Emily Olson

Sports

Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair Once Built a Dynasty in South Oak Cliff

The second-seeded Aggies are expected to make the Final Four and have a good shot at winning the women's basketball championship. Their road began in Oak Cliff, decades ago.

If Gary Blair’s second-seed Texas A&M Aggies win this month’s NCAA women’s college basketball tournament, it will give Blair his second national championship to go along with over 840 wins as a NCAA head coach. It would be hard to deny the 75-year-old’s case as a candidate for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and cement his place among legendary college basketball coaches like Pat Summitt, John Wooden, Geno Auriemma, and Dean Smith.

Blair took over the women’s basketball program at Texas A&M in 2003. The Aggies have since won over 71 percent of their games and have been far more successful than the school’s men’s basketball and football programs. But before the Dallas native was offered the job in College Station—before he notched the first of those 800-plus wins, before he was even hired as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech in 1980—he’d already built a basketball dynasty at South Oak Cliff High School.

Blair accepted a job teaching physical education in 1973 as a way in for coaching boys baseball. Instead, he was asked to coach the school’s first women’s basketball team. There wasn’t a bus to take the team to games during his tenure at South Oak Cliff. He packed players into his car and the vehicles of volunteering teachers to take them to East, South, and West Texas—where they’d almost always be the only all-Black team—because they ran out of real competition in Dallas.

“We’d beat the teams [in Dallas] like 100-10,” says Barbara Brown-McCoy, Blair’s first All-American and a Dallas sports legend in her own right. “We’d have to step back and let them score those 10 points.”

Beat writers covering Blair’s South Oak Cliff teams in the ’70s included Jim Dent, author of the best-selling Junction Boys, and Richard Justice, a veteran columnist and reporter for MLB.com, the Washington Post, and the Dallas Morning News. It was a zenith for Dallas sports. As Blair remembers, “The Cowboys were rolling. You had Mustang Mania [with SMU football].”

And the South Oak Cliff Golden Bears women’s basketball team was racking up city championships and state titles.

Blair grew up in East Dallas in the ’50s and early ’60s. He coached in the city through the ’70s. Ask him about this time, and the conversation follows a pattern: he will list a nearly unfathomable number of details (street names, local businesses, players, scores) bookended by a consistent refrain that it “was a pretty doggone special time.” We spoke on the phone the morning after Selection Monday, when the 23-2 Aggies were surprisingly snubbed as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Blair couldn’t find his Diet Coke but he promised to try and do the interview without it. It was 10 a.m.

He grew up in the frame houses of Forest Hills in East Dallas. His grandmother lived on Worth Street, and he’d go by the Lakewood Country Club to visit her. He was a Bryan Adams High School baseball player. His father owned a few duplexes on Gurley Street by Fair Park. “I would hate to go down there on Saturday mornings to have to clean up those duplexes to turn them over for the next renter,” he remembers.

Gary Blair as a young boy.
Courtesy of Gary Blair
Gary Blair as a sophomore in high school.
Courtesy of Gary Blair

Just over eight minutes into our conversation, I hear the unmistakable pop of a soda can. There’s really no stopping him now.

“White Rock Lake was very special.”

“One of the most beautiful streets ever in East Dallas was Tokalon.”

“Reverchon Park was my Wrigley Field.” (“We’d go down Belmont to get to Fitzhugh to cut across to that part of town.”)

Also, he notes, drag racing isn’t a new problem in Dallas. Blair remembers cars squaring off by the 3M between Bryan Adams High and Garland Road before he graduated, in 1963. After a date, Blair says there might have been a suggestion to “watch the submarine races” as an excuse to park at White Rock Lake. “Everybody knows their places where they’d like to park and discuss the world situation,” he says with what was surely a smile I could practically hear over the phone.

Blair went to Texas Tech to play baseball and study architecture. He was failing classes by his second semester and had to return to Dallas. He took the bus downtown to work in the Hartford Insurance mailroom before returning to Lubbock and shifting to physical education and journalism.

Blair had his choice from a collection of careers and lives that followed him from this point. There was restaurant management in Los Angeles, when he was hired by A&M International to manage a string of diners. He was issued a draft notice during the Vietnam War and volunteered to sign up with the Marine Corps, which resulted in a stint in Okinawa in December of 1970. But he came back to finish his degree at Texas Tech, then returned to Dallas, where the South Oak Cliff job was waiting.

Dallas Independent School District had only desegregated its high schools in 1966. The move drastically changed the demographics of South Oak Cliff High School. By the time Blair showed up to work for his old Bryan Adams baseball rival, what had been a nearly 100 percent White student population just four years earlier was now an almost 100 percent Black student population.

