UA legend Snowden paved way for black coaches

By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, November 21, 2003

Before there was a John Thompson or a John Chaney, and before there was Lute Olson at Arizona, there was UA legend Fred Snowden.

Snowden wasn't just a coach; he was the first black coach in major college basketball.

"Coach Snowden was the first African-American to coach at a major college, and because of the success he had, it gave other institutions the incentive to maybe go hire some additional African-Americans," said former Wildcat All-American Bob Elliott, who played for Snowden from 1973-77.

When Snowden died on Martin Luther King Day in Jan. 1994, Elliott said his office was used as a local headquarters. The former player - also a successful accountant in the Tucson area on top of his duties as a television broadcaster for Arizona basketball, said he received call after call from the modern prominent black coaches.

"The John Thompsons, the George Ravelings, the Kelvin Sampsons, John Chaney; they all called the office and said the same thing: 'If Freddy didn't do what he did, we would not be in our situations as quickly as we were,'" Elliott said.

Snowden, Arizona's head coach from 1972-1982, was inducted into the UA sports Hall of Fame in 1988 to commemorate his legacy.

"Being one of the first blacks in coaching, naturally he was able to make an impact on coaching," said current Creighton assistant coach Len Gordy, who played for Snowden from 1973-77 at Arizona and was an assistant for Snowden from 1978-82. Gordy's Creighton squad went 29-5 last season and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight season.

Snowden, who went 167-108 at Arizona, turned the Wildcats around nearly overnight upon his arrival, creating a benchmark for Tucson's current reputation as one of the nation's best college basketball towns.

Prior to his arrival, the Wildcats played their home games in the 3,000-seat Bear Down Gym and were unable to sell out many games.

But Snowden's rapid turnaround from a team that 6-20 the year before he arrived to a respectable 16-10 squad in his first year helped pack the UA campus' new arena - now known as McKale Center - a building former Tucson Mayor James N. Corbett dubbed "The House Freddie Built."

"He comes and turns Tucson into a basketball town and just as McKale Center rocks now, it rocked then," Elliott said. "Every game was not sold out, but if it wasn't sold out, you would not know it wasn't sold out. You would have to look around and try to figure out where the two or three (empty) seats (were)."

The year before Snowden arrived, the Wildcats finished 14 games under .500 during a season that included blowout losses to UC-Santa Barbara and New Mexico State.

Snowden improved Arizona's record again during his second season, leading the Wildcats to a 19-7 mark, and later led them to within a game of the Final Four, before falling to UCLA and Marques Johnson in Pauley Pavillion.

Elliott said current Arizona head coach and Hall of Famer Lute Olson was hired to revive the Snowden days, a year after Snowden's last season in Tucson.

"I remember talking to Lute when he obtained the job here. It's easier to rekindle a flame that's been lit than to try to take over a program that has never had the fire lit," Elliott said. "All you need to do is look 120 miles to the north on I-10. (Arizona State), despite the success they've had, despite the players they've had, their best year of attendance is 9,000 per game in a 14,500-seat arena, that's the best they're ever done."

"Lute took the path that Freddy had paved and added to it, but he didn't have to start with a dirt road," Elliott said.

A major part of Snowden's ability to turn the Wildcats around so quickly was that he utilized the new NCAA rule allowing freshmen to play.

Snowden cashed in with the "Kiddie Korp," a group that included Eric Money, Al Fleming, Coniel Norman, Jim Rappis and John Erving, five freshmen starters.

Despite his success as a pioneer for both black coaches and the storied UA basketball program, things weren't always so rosy for the man nicknamed the "Fox."

Elliott, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., said he knew Snowden since he was hired as a Michigan assistant when Elliott was in eighth grade. Elliott recalled Snowden's relationship with his family and said he and his coach had would have discussions and arguments, just like families do.

"I remember one day we were going at it - as we did often -and I was like 'Coach, what is your problem?' He said 'Alright, you're the Academic All-American, come on up here.' So I went to his office and he said, 'Look in the bottom drawer,' and there's where he kept a lot of the hate mail," Elliott said. "He said, 'Read it. You can read.' It was very powerful, very powerful stuff, something I would never forget - death threats by the dozens."

During his freshman year, Elliott said Snowden's daughter, Stacy, found a big picture of an angry fox with its mouth open and wrote "Dad hollering at Bob Elliott" on the photo. Snowden framed it and the coach put it behind his desk, Elliott said.

"(That) puts a lot of wind out of my sail when I argue with him because he's got this picture right behind there saying, 'What are you going to say?'" Elliott said.

Elliott said he couldn't exactly recount where the nickname came from, saying Snowden had it since they first knew each other.

"As the story goes, he could talk," Elliott said. "Freddy had the gift to gab and was sly as a fox."

Gordy, who who was a junior on Snowden's Elite Eight team, was a captain and was voted the Wildcats' most inspirational player three times, said Snowden molded him as a player and coach.

"Whatever I am, good and bad, I owe to Coach Snowden," Gordy said.

When Gordy first came to Arizona, Snowden told him he would work in television, something Gordy took to heart. The former UA standout received his bachelor's degree in radio and television and in 1977, before Snowden changed his mind.

"He told me I was going to coach," Gordy said. "I thought I was going to work on television and he evidently saw something in me."

Snowden, who was named Man of the Year by Tucson Chamber of Commerce and served on a number of boards, died at the age of 57 in Washington, D.C., while he was in the nation's capital to be honored by President Clinton.

While Snowden's death came all too soon, the on- and off-court success of Snowden protˇgˇs like Elliott and Gordy - and the continued success of the UA men's hoops program - will make sure that Snowden's legacy as a pioneer for college basketball and black coaches everywhere continues to live on.