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‘More than a coach’: Charlene Curtis was a role model and mentor to Black players and coaches

Former Radford, Temple and Wake Forest coach was one of the few Black women leading college basketball programs in the 1990s and 2000s

Natasha Adair still remembers the conversations that she shared with Charlene Curtis as a young coach. 

For Adair, Curtis stood as a role model. Adair knew of Curtis’ trailblazing journey — how she worked under great basketball minds such as University of Virginia coach Debbie Ryan and UConn coach Geno Auriemma and how she later became the first Black women’s basketball head coach at institutions such as Radford, Temple and Wake Forest. At Wake Forest, Curtis made history as the first Black women’s basketball head coach in the ACC.

Curtis shared advice with Adair about perseverance and getting through roadblocks, staying humble and outworking the field. When Adair asked Curtis what she needed to know to make the leap to become a collegiate head coach, she sat with a legal pad and pen, readying for Curtis to relay her favorite offensive plays, defensive schemes or practice drills. But Curtis’ answer had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Her answer has stayed with Adair ever since.

Be good to people. Be kind to people. Leave a positive impact on people.

“What we would think is just standard and so simple and just humanitarian, you don’t get that every day. You don’t get that from everyone,” said Adair, who became the first Black female head coach at Arizona State University in March. “She was more concerned with how you treated people and the lasting impression that you would have on them holistically more than anything.”

Curtis died of cancer on Aug. 18 at the age of 67.

A native of Roanoke, Virginia, Curtis was Radford University’s first Black women’s basketball player in 1972. As a student-athlete for the Highlanders, Curtis became the first player, male or female, to score 1,000 career points in program history. Her first job as a collegiate coach came at UVa, where she was an assistant coach under Ryan from 1981 to 1983. Curtis returned to Radford in 1984 as head coach at the age of 29. In six seasons, Curtis posted a 121-53 record with the Highlanders, winning three Big South tournament championships. She was named Big South Coach of the Year twice.

“She helped to raise the bar and expectations for women’s basketball success at Radford,” Radford head coach Mike McGuire said in a statement.

Following her tenure at Radford, Curtis made history again by becoming the first Black women’s basketball head coach at Temple University, where she coached for five seasons. In 1995, Curtis joined Auriemma’s staff at the University of Connecticut as an assistant coach for two seasons. In 1997, Curtis was named the head coach at Wake Forest.

Charlene Curtis won three Big South championships as head coach at Radford.

Radford Athletics

“She prepared us for games, but she was also preparing us for life. You could feel that she thought it was part of her job for us to be ready for what we would face out in the world when we were done as college student-athletes.” — LaChina Robinson

As a sophomore in high school, Porsche Jones started generating attention from college coaches interested in having the 5-foot-2 star point guard from Carver High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, join their program. Jones met with many different coaches.

Curtis, however, was different.

“The very first thing that stood out was that she was a Black woman,” said Jones, who played at Wake Forest from 2002 to 2006. “She was quite short, like me. … She was the only Black woman that recruited me.”

For ESPN host and basketball analyst LaChina Robinson, the opportunity to play for a Black female head coach was an important one for her family. It was an option that was limited for Black players. During the 1999-2000 season, with Curtis two years into her tenure at Wake Forest, Black women made up just 9.1% of all Division I head coaches, according to NCAA demographics.

“What was exciting for my mom was that I was going to be playing for a Black coach and that every day I was going to get to watch a Black woman in a position of leadership,” said Robinson, who graduated from Wake Forest in 2002. “My mom knew that I was going to be prepared every day for what I would face out in the world, which was much more than basketball.”

For Curtis, it was always about much more than basketball. She pushed her players to be the best students and athletes they could be, while ensuring that her team was educated in all aspects of life. At Wake Forest, Curtis often took her team to museums or historical sites. She taught her players about historical figures and events. 

“She prepared us for games, but she was also preparing us for life,” Robinson said. “You could feel that she thought it was part of her job for us to be ready for what we would face out in the world when we were done as college student-athletes.”

On the court, Robinson described Curtis as being “brilliant” when it came to X’s and O’s of the game and teaching – a product of someone who had come with a love of the game and learned from the other great basketball minds she had been around. Around her players, Curtis’ demeanor was measured, just like in everything that she did.

“I don’t even remember Coach Curtis ever yelling at me,” Robinson said. “You had so much respect for her knowledge, you just listened to whatever she said and whatever she asked. You had a lot of respect for the work that she put in.”

During the 1990-2000 season at Wake Forest, two years into Charlene Curtis’ (center) time coaching, Black women made up 9.1% of NCAA Division I coaches.

Wake Forest University/Wake Forest Athletics

Although the Demon Deacons did not post a winning record during the seven seasons Curtis was at the helm, she could always find the silver lining, which she reinforced on her players whenever she could. 

Robinson remembered entering the locker room on the verge of tears. In a game against a Duke team led by 6-foot-6 center Michele Van Gorp, Wake Forest was getting blown out by the time the halftime buzzer sounded. Robinson and her teammates entered the locker room with their heads down, but not Curtis.

“Coach was clapping her hands,” Robinson said. “We were so confused.” 

Despite the score, Curtis was proud of the positives that she had seen from her team, the little points of execution, on the floor: the way they helped in rotations, the way they fronted the post like they were supposed to, their communication. 

