This would have been March, 1974. Mississippi Coliseum was so packed the fire marshalls had locked the doors. If Jackson State defeated Alcorn State, the Tigers were going to the NIT, which was a huge deal 41 years ago.
The Tigers had the Short brothers, Eugene and Purvis, who would go on to be NBA first-round draft choices. Alcorn had an elfish looking little coach named Davey Whitney and a bunch of no-named players from backwoods Mississippi.
The JSU Tigers never knew what hit them. Alcorn came out in a swarming, full-court press. It seemed as if there were 10 of them on the court. It was 48-13, Whitney’s guys, before you knew it. Up in the rafters, Alcorn fans thundered the question: “Who ‘dat say they gonna beat them Braves? WHO DAT?” WHO DAT?” Jackson State eventually made a game of it but did not make the NIT.
Whitney, who died Sunday at 85, won 566 college basketball games. He was a Kentucky native and a Mississippi trailblazer. He changed the sport forever in his adopted home state. He will be remembered as one of Mississippi’s greatest coaches in any sport at any level.
Five years after that memorable victory over Jackson State, he took his Alcorn Braves to Mississippi State and knocked off the Bulldogs in the NIT. In that same NIT, Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, three years removed from a perfect season, barely survived Whitney’s Braves at Bloomington. Knight was so impressed he hired Whitney to help him coach Team USA.
Davey’s teams would win 12 SWAC championships and Alcorn would become the first historically black school to win an NCAA Tournament game.
But there’s so much more to the Dave Whitney story. M.K. Turk, at USM, took Whitney’s blueprint of recruiting small-town Mississippi talent and winning huge. Then, Richard Williams did it at State. That didn’t leave much talent for Alcorn.
After all that success, Whitney suffered three straight losing seasons. Alcorn, sad to say, fired him. Five years later, Alcorn then named the gym after him. Seven years later, after Whitney had bounced around coaching in pro basketball’s minor leagues, Alcorn hired him back. He returned the Braves to SWAC prominence and the NCAA Tournament.
And there’s still so much more to his story…
The most Whitney ever made at Alcorn was during his second tenure there when his salary rose to $67,000 in 2001-2002. By the time the historically white schools began to hire black coaches and pay them a king’s ransom, Whitney was in his 60s. “They weren’t hiring black coaches my age,” Whitney once said.
Today, Richard Williams surmises, a young Dave Whitney would be a hot ticket. “He’d make millions,” Williams says.
And there’s still so much more…
Before becoming a basketball coaching legend, Whitney played professional baseball. He was a middle infielder for the Kansas City Monarchs. When Ernie Banks left the Negro Leagues to play for the Chicago Cubs, the guy who took his place as the Monarchs’ shortstop was a little guy from Kentucky named Dave Whitney.
Half a century later, Whitney retired to Biloxi, where he loved to play golf and “invest” at the casinos. He smoked Lucky Strikes. He enjoyed a good Kentucky bourbon or three. He loved to tell stories and laugh.
He was a charming gentleman, soft-spoken and polite. He and Bernice were married 62 years. They raised five children.
Davey never made a fortune at basketball coaching, but he changed the sport here. And although he would never tell you, he knew how good a coach he was. You better believe, he knew.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.