Clarence E. “Big House” Gaines, Sr. was born in Paducah, Kentucky, on May 21, 1923, to Lester and Olivia Bolen Gaines. He attended the public schools of Paducah and graduated in 1941, as class salutatorian, from Paducah’s Lincoln High School. He excelled academically, played basketball, was an All-State football player, and played trumpet in the school band. Although he qualified academically to attend numerous colleges and universities “Jim Crow” segregation and a suggestion by the family physician (a schoolmate of legendary Morgan State University football coach, Eddie Hurt) caused young Gaines to enroll at Morgan State University in 1941.
It was upon his arrival at the Baltimore, Maryland campus that Gaines received the nickname he is widely known by — “Big House.” According to oral accounts the school’s business manager took one look at the 6 ft. 3in., 265lb Gaines and declared: “Boy, I never seen anything bigger than you but a house.” While at Morgan State Gaines received recognition as an All-American football player and participated on the basketball and track teams. Gaines graduated from Morgan State in 1945 with a B.S. degree in Chemistry intent on furthering his education and attending dental school. His college coach, Eddie Hurt, recommended he temporarily go to Winston-Salem Teachers College in Winston-Salem, NC, to become the assistant coach to Brutus Wilson (a Morgan State graduate) who coached all sports at the small southern college.
Upon Wilson’s departure to Shaw University in 1946, Gaines became the head football and basketball coach, athletic director, trainer, and ticket manager. Gaines coached football from 1946-1949. In 1948 Gaines was named CIAA (Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association) “Football Coach of the Year” after leading the RAMS to an 8-1 season. Beginning in 1949 Gaines only coached basketball, and served as athletic director. In 1950 Gaines received his master’s degree in education from Columbia University.
In 1950 Gaines married the former Clara Berry, a Latin language teacher in the (Winston-Salem) Forsyth county public school system. They are the parents of two children, Lisa Gaines McDonald, a private business consultant, and Clarence Edward Gaines, Jr., a scout for the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls.
Due to his proficiency as an athletic coach, teacher, and humanitarian, Gaines has received numerous awards:
- CIAA Basketball Tournament Outstanding Coach Award; 1953, 57, 60, 61, 63, 66, 70, 77
- CIAA Hall of Fame Inductee, 1975
- NAIA Helms Hall of Fame Inductee, 1968; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1978
- CIAA Basketball Coach of the Year, 1957, 61, 63, 70, 75, 80
- NAIA District 26 Outstanding Coach Award, 1975-78
- Paul Robeson Award, 1980
- Winston-Salem Urban League Family of the Year Award, 1973
- Order of the Long Leaf Pine (N.C.)
- The Silver Buffalo Award (Boy Scouts of America), etc.
During Coach Gaines’ 47-year tenure as coach and athletic director at Winston-Salem State University, he coached former WSSU and professional basketball greats Cleo Hill (first African-American from a historically Black college and university to be drafted #1 by the National Basketball Association — St. Louis Hawks, 1961) and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and all-star performer) of the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks.
In 1967, as a result of his guidance and the all-around play of future National Basketball Association All-Star Vernon Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, the Winston-Salem State College, men’s basketball team won the 1967 National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Division II Basketball Championship — the first historically Black college to win a national championship. Subsequently, Gaines was named the NCAA Division II (1967) College Coach of the Year. In 1982 Gaines was recognized for his contribution to basketball by being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame (named in honor of the inventor of basketball James Naismith) as a coach.
Gaines was Involved in numerous professional and civic activities, in addition to his duties as athletic director, coach, and instructor:
- President of CIAA Basketball Coaches Association, 1972-76
- NAIA District Chairman, 1966-72
- President of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, 1989
- Co-founder of the Winston-Salem Youth Baseball League, Inc.,1960
- Patterson Avenue YMCA Board of Management, 1969-1971
- Experiment in Self Reliance Board of Directors, 1987
- Winston-Salem Automobile Club (AAA) Board of Directors, 1986
- Founder and former administrator of the Winston-Salem State University National Youth Sports Program and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Board of Trustees and President of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, 1989.
Other activities include membership in Sigma Pi Phi Boule and Omega Psi Phi fraternities, Boy Scouts of America, Forsyth County Heart Association, United States Olympic Committee, Model Cities Recreation Committee, Rotary Club of Winston-Salem, and basketball consultant for the United States Air Force (Germany, England, Mexico).
Upon his retirement as basketball coach at Winston-Salem State University in 1993, Gaines had amassed a win/loss record of 828-446, making him the winningest active basketball coach in NCAA history, and the second-winningest collegiate basketball coach behind the University of Kentucky’s late Adolph Rupp. However, following University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s 877th career win in March 1997, coach Gaines became the third-winningest basketball coach in NCAA history behind only Adolph Rupp (2nd), and Dean Smith (1st).
Gaines was eventually surpassed by longtime friend Jim Phelan of Mt. St. Mary¹s University (formerly Mt. St. Mary¹s College the name change took place on June 8th, 2004), placing him fourth all-time in wins in NCAA Basketball history before Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski passed both Phelan and Gaines in 2005, moving “Big House” to sixth-place all-time.
Clarence Gaines passed away on April 18th, 2005 due to complications from a stroke. He is survived by his lovely wife Clara and two children, Lisa and Clarence, Jr. Gaines’ legacy at Winston-Salem State University and in the college basketball world is sure to never be forgotten.