DYK: Jackie coached college b-ball in Austin

But then the Kansas City Monarchs came calling

April 15th, 2021

A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.

HOUSTON -- By most accounts, Jackie Robinson’s record as a college basketball coach included just one win. Robinson took the job as a favor to a long-time mentor and wound up spending a year in central Texas coaching a downtrodden team at a small school in Austin and teaching physical education.

This was after Robinson’s days at UCLA, where he lettered in four sports, and shortly before he would break baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and become a household name. Robinson’s tenure as a basketball coach isn’t as widely known and certainly isn’t celebrated by anyone outside Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, which at the time was Samuel Huston College. So how did Robinson -- the legend who played in six World Series, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and had his No. 42 retired around Major League Baseball -- find his way to Austin?

When his college career was over -- he was the first player to letter in four sports (football, baseball, basketball and track) at UCLA -- Robinson had a short stint playing football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He was drafted into the Army in 1942 and assigned to Fort Riley, Kan. Upon finishing officer candidate school, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January '43 and assigned to Fort Hood, Texas.

On the weekends, he would leave Fort Hood and visit Rev. Karl Downs, who was the president of Samuel Huston College in Austin. Downs was Robinson’s pastor where he grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and would later officiate Robinson’s wedding. Downs talked Robinson into taking over the school’s vacant men’s basketball coaching position, which he did for one season in 1944-45. Robinson felt he owed Downs for being his mentor.

"There was very little money involved, but I knew that Karl would have done anything for me, so I couldn't turn him down,” Robinson wrote in his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had It Made.”

According to the book, “The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’s Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett,” the college had virtually no athletic program at the time, which led Robinson to have an open tryout. Seven students showed up, prompting Robinson to put himself on the court as a player during exhibition games.

The school has no records of Robinson’s time as a basketball coach, but school president Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette issued a resolution proclaiming April 15, 2016, as Jackie Robinson Day. The resolution says Robinson’s team went undefeated, but other accounts tell a different story.

After struggling to put a roster together, Huston didn’t fare well in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in games against more established programs like Grambling State, Southern and Prairie View A&M. In fact, Southern demolished Robinson’s team so badly in a tournament, a Langston University player who witnessed the game from the stands was angered. So when Southern played Langston in the next round, the player, Marques Haynes, dribbled the clock out with two minutes with more than a bit of showboating.

Legendary Langston coach "Zip" Gayles threatened to kick Haynes off the team for the prank, which was a harbinger for Haynes, who would later become known as the “world’s greatest dribbler” during his time with the Harlem Globetrotters.

When the balls stopped bouncing for Robinson’s basketball coaching career, he had one victory to his resume: a 61-59 win over defending league champion Bishop. His ties to the school remained, though. Robinson served on the school’s Board of Trustees after his MLB playing career ended.

It was early in 1945, while Robinson was still at Samuel Huston College, that he got a letter from the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered him a contract to play professionally in the Negro Leagues. The Monarchs had Spring Training in nearby Houston. Robinson played only 47 games for the Monarchs while pursuing Major League interests. 

Harold “Pea Vine” Adanandus, the trainer for Robinson’s basketball team, recalled in a 1997 interview with the Austin American-Statesman how he reacted when Robinson told the players he was leaving to join the Monarchs. 

"I said, 'Well, Jackie, I didn't even know you played any baseball,’” said Adanandus, who died in 2007. “And he said, 'Yeah, I play a little.’”

The rest is American history.