By Sean C. Bowers
The best coaches are those who empower their players to take mental and physical ownership of their potential, combined with relentless passion and a strong work ethic, effort no matter the score, place, day or player’s race.
Two-time Virginia state basketball championship coaching legend, Don McCool, will be inducted into the Virginia High School League Hall of Fame on October 14th in Charlottesville. McCool’s career spans the greatest players to ever come out of our state.
In 1965, he coached and won the Virginia A State Championship with the Prince George High School team. In the early 1970s, he coached against Virginia’s best ever player, recently deceased folklore and NBA hero, Moses Malone. McCool’s then West Springfield HS team lost to Petersburg HS and Moses by two points in the championship game, despite not having a player taller than 6’4” against the dominant 6’10” Malone.
In the decade of the 1970s McCool also built and rebuilt winning programs at Northern region high schools in Falls Church and Hayfield before landing at Mount Vernon. His 1979 Mount Vernon team won the AAA State Championship, starting the first-ever all Black starting five players from the Northern region.
McCool’s 1981-82, team, of which I was privileged to be a part, won twenty straight games along the way to a Virginia AAA #1 ranking. The next year’s 1982-83 team achieved perfection with a 20-0 record.
While McCool sent countless players to the college level on full scholarships, his real talent was as a maker of men. He used the bench and playing time as an ultimate motivational tool to inspire and discipline. He never spoke of winning, never berated players or even cursed.
His full-court pressure defense was the constant backbone theme to all his victories. McCool’s “man-to-man” meant full court 94’ by 50’ of one-on-one drills daily, each day, every November for over 40 years of head and then partially retired assistant coaching. He and his assistant coaching staff tree won seven northern regional championships. He coached his own son and treated every other player like his sons. He was our basketball Godfather. He ran us all, like dogs, no preferential treatment.
Coach McCool was an extremely fair and just man. He played the best players, regardless of race and the backlash suffered in those hyper-racially charged decades of the 1960s-70s and 80s. McCool’s fairness ended with the players as he kept the officials off-balance and on their toes by fighting from the sidelines for us, his boys. We were not allowed to talk to officials, upon threat of immediate benching. That was his domain. We dared not interfere. We got most of the calls and Coach got all the technical fouls.
Each summer he spent a week with University of North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith, working on and inventing new defensive pressure strategies in Chapel Hill. As Smith integrated college basketball’s Atlantic Coast Conference, Don McCool integrated Virginia’s Northern Region. He loved gym rats because he was one himself, having played for and coached the Fort Lee team on military bases across the nation.
McCool used to show all his players life lessons through the game; challenging us to never quit, to always improve, to never be satisfied or cocky. We were to always play unselfishly, hard, fast and smart with ultimate sportsmanship and respect shown to others. Drawing the charge was not optional, it was mandatory.
We were to stand at attention right hand on heart, single file along the sideline for every national anthem paying homage to Coach’s fallen military “friends and heroes,” as he put it, so we could enjoy the freedom to play this game. It was always his way. McCool’s winning ways spoke volumes for us then and they still echo in our lives today as we interact with future generations.
A player once came to Coach McCool stating he was going to play for and join the Black Caucus’s team fraternity. Coach McCool responded, “You’re already a part of our Black basketball team fraternity.” He was just funny like that, but never funny at anyone’s expense. He never once let anyone slide in his film sessions, once telling me I “didn’t learn that type of bad matador defense at Mount Vernon.” It was precisely because he held us each accountable every class, every day, every drill, and every game that he churned out legions of good men, from vulnerable boys. He single-handedly raised our own self expectations and results.
Coach McCool enters the Hall of Fame with fellow inductee, Chesapeake’s Alonzo Mourning, whom he fittingly coached his last game against in the state tournament. McCool never took credit for wins, always modestly deflecting and saying, “The players won every game.” We knew better, Coach, because you taught us.
A classic old-school, no-nonsense man, married to his wife Joy for over fifty years, Coach McCool emulated a family role model relationship for all of his players, (half of whom were from single parent homes.) At his 80th birthday party, over 150 former players from all five schools, teachers, coaches, competitors, managers and students showed up to pay their respect, love and appreciation for the beloved man we all call “Coach.”
Don McCool, you are finally at home where you always belonged – in the Hall of Fame. You changed the game and our lives for the better. You are the best, Coach.
Sean C. Bowers is a local progressive youth development coach, author and poet, who has written for the New Journal and Guide for 17 years. His recent book of over 120 NJ&G articles detailing the issues is available via email at V1ZUAL1ZE@aol.com and he does make large-scale solutions presentations upon request.