Humbug Square - The coach

Pinholster revolutionized basketball, then moved on

Charles Lee, the star basketball player for the University of Rhode Island, fouled out in the final minutes of a game against Oglethorpe University. As he headed off the court, the 2,100 spectators gathered in the gym at the gothic north Atlanta campus rose to cheer him. That sort of good sportsmanship happens all the time at college games, but that night, Dec. 29, 1961, was a little different.

Charles Lee was black. The other players on the court were white. Oglethorpe and Rhode Island were winding up the first integrated college basketball game in Georgia history. A racially mixed crowd had squeezed into the Petrel Field House on a snowy night to see small-college Oglethorpe beat big-college Rhode Island 64-47 in a shocking upset. Rhode Island was held to its lowest point total in five years. Lee, an All-Yankee Conference selection who averaged 23 points a game, left the court with five fouls and only seven points, a victim of the Stormy Petrels' relentless zone defense.

At the time, Oglethorpe's coach — who made a point of bringing the races together on a basketball court in Georgia while politicians were still keeping them apart in schools — was a fiery young man from South Georgia with a flamboyant name: Garland Pinholster.

Born in Ray City and raised in Clyattville, Pinholster was the youngest of 12 children whose mother stressed the importance of "gumption" — a down-home mixture of horse sense and enterprise.

As a boy, young Garland broke an axe handle while chopping wood. His mother said, "My goodness, if you had any gumption, you'd just cut a limb off a tree, stick it in the axe and finish chopping."

Forty-three years ago, Atlanta was a smaller town with a more manageable pantheon of heroes. Every boy knew the name Garland Pinholster. When I heard his name in another context the other day, I realized how remarkable it was that a sports legend from so long ago found such longevity after the cheering stopped.

At 76, Pinholster is a member of the state Transportation Board. Before that, he was a soldier, a high school and college basketball coach, an author, a college administrator, a champion amateur tennis player, the owner of a chain of grocery stores, and a state representative from Cherokee County.

In 1961, when he decided to schedule a team with a black player, Pinholster was more curious than concerned about the reaction. Oglethorpe had "a totally tolerant spirit," he recalls. When Charles Lee fouled out, Pinholster says, "my people all gave him a standing ovation. They were cheering him. I was very, very proud of that." Pinholster went on to schedule games with black colleges like Tennessee State and to invite Clark and Morehouse colleges to tournaments. He tried to sign several black basketball players, but some didn't meet Oglethorpe's academic standards and others went to schools in the north.

Pinholster hasn't been a basketball coach in nearly 40 years, but what he accomplished at Oglethorpe still gives goose bumps to the people who saw him pull it off.

"Garland Pinholster, for a period of time, was the best coach in the United States," says Gary Colson, a fellow South Georgian and former head coach at Valdosta State, Pepperdine, New Mexico and Fresno State — and now a top executive with the Memphis Grizzlies.

One of the most successful college basketball coaches in history with 563 wins, Colson remembers he was astonished when he first got a glimpse of "the Wheel" — the offense that Pinholster invented at Oglethorpe. Players moved continuously, setting up screens and taking easy shots.

"It was undoubtedly the greatest offense I have ever seen," Colson recalls. "I copied it. I studied it." While at Valdosta State, he sent a friend into the Oglethorpe gym with an 8mm camera under his coat to surreptitiously film the Wheel at work.

"I must have spent four or five days watching that one film. The guys came back after Christmas and I put it in. We got 19 layups that night, and I became a Wheel man," says Colson. "You still see some of the concepts of the Wheel every night."

Pinholster was as fierce as any coach who ever wore a whistle. "He was personally offended every time the other team scored and he took that out on us," recalls Doug Alexander, a prominent Atlanta fundraiser who was an All-America player both at Cross Keys High School and Oglethorpe. "The object was we would score every time and they would never score."

Pinholster revived the Oglethorpe basketball program with no budget in 1956, scraping up money from boosters and picking out players at random in the dorm. He had a winning record by his second year. In 1963, he took the Stormy Petrels to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II tournament and coached the U.S. team to the gold medal in the Pan American Games. His personal fame grew as he wrote five books on coaching for a major publisher.

After a decade of coaching at Oglethorpe, he quit abruptly with a record of 180-68. "I seem to have a decade tolerance," he says. "I tend to do things for 10 years." He didn't feel he could make enough money coaching in the pre-TV era to send his children to college. Big schools didn't come after him. "I think with his intensity and strength, that the athletic directors were afraid of him," Colson says.

Pinholster earned a doctorate in education at LSU and returned to Oglethorpe as dean of administration before embarking on his grocery career. He became a Republican in the early '60s and began meeting with the late Sen. Paul Coverdell and others to get the party going in Georgia. As a state representative, he championed the interests of small-business owners.

I went to the Atlanta History Center last week to read about the Rhode Island game in the Dec. 30, 1961, newspapers. By chance, I turned to the front page of the Atlanta Constitution and found a column by the great Ralph McGill titled, "A salute to Georgia's GOP." McGill said Georgia suffered from one-party control under Democrats and the old county unit system, and he hoped that Republicans might run a candidate for governor in 1962. Georgia Republicans at the time were "of an unusually high quality of citizenship," McGill wrote.

It's hard to imagine anyone on either side saying something like that today. It took the GOP 43 more years to take over state government. Now that it has, the old coach who invited a black player to compete with white men a long time ago would like to better integrate his party.

"A lot of young black businessmen and women have a conservative philosophy," says Pinholster, who would like to see more of them involved.

He also is enjoying the challenge of the Transportation Board.

"Congestion relief is turning into the most complex thing I've ever gotten into," he says. And who knows what he can accomplish with traffic?

As Colson puts it, "I've been around the world and to Arkansas twice, and I ain't never seen a guy like this guy."

Humbug Square was Atlanta's 19th-century venue for soap-box orators and snake-oil salesmen. Doug Monroe continues that tradition in his column. You can contact him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.