Lafayette Stribling, the remarkable basketball coach and stylish character who died Saturday at age 87, was most famous, at least nationally, for a miracle that didn’t quite happen.
Longtime Mississippi basketball fans surely remember. On March 14, 1986, “Strib” took his Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils to play Duke in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Duke was the top seed, meaning that Valley was No. 64. 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,” Strib once told this writer, knowing I was among the biggest doubters. Indeed, I wrote that it was “the biggest mismatch since Poland took on Germany.”
I was so, so wrong. Valley led at halftime and by as many as seven points midway through the second half. Valley pressed and guarded the Blue Devils as they had rarely been pressed and guarded before. Strib’s guys played as if their survival — and that of their mothers — depended on the outcome. If there had been Twitter back then, Valley and Strib would have set national records for trending.
Only after four of Valley’s five starters fouled out in the final five minutes did Duke surge ahead and win 85-78. Afterward, the largely Duke crowd gave Valley and their resplendently dressed coach a prolonged standing ovation. At his postgame press conference, a visibly relieved Coach K lavished praise on Strib.
The story becomes more amazing when you consider that Strib had taken the Valley job three years before when Mississippi lawmakers were seriously considering shutting the school down. Strib’s first Valley basketball team posted the first winning season in school history.
He turned Valley into a SWAC powerhouse, winning four championships. “They had been talking about closing us down,” Strib once told me. “After that, the Legislature brought us down to Jackson and celebrated us.”
Stribling’s career was the cause for so many celebrations. He won more than 800 high school basketball games and several state championships before ever getting chance to coach at Valley. Then, after so much success at MVSU, he came back to coach at Tougaloo where he was a smash hit, again.
That was 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 once told me. But they finished 27-4.
The fact is, Strib would have been a success at any level of the sport. He knew basketball and he knew people. He knew how to motivate. His players would have climbed a mountain barefoot for him.
But even with all the victories, Strib was known as much for his friendly manner and legendary wardrobe as for his basketball success. He had as many colorful suits, pairs of shoes and top hats as he had victories.
There’s a poignant story behind the wardrobe. When he graduated from tiny Harmony Vocational High School in 1950, he had no suit to wear to his graduation. Actually, Strib had very little, period, including just one pair of shoes that he wore for basketball and everything else. He was the son of dirt-poor sharecroppers. His daddy had no education and signed his name with an X.
Strib once told me: “I borrowed a suit from a first cousin in Detroit who was tall and about my size. 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.”
Strib kept his promise. He was a beauty, Strib was, a vital chapter in Mississippi basketball history.