(Ed. note: The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame will celebrate six new inductees Saturday night at the Jackson Convention Complex. This is the fifth of a series of columns on the honorees.)
RIDGELAND – No visit to Lafayette Stribling’s posh home in Overlook Pointe is complete without a tour of his closet. Yes, you read right: his closet, nearly as big as the humble tenant shacks in which he grew up. Stribling proudly will show you his more than 200 stylish suits and tuxedos, all with shoes and top hats to match. There’s a mink coat that cost more money than he used to make in three years as a high school basketball coach, more money than his daddy ever saw.
At 84, Stribling has retired as one of Mississippi’s most accomplished basketball coaches ever. He won everywhere he coached and once put Mississippi Valley State in the national spotlight. All the while, he was also Mississippi’s best dressed coach. Fans loved to see what he would wear almost as much as they loved to watch his teams play, play fast and win.
And there’s a story behind Stribling and his elaborate wardrobe and the reason be bought his house near the Barnett Reservoir because the monster master closet. You see, 68 years ago, he graduated from tiny Harmony Vocational High School, out in the country a few miles from Carthage. He was the son of dirt-poor but proud sharecroppers. His daddy had no education, signed his name with an X.
Young Lafayette Stribling – “Strib” his friends call him – had no suit to wear to his graduation. He owned only one pair of shoes, the ones he wore to school and to play his high school basketball on an outdoor court. We should let Strib tell the rest.
“I borrowed a suit from a first cousin in Detroit who was tall and about my size,” Stribling says. “He sent it in the mail, a nice blue suede suit. So I wore that suit to my graduation, but I promised myself right then and there, when I went off to college and made some money, I was never going to have to wear somebody else’s clothes. I was going to have my own suits – and they were going to be nice.”
Just wait until you see what Strib plans to wear Saturday night at the Jackson Convention Center when he is inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. No, I’m not telling, other than to say nobody, including his biggest fans, will be disappointed. His will be a grand entrance.
He has dozens of people – mostly his former players – flying in from all over the country. “They tell me, ‘Strib, I wouldn’t miss this, I want to see what you’re gonna wear,’” he says, chuckling. “I can’t disappoint them.”
There will be players who played for him in high school, players who played for him at Valley and at Tougaloo. Most know some of the story of where he came from and how long his road was to the Hall of Fame. Few know it all.
They may or may not know he was the second of six children born to Eugene and Mary Stribling or that a brother and sister both died when they were just babies. They may or may not know that as a child he worked the fields and was, as he puts it, “my daddy’s best cotton picker.” They probably don’t know that at age 39, Mary Stribling, on her deathbed, made Strib promise he would use his basketball skills as a ticket to go to college and to get an education.
They probably don’t know that when Strib proudly graduated from Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs, he took his first job at his alma mater, Harmony Vocational, where he coached boys and girls basketball, coached baseball, taught several classes of science and physical education, was the assistant principal, and also drove the school bus. All this he did for $2,400 a year.
But Strib won there, and then at Walnut Grove, and then at South Leake and then Grenada. He won more than 900 games as a high school coach before he finally got a call asking, “Would you be interested in being the coach at Mississippi Valley?”
“I would have walked to Itta Bena for that job,” Stribling says. “That was my dream, to be a college coach.”
That was 1983, when the state legislature was seriously considering closing MVSU. Valley had never had a winning basketball team. Strib’s first team had the first winning season in school history. By 1986, they were winning the SWAC. Yes, and on March 14, 1986, his SWAC champions went to play Duke, the No. 1 team in the country in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Duke, coached by Mike Krzyzewski and led by the great Johnny Dawkins, was a prohibitive favorite, playing a few miles from home in Greensboro, N.C., where the Blue Devils had just won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
“Nobody gave us a chance,” said Strib, and nobody included a certain Jackson sports columnist who wrote it was the biggest mismatch since Poland took on Germany – and regrets it to this day.
Valley led at halftime and by as many as seven points midway through the second half.
Only after four of Valley’s five starters fouled out in the final five minutes did Duke surge ahead and win 85-78 in the end. Afterward, the largely Duke crowd gave Valley and their resplendently dressed coach a prolonged standing ovation.
“They had been talking about closing us down,” Strib says. “Instead, the legislature brought us down to Jackson and celebrated us.”
Under Strib, Valley won four SWAC regular season championships and three SWAC tournament titles. Valley had never had a winning season before he got there. The Delta Devils never had a losing season while he was there.
In 2005, with 48 years in the Mississippi retirement system, Strib resigned at Valley and took a job coaching at Tougaloo, taking over another losing program. After one losing season – the only one of Strib’s entire career – Tougaloo had six straight winners, won five conference championships and went to the NAIA national tournament five times.
In 2011, at the age of 76, he took a team of seven Tougaloo players to a conference championship and the national tournament. “The Magnificent Seven,” the team was called.
“We didn’t have nearly enough players to scrimmage,” Stribling says, smiling. But they finished 27-4.
James Carter, now a 28-year-old banker in management at Trustmark, was a captain and star player on that team still is amazed by how a man more than five decades older than his players understood them and guided them so well.
“He understood that if you have 10 players and you treat them all the same, you are mistreating nine of them,” Carter says. “He knew the strengths and weaknesses of all his players and adjusted his coaching to that. He worked us, man, he worked us. We worked hard but he made it fun. We didn’t have as many players so we out-worked everyone else. I still use the lessons I learned from him every day.”
That Tougaloo team was one last exclamation point on a truly remarkable coaching career. And surely Saturday night will provide one more exclamation point nearing the back end of an incredible life.
Know this: Lafayette Stribling will dress for the occasion.
Coming Saturday: Joe Walker, Jr., strictly a track and field coach — with Olympic medalists to prove it