He taught physical education and ran boys and girls intramural programs, which connected him to kids eager to play sports. Shortly thereafter, the school asked for volunteers to head up a golf team.

“I play it,” Blair recalls saying, “but I ain’t no great teacher at it or anything.” Willingness was the only required qualification. The all-Black, seven-student golf team consisted of five boys and two girls. He would take them to Cedar Crest Golf Course, where the local pro, J.W. White, donated some golf clubs. Blair bought the rest of the team’s clubs from Honest Joe’s Pawn Shop, a pre-Depression-era Deep Ellum staple that closed in the ’70s.

A high school intramural organizer is bound to be one of the more well-liked faculty members as far as students are concerned; they offer the day’s most fun activities. So in 1972, as Blair was coordinating no-stakes kickball and gym hockey and touch football and softball games, Title IX was issued at the federal level, barring sex-based discrimination in education, and, specifically to the interest of a number of South Oak Cliff teenage girls, forcing DISD to offer women’s athletics.

Blair would lock his little office just after classes ended. But one day, someone was banging on it from the outside. He opened it to find a small contingent of girls. They’d already approached the principal about starting a basketball program. He told them to find a coach. Blair’s office was their next stop.

“I’m a product of Title IX,” Blair says 49 years later.

Barbara Brown-McCoy was one of the most dominant high school basketball players to ever play in the city of Dallas. She is a member of the Dallas ISD Hall of Fame, the Stephen F. Austin Hall of Fame, the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame, and the Texas High School Hall of Fame. Blair coached her at South Oak Cliff, then she was coached by Sue Gunter at Stephen F. Austin and Pat Summitt in the Pan American games—both coaches are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Brown-McCoy was on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Basketball team that didn’t travel to Moscow due to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow games.

She maintains that none of that would have been possible without Blair’s advocacy. It’s a story that Blair left out of his (extremely detailed) account of his tenure at South Oak Cliff.

Brown-McCoy had a child when she was a freshman (South Oak Cliff High School began at 10th grade at the time), and the rules were simple and ignorant: a teenage mother could not play sports. But

Gary Blair, the head coach of Texas A&M’s women’s basketball team, is trying for his second national championship. But his career started decades before, in South Oak Cliff.
Courtesy of Texas A&M

Brown-McCoy wanted to play. Blair didn’t know her, but he had seen her playing the year before. When he was told the rules, he went to DISD and didn’t leave until he got what he considered justice.

“Because he went downtown and fought for me, I was able to accomplish all these things that you read about,” Brown-McCoy says. “Not only me, I’m sure it helped other girls at other schools. He made it possible so that those of us who had children could play.”

Women’s high school basketball was six-on-six at the time. It’s hard to envision now, but each team put six players on the court at once. Three players stayed on their side of the court to defend the basket while three players were allowed to shoot at the opponent’s end. Blair enjoyed the format because it helped him learn the game of basketball. “I was more suited to be a baseball coach [at the time],” Blair says.

He had his defenders and his scorers, but he made sure to flip them—especially when they had a sizable lead—so his players who might play at the collegiate level were prepared and because he knew Dallas ISD would eventually switch to five-on-five. (The switch occurred in 1979.)

Brown-McCoy was a defender, or “guard,” and she was good at her job. In fact, a memory that Blair pretends to still be mad about, despite clearly being proud of, is a game out in West Texas when she was the first woman called for goaltending in the state. “He was so mad, even though we won the game,” Brown-McCoy says, laughing. “He just thought that was ridiculous.”

“It was a bad call,” Blair maintains. “She was only 6 feet tall, with a ’fro that made her about 6-3.”

Blair had to apply then wait two years to compete in the Texas University Interscholastic League for state championships. In his first year coaching, they lost in the city championship to his alma mater, Bryan Adams. In Brown-McCoy’s junior year, South Oak Cliff made it to the UIL State Championships in Austin in its first year of eligibility. According to Brown-McCoy, most of the girls had never traveled outside of the Dallas area.

Gary Blair coaching Texas-A&M womens bball team
Gary Blair became Texas A&M’s coach in 2003. Since then, the team has won more than 70 percent of its games.
Courtesy of Texas A&M

“It was our first year on the big stage,” she remembers. “It was just like on Hoosiers. You go in there and just look at that big ol’ gym that you’ve never seen before.”

The team’s gym back in Oak Cliff didn’t even have bleachers. The Golden Bears lost to Victoria High School that year.