“What that does for you as a student-athlete is encourage those habits that eventually lead to a win,” Robinson said. “Maybe not to Duke on that day, but maybe it’s North Carolina the next week or Virginia. She had the ability to understand the importance of the long game and that if we did the little things along the way, then victories would come.”

In 2004, Adair, then an assistant coach, was a part of the coaching staff that was hired to replace Curtis at Wake Forest. As the two sides met to transition the program, Adair remembers nothing but grace from the departing head coach, who she says went out of her way to check on Adair. 

“[She said] ‘I want to see you all succeed.’ … Never negative, all positives, in a time where she was transitioning out. That doesn’t happen often. That is who she is,” Adair said. 

“Having been in the profession now for 20-plus years and having transitioned into a lot of places, I remember that vividly. I’m looking at her and saying, ‘Hey, coach, are you all right?’ She had that smile on her face and she said, ‘I’m fine. I’m always here, if you need anything.’ That, to me, nothing but character and integrity and love and care and passion for others.”

For pioneers like Curtis, no matter what their win-loss records show, their presence traversing the sideline where a Black coach had never been seen, in a conference that had a basketball identity, was perhaps the greatest victory she could’ve attained during her tenure. Heading into the 2022-23 season, there will be five Black head coaches leading ACC teams.

“[She said] ‘I want to see you all succeed.’ … Never negative, all positives, in a time where she was transitioning out. That doesn’t happen often. That is who she is.”

— Arizona State head coach Natasha Adair

“I think that’s the really special thing about pioneers like Charlene — it wasn’t about her win-loss record. That had nothing to do with why she’s great,” said Furman head coach Jackie Carson. “Most people who are looking at people in those roles, they don’t know what their record is, they just know how they impacted them.”

Carson can’t name three-quarters of the coaches that her Furman basketball teams matched up against when she suited up for the Paladins from 1996-2000, but she can distinctly remember the three Black coaches she saw during her playing career: Carolyn Peck, Karen Kemp and Curtis.

“I do remember her being a Black female head coach because there just wasn’t a lot,” Carson said. “I just remember [Curtis] and I knew her history.”

In 2010, Carson returned to her alma mater, where she was named its ninth head coach and the program’s first Black female head coach.

“People don’t realize how hard it is to be the first,” Carson said. “There are extra barriers and there are extra things that you have to deal with that most people don’t. That’s still to this day. I can’t imagine how it was 25, 30 years ago when she was the first Black female in her various roles.”

Radford Athletics

Charlene Curtis (center) had her number retired as a player (above) and a women’s basketball suite named in her honor (top photo) at Radford University, where as a coach she was a two-time Big South Coach of the Year and won three conference championships.

Radford Athletics

It was as a head coach where Carson’s relationship with Curtis grew from admirer to colleague. Curtis was hired as the supervisor of women’s basketball officials for the SoCon in 2008. She also served in the same role for the ACC and Big South, retiring in 2019.

“She was a very comforting, gentle soul,” Carson said. “I guess when you have a gentle soul and you handle officiating, that’s a really good thing. She always had a really calming voice but knew how to command the room every single time.”

Carson recalled when, following a conference game in which she was deeply displeased with the officiating, she called Curtis the day after, still worked up over the recent game. Curtis’ history as a head coach made her an empathetic figure within her role.

“She calmed me all the way down … But I also felt heard. I didn’t feel like she was blowing me off. I didn’t feel like she was just saying what I wanted to hear,” Carson said. “She talked me all the way off of a ledge and she still stayed in her normal calming self. That’s again that presence that she had … She just made you feel like you were heard, like you were important.”

Even after Curtis left the coaching profession, her effect on coaches in the field, particularly Black women who aspired to be head coaches, remained palpable. Michelle Clark-Heard can attest to that. In 2005 Clark-Heard was on a mission to land her first Division I head coaching job. At the time, Clark-Heard was a young head coach at Kentucky State, a historically Black Division II program.

As Clark-Heard took the sideline for the annual Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament, Curtis, who later became a broadcast analyst, was calling the game. Clark-Heard was able to talk to Curtis during the tournament. To meet someone like Curtis was incredibly motivating.

“Being a young African American female coach and having the opportunity to understand and know the pioneer that she was and all the different things that she had done … that was something that was so significant to me,” said Clark-Heard, who got her first job as a Division I head coach with Western Kentucky, where she was the first Black coach in program history. She is now the head coach at the University of Cincinnati. “That’s why I talk about how gracious she was and how selfless. Her impact on the game is incredible.”

Following the end of their playing careers in Winston-Salem, Jones and Robinson maintained a connection with Curtis, who continued to affect their journeys beyond the court.

When Jones started her own basketball program in 2006, Curtis was one of the first people she reached out to. The two met and by meeting’s end, Curtis had helped her create a complete business plan. When Jones hosted her first camp, Curtis was among the camp’s speakers, which also included NBA players Chris Paul and Josh Howard. When Jones’ grandmother, whom Curtis had become close to during Jones’ recruitment, died in 2019, Curtis attended her funeral.

As Robinson began to pursue a career in broadcasting, she started to cross paths with Curtis, who sat Robinson down and taught her what she knew from her own experience as an analyst. Robinson said that even through the end of 2021, Curtis would text her to say that she missed hearing her on college games.

“[Curtis] was more than a coach,” Adair said. “She was a mentor. She was a role model. She was very passionate about what she did. She motivated you to be better. She motivated you to take risks. Coach Curtis is gone too soon, but I will tell you, the impact that she’s left on so many lives is immeasurable.”

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.