Hall of Famer recalls salad days of collegiate coaching career

Hall of Famer recalls salad days of collegiate coaching career
Gordon Mott, Debra Pataky with Coach Hugh Durham

A little bit of March Madness came to San Marco May 3 when Hugh Durham, one of the winningest coaches in collegiate basketball, shared entertaining anecdotes about his glory days before an enthusiastic crowd in Preservation Hall.

A guest lecturer in the San Marco Preservation Society’s (SMPS) speaker series, Durham, a Colonial Manor resident, wowed the crowd with tales of winning and losing games and recruiting future NBA stars, such as Dave Cowens and Dominique Wilkins.

A graduate of Florida State University, Durham served as head coach at three universities – Florida State University (1967-1978), University of Georgia (1979-1995) and Jacksonville University (1998-2005), during his 35-year career. He is the only coach in Division I history to lead two schools – Florida State and Georgia – to their only Final Four appearance. “Other coaches have done it, but not with two teams that had never been there before,” he said.

Inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, Durham is also the only basketball coach to be admitted into the Sports Hall of Fame in three different states – Florida, Georgia and his native Kentucky.

A 1959 graduate of Florida State University, as a student Durham was one of the most prolific scorers in Seminole history with a career average of 18.9 points per game. Playing prior to college basketball’s adoption of the 3-point shot, he racked up 1,381 points during his three years playing varsity, and in 1999, his alma mater recognized his contribution to the school and the sport by renaming its Most Valuable Player award as the “Hugh Durham Most Valuable Player Award” in his honor.

Coaching freshman basketball at FSU before serving as an assistant coach under Coach Bud Kennedy, Durham later took over as head coach after Kennedy’s death from cancer. “I went in for an interview with the selection committee, and they asked me what my goals were,” he recalled. “I told them it was to have a series of winning seasons and be ranked in the top 10 in the NIT and NCAA. They were kind enough not to laugh,” he joked.

But prior to being offered the FSU job, Durham applied for a coaching position at the University of Florida. “I made an effort to get the job, and I got an interview,” he said. “They told me I had strong recommendations, and I was naïve enough to think I had a chance. But as we sit here today, you and I know that no way they were going to hire an assistant coach at Florida State that’s 28 years old to coach the great Gator basketball team.”

In Durham’s case, UF’s loss was FSU’s gain. He went on to become the school’s all-time most successful coach in 12 seasons, leading the Seminoles to three NCAA tournaments and the 1972 NCAA Championship game, where they fell to UCLA, 81-76. His overall record at FSU was 230-95, and 30 years later, his winning percentage of .708 was still the highest in FSU history.

During the 1966-67 season when he was assistant coach, Durham joined Kennedy in recruiting and signing Lenny Hall, the first African-American player in Florida State sports history. He also helped recruit the school’s first black cheerleader a few years later, when 60 percent of his team was African-American.

“I was over here in Jacksonville watching the state tournament, and I see a little cheerleader, and she was flat-out good and good looking, too,” he recalled. “I said, we need to get someone like this over at Florida State, because we were getting close to the time where there was a little unrest, you know, in the late ‘60s,” he said.

In the late 1970s, the University of Georgia enticed Durham to move to Athens and take over as head coach of the Bulldogs, a team which had never won an SEC regular season title or SEC Tournament championship. Under his tutelage, UGA made it to five NCAA Tournaments, four NIT Tournaments, won the SEC Tournament Championship in 1983 and 1990 and made it to the Final Four in 1983. The winningest head basketball coach in Bulldog history, Durham was also named SEC Coach of the Year four times and finished 17 seasons at UGA with a record of 297-215.

Durham said early in his tenure at Georgia, Red Auerbach offered him a coaching job with the Boston Celtics. “We had good players coming in, and I didn’t think it was the time,” he recalled, noting he felt an obligation to stay at Georgia because Dominick Wilkins and other strong players had signed with his team.

“The Celtics weren’t paying those guys a whole lot of money in those days – $42,000. I was making $35,000, and that’s not a whole lot of difference,” he said. The offer from Auerbach came before the Celtics acquired the dream team of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. “Maybe I should have taken the job after all,” he laughed after the meeting.

Melinda, his wife, is the best team player he ever recruited, said Durham. It was love at first sight when he met his future spouse, a Landon High School senior, in 1956 during a mixer at the Pi Phi House while she visited FSU.

“We talked for a long time and I said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow night?’ She said, ‘I’ve got a date.’ I said, ‘I do, too, but I’m willing to break mine.’ She said, ‘I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘What time is your date?’ She said, ‘7.’ I said, ‘Do you want to go out at 5?’ And she did, and that’s how it all got started,” he remembered.

“She’s a blue chipper and a 5-star, and we’ve been married for 59 years,” he said. “I guess you could say, we’re hanging in there.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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