“We made a vow on the way home that that would not happen to us the next year,” Brown-McCoy says. They delivered on that promise in 1977, winning the school its first state title before Brown-McCoy graduated. The next year the team repeated as state champions. Ten players from the 1978 team played collegiate basketball or volleyball.

In 1979, Victoria slowed the game down in their matchup and beat them in Austin 43-41. In 1980, the team competed in five-on-five basketball and Blair fielded one of the most dominant teams in Texas high school basketball history. The Golden Bears were 40-0 and won a state title with a team that included Kim and Debra Rodman, sisters of NBA legend Dennis. “That team was absolutely loaded,” Blair says.

Blair attributes his success at South Oak Cliff to being married to his job. “When he was coaching us, he had no room for a girlfriend,” says Brown-McCoy, who was one of the first people Blair told when he did get married. “He had to have our permission in dating, and I think whoever he was dating would be intimidated because we were very vocal.”

Indeed, Blair was busy. He coached track, cross country, volleyball, and basketball. He made his basketball players play all four sports. He was obsessed with making them better, finding them better competition, raising the money so they could have better jerseys. He remembers taking his volleyball team to play “the rich kids” at The Hockaday School. “All the parents were there picking up their kids in their fancy Cadillacs, and here we were in our three little teachers’ cars to come play.”

But his girls saw his commitment and matched it with enthusiasm. “When we went to the State Fair of Texas, our kids would wear those gold and white lettered jackets, and they were proud,” Blair says.

Gary Blair with the 1977 South Oak Cliff girls basketball team. Brown-McCoy is second to the left, with the red flower on her lapel.
Courtesy of Gary Blair

You can hear in his voice the reverence he has for those times. He remembers going to the Point After at Lover’s Lane and Greenville (“The best burgers in town,” he says) to socialize with coaches, referees, and beat writers.

“In 1978, he was exactly the Gary you see now,” says Justice, who covered South Oak Cliff as a young beat reporter. “He had a temper, but also a way of making his players know how much he cared about them. I remember one practice when he fired a ball against a wall in fury and finished by gathering the players and having them laughing.”

“He was very sensitive being a White coach at an all-Black school,” Brown-McCoy says. “He was always very sensitive with what he said or what he did, but we knew he wanted the best for us.”

Brown-McCoy’s mother trusted Blair deeply. As she began to visit college campuses, she returned from Stephen F. Austin. Blair told her mother that he thought that’s where she needed to attend. “I didn’t even get a chance to visit anywhere else,” she says. “It was a wrap; that’s where I was going.”

South Oak Cliff High School was where Gary Blair got his start. If those girls had never knocked on his door, he wouldn’t be where he is today, preparing a Texas A&M team that only lost two games in the regular season for a run in which they expect to play in the Final Four.

Blair’s Aggies avoided a near catastrophe in their first-round matchup Monday night when they narrowly avoided becoming the first 2-seed to be upset by a 15-seed in the history of the women’s NCAA Tournament. In the spirit of March Madness, Texas A&M survived and advanced but only beat Troy University 84-80 despite 16 points and 14 rebounds from senior Ciera Johnson.

But the hope of a championship is still alive. Blair’s success traces back to all the lives he changed south of the Trinity River, in a school building at Overton and Marsalis, on a court that had no bleachers.

“Everything I accomplished, from All-State to my time in the Olympics, was all because of him,” says Brown-McCoy, who talks with Blair regularly to this day. “I tell him, ‘You’re the foundation of everything that I’ve accomplished as an athlete.’” Brown-McCoy had a successful career as a head coach and athletic director at South Oak Cliff. She and Blair were inducted into the DISD Hall of Fame on the same night in 2019.

“I love him,” Brown-McCoy says. “A lot of us grew up in single-parent homes. He was the father figure that I didn’t have.”

For all the points in Blair’s early life when it might have seemed like he was just going with the flow, all the happenstance and competitiveness that led to Blair’s illustrious and successful career as a college basketball coach, there is one moment in the story that would be easy to leave out. But it might actually be the most important one.

In 1977, after Blair’s Golden Bears won that first state title, South Oak Cliff offered him the position of head coach of the boys baseball team. Included would be a top position as an assistant football coach. At the time he was making under $10,000 a year. His friends all coached boys sports, and they reminded him that he already had won a state title and didn’t have anything else to prove in women’s basketball.

He turned down the offer. “I felt needed,” Blair said when I asked him his reasoning. “I felt like the girls needed me because they knew how committed I was. It was the smartest decision I ever made.”

Blair, in fact, had plenty left to prove in women’s basketball.

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