Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Marshall's Cam Henderson

December 15th, 2011
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel discussed the coaching career of the late Cam Henderson with two of his former players at Marshall, Donnie Gibson and Dr. Sam Clagg. During his time as head coach of the Thundering Herd, Henderson won 362 games, three conference titles and one NAIB title. Dr. Clagg also wrote a book on his coach titled "The Cam Henderson Story: His Life and Times".

Jon Teitel: As coach at Bristol HS Coach Henderson got the town to build his team a gym, but as a result of a leaky roof he had to place his defenders in "zones" to avoid the slick spots (thereby allegedly inventing the 2-3 zone defense). Is this really the way it happened, and why did he decide to stick with the zone after the roof got fixed?

Donnie Gibson: That is the real story! We seldom played man-to-man defense unless we were trailing at the end of a game.

Dr. Sam Clagg: That is indeed the situation. The gym was not waterproof and the roof leaked. The players slipped around in the first half and at halftime he decided to put them in a zone. He just stayed that way for the rest of his career. Future Hall Of Fame coach Clair Bee was actually an opposing player that night!

JT: His next innovation was to have two forwards "breaking fast" down each sideline after a missed shot while the point guard brought the ball up the court. How did he come up with the fast break, and what impact did it have on his team's scoring?

DG: He loved to run. We believed we could outrun our opponents to get easy layups and more opportunities.

SC: We originally had a "fire-engine" fast-break where the players just took off down the court. Cam's innovation was the "position" fast-break. By placing a point guard in the center of the court, he could make the best decision when he got to the free throw line with a teammate on either side of him.

JT: At Davis & Elkins College his team went 22-0 in 1925. How was he able to keep his team focused for every single game that year?

DG: He believed that every day was a new day, and we learned from the mistakes we made yesterday to improve today.

SC: Back then you did not have the same problems you have today. In the early days he traveled by horse and buggy, and only later would the team take trains and planes. He was a tremendous disciplinarian so whatever the old man had to say was gospel.

JT: In 1928 as football coach he won the first-ever West Virginia state college football title. Which sport did he enjoy coaching more, and which one was he better at?

DG: I think he enjoyed football and basketball equally, but he also liked baseball.

SC: He was better at basketball (as his record shows) and more creative. However, he often said that he knew more about baseball than the other two sports. He continued to run the single wing while the T-formation was coming onto the football scene.

JT: He became coach at Marshall in 1935 and went 6-10 in his first year, then had 19 straight winning seasons: how was he able to turn it around after his inaugural season, and how was he able to be so successful over such a long period of time?

DG: He was a big believer in hard work.

SC: One of his main attributes was discipline; that was the secret of his success. Once he decided how to do something there was no other way to do it. He was also a tremendous teacher and could teach anything he knew.

JT: He won 35 straight home games at Marshall from 1944-1947. How much of a home-court advantage did the crowd give the team, and did it reach a point where they expected to win every single home game?

DG: They never expected him to lose, especially if we were ahead at the end. The crowd was focused on the old man winning.

SC: Marshall did not have its own gym: they played in a rec center downtown. You could hardly see anything because the fans were allowed to smoke indoors back then! He beat a lot of legendary coaches: Clair Bee, John Wooden, etc. The atmosphere was unbelievable. It was jam-packed every night. Toward the end of his career with the segregation problem there were some teams that did not want to bring their African-American players to town.

JT: In 1947 he went 32-5 and won the NAIB national title. What did it mean to him to win the title, and what was the reaction like when he got back to campus?

DG: It was a tremendous amount of fun. I remember the night he got back into Huntington the entire town showed up at the train station and gym.

SC: They knew he was coming back by train, and when they arrived back on a wet cold night there were 30,000 people waiting for him. The old man and the president of the school came outside to talk to them. He was a great speaker who always mixed humor into his talks.

JT: In 1954 he recruited the first African-American to play college basketball in West Virginia (Huntington native Hal Greer, who led the nation in scoring in 1958 and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame). How big a deal was it at the time to have an African-American player, and could he tell at that time that Greer was going to become a star?

DG: The old man thought a lot of him and liked his tenacity from the very first time he saw him play. I do not think he paid much attention to race. He went on ability.

SC: I do not think anyone believed that Greer would become what he became. He was a frail kid who looked like he might break apart, but he could shoot the ball. Cam did not get to coach Greer for very long because he stepped down the following season.

JT: He stepped down after the 1955 season and ended up dying the following summer due to diabetes. Do you think he would have kept coaching if he had been healthy, and how much of a shock was it to everyone when he passed away?

DG: He always wanted to coach and always could coach. The players played their best under him.

SC: Cam had been ill for some time while he was still coaching. He had to take insulin with him when he traveled but he was too proud a man to let anyone know about his medical problems. In the latter part of his career he could not always see what was happening out on the court. He was arrested for drunk driving in Charleston, WV (the Charleston sportswriters made a big deal of that due to the city's rivalry with Huntington), but the fact was that he went into insulin shock so he was found innocent.

JT: Marshall has a Cam Henderson Award for its top student-athlete, and its basketball arena is located in a building called the Cam Henderson Center. How much does he mean to the university, and how do you think he should be remembered the most?

DG: I do not think they will ever forget what he did for the university. His opponents respected him and his players loved him.

SC: They will never forget him because they named a $1,000,000 building for him, which was a lot of money back then. The Henderson name is revered in this town. I attempted to get Cam inducted into the Hall of Fame, but one of the most disappointing things is that I was unable to do so. He brought boys down out of the hills and made them into men.

Henderson is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Conference USA history.

East Carolina: Tom Quinn (1966-1974) 102-106, 1 NCAA tourney, 1-time conference COY
Houston: Guy Lewis (1956-1986) 592-279, 14 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time national COY
Marshall: Cam Henderson (1935-1955) 362-160, 3 conference titles, 1 NAIB title
Memphis: John Calipari (2000-2009) 214-68, 6 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Rice: Buster Brannon (1938-1942, 1945-1946) 85-37, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles
SMU: E.O. "Doc" Hayes (1947-1967) 299-192, 6 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles
Southern Miss: MK Turk (1976-1996) 300-267, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1 NIT title
Tulane: Perry Clark (1989-2000) 185-145, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 1-time national COY
Tulsa: Nolan Richardson (1980-1985) 119-37, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time conference COY
UAB: Gene Bartow (1979-1996) 350-193, 9 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
UCF: Kirk Speraw (1993-2010) 279-233, 4 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
UTEP: Don Haskins (1961-1999) 719-353, 14 NCAA tourneys, 9 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 2-time conference COY