbed to their first national championship in 1980. It was the first of two titles, with another coming in 1986, and part of four Final Four trips.

“We had a lot of high-IQ basketball players that were able to grasp what Coach Crum was implementing,” Houston said of those teams. “The one characteristic that we had about our teams during that time was that we were so interchangeable. We had centers that could guard a point guard, we had point guards who could guard a center.

“And that was a model that we built. Because in all honesty, we had trouble getting the seven-footers that were going to North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana. And so, we’d get 6’7”-6’8” athletic guys who were interchangeable. And the model just worked to perfection for a lot of years.”

Houston said the success made him a Louisville lifer and fanatic. And the former UofL player thinks he imparted his own toughness and confidence to those who followed in his footsteps.

“When the offense breaks down and when something is not going right, you got to be tough enough to make it happen,” Houston said. “That might be where I think growing up, just seeing so much racism and you had to be tough enough to survive, that part I think might have come from me.”

His own toughness and determination would continue to be tested in his pursuit of a head coaching job. As Crum’s top assistant, he clearly had a decorated resume as one of the most viable candidates. But Houston repeatedly wasn’t getting hired.

“There’s no one assistant who had more success than me in the 80s,” Houston said. “I said, ‘If I can't get a job, I don't know what's going to happen.’”

He helped form the Black Coaches Association as a response to not just the unfair treatment he experienced, but many others as well. The organization helped prepare and promote coaches by getting them ready for interviews, showing search committees they were doing more than just recruiting by running practices or preparing budgets.

The late John Thompson, a Hall of Fame coach from Georgetown University, and activist Harry Edwards assisted in forming the organization as well.

“So Harry and John met with us in Vegas and said, ‘You guys know that if you start this organization, and you call it the Black Coaches Association, there's a good chance you'll be blackballed because people don't want to confront an organization like that,’” Houston remembered. “So we said, ‘John, if we could help some young coach down the road, it’ll be worth it.’”

The interviews for Houston, who became associate head coach at UofL, came and went with the same result. The school he grew up 20 minutes from, the University of Tennessee, had even started to show interest. But he wasn’t getting his hopes up.

“I never felt that way because I had been through so many experiences where you get to the finish line and you can't cross over the finish line,” Houston said. “So this is just another effort in futility.”

Until it finally wasn’t. In 1989, the Volunteers hired him as the SEC’s first Black head coach in a major sport.

Credit: Tennessee Athletics

“I was just elated when I first heard that I had been offered the job,” Houston said. “And then as you understand the magnitude of what you're doing, you start to think about all the other things.”

One of them was his son Allan, who had become one of the country’s best players at Ballard High School. But he had already signed to play for Louisville. Wade had looked forward to coaching his son as a Cardinal, but now, that wasn’t going to happen.

“I left it in his hands,” Wade said of Allan’s impending decision. “What he found out was the players told him, ‘Your dad has helped us in so many ways. Your dad has been the one that we go to and if you got a chance to go play for your dad, you'd be crazy not to do it.’”

They applied for a waiver with the NCAA, which ended up letting Allan out of his National Letter of Intent to go to Tennessee with his dad. The two caught up on a lot of missed quality time.

“I had spent so much time recruiting and been gone so much that he had grown up right under my eyes,” Houston said. “I didn't even get a chance to notice him growing up. We couldn't do things like a normal father and son could do.”

Credit: Tennessee Athletics

Between golf, ping pong, fishing and church, they enjoyed life together in Knoxville. On the court, Allan became Tennessee’s all-time leading scorer before playing 12 seasons in the NBA, becoming a two-time All-Star. But as a Volunteer, the son got the most out of watching his dad work.

“I didn't really realize the positive impact it had until later on when he would do interviews and he talked about how proud he was of me as a coach in the huddle drawing up plays and working with the players,” Houston said. “And I never knew he was watching those kinds of things.”

The elder Houston spent five seasons leading Tennessee, finishing with an overall record of 65-90. Even after that tenure was done, he knew the impact he wanted it to have.

"The thing that I said when I left Tennessee was that I'm going to leave this place in a manner by which the university will never be afraid to hire a Black person again,” Houston said.

The men’s basketball program itself hired another Black man to lead it in 2011 with Cuonzo Martin. By that time, Houston was well-established in the world he always had a passion for: business.

“I never got the entrepreneur side out of my blood,” Houston said.

His wife Alice had already been running things in the logistics, warehousing and trucking business. They eventually formed the largest minority-owned transportation company in North America. They are now co-owners of HJI Supply Chain Solutions, which is based in Louisville, and recognized as some of the most prominent businesspeople and philanthropists in the city.

"I thought I was positively affecting players when I was coaching,” Houston said. “When you know people are getting a house, can buy cars, send their kids to school, that's when you know you are making a big difference. That went a long way with me and really where I tried to go from the time I walked on campus at UofL."

Contact sports reporter Tyler Greever attgreever@whas11.com. Follow him on Twitter andFacebook.

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