The Commercial Appeal
A Coach’s Legacy
Horton took a no-nonsense approach with BTW basketball, changed lives
When he was a standout basketball player at Booker T. Washington, Antonio Harris became well acquainted with both sides of Fred Horton’s personality.
“In my 10th grade year, I didn’t play a lot and he’d yell at me,” said Harris, who signed with the University of Tennessee after graduating in 1995 and is now the head coach at his alma mater.
“I’d say to myself, ‘Man, if I just put the ball in the hole then this man will be quiet.’ I worked hard to prove to him that I was worthy ... (and) eventually I won him over. Later on, I heard it from other folks that he thought I was the smartest player he had ever coached.
“He’s a real good man and I owe him a lot. He made a lot of us into men.”
That perhaps more than anything — more than the nearly 700 victories, the state championship in 2001 or the Hoop City legends that he coached — is Horton’s legacy.
And if his departure from the coaching ranks late last month passed without much recognition, well, that’s the way he prefers it.
“I started off my career on a good note and I want to end it on a good note,” Horton, 65, said. “I just like to keep a low profile out here.”
After 40 years as a coach, including 38 as head coach — and all at Booker T. Washington — Horton’s retirement became official on May 24. He leaves with 695 victories, third-highest in Shelby-Metro history behind Jerry Peters and Terry Tippett and the most of anyone who spent his career entirely with a pre-consolidation MIAA school.
Horton declined to discuss specifics regarding his departure from the school. But it’s believed by many close to the BTW program that he didn’t have the best of relationships with the school’s principal, Alisha Kiner.
“The last two years, there were some things that took place that were very unfortunate,” said Horton, leaning in closely and fixing his laserlike stare on a reporter. “Those things were not expected, were not anticipated. But I started to see the writing on the wall and you have to start looking toward the future.
“The school spirit wasn’t the same; the alumni weren’t coming around like they used to. Basketball had always been the backbone of the school, but there were things being done ... I thought it was just best to leave.
“No one forced me. It was my decision and no one else’s.”
The difficulties Horton alluded to led to him missing the entire 2013-14 school year on medical leave; he said his doctor advised him to sit out because of “general stress.”
“All the tension that was created ... I knew with my fighting spirit I couldn’t confront that. I served under principals from Mose Walker to Elsie Bailey and got consistently good evaluations for 38 years and the last two years (weren’t good)? You have to ask yourself, ‘ What brought on that turnaround?’
“People grieve in their own way. I took it very personal but I prayed every day and I felt relief (after his decision to leave) more than anything.”
Kiner — who has been BTW’s principal since 2005 — said she didn’t have any issues with Horton, and said she wished him well.
“Great people leave great legacies and I think he’s done that with coach Harris,” she said. “He’s served generations of kids ... he’s a great guy and he’s going to be missed.”
Horton’s “l i felong dream” of joining the coaching profession began in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina, where he was a highschool All-American. He wanted to attend nearby Duke but “there weren’t as many opportunities for black athletes then as there are now.”
Moe Iba recruited him to play for then-Memphis State and he eventually got his man. Not that Iba had to do a very hard sell.
“I just fell in love with the city of Memphis,” Horton said. “I had plenty of offers but Memphis was my choice and I think I did very well there.”
Horton averaged 10.7 points for his career — providing a menacing presence in the paint — and is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame. But — fairly or unfairly — Horton’s bestknown moment as a Tiger came during a 1971 game against Louisville when he went after the Cardinals’ Al Vilcheck with a chair after Vilcheck got into a scuffle with star player Ronnie Robinson.
That incident was the f lashpoint to what has since become one of college basketball’s fiercest rivalries.
“Well, actually I was just coming to the aid of one of my teammates,” Horton said. “I wish it hadn’t happened; I was only trying to come to Ronnie’s aid. I wanted to defuse the situation but ... I got kind of sideswiped by the Louisville bench. I was kind of trapped over there by myself.
“But coach (Gene) Bartow went to bat for me and I’ll never forget that. (Athletic director) Spook Murphy, the whole administration they were all in my corner. They saw what had happened and I wasn’t suspended or kicked off the team at all.”
Then he chuckled and added, “But if that happened today with all this social media ...”
After a year-and-a-half of professional ball in Rotterdam, Holland, Horton returned to Memphis and got a job at BTW, where he served as an assistant under Bill Little. When Little retired in 1974, Horton took over as head coach, bringing with him the same passion he displayed as a player.
“I’m a competitor and anyone that knows me knows that,” he said. “And coach Iba, he could be kind of hard to deal with sometimes. He was a nononsense type of guy and I guess that kind of rubbed off on me.”
And Horton made sure his players, many of whom came from difficult circumstances, got the message.
“He would either break you down or make you mentally tougher,” said Harris “He was tall and he had that voice; he could be very intimidating if you didn’t know him. And they had corporal punishment back then so that was part of the fear factor that was added to the table.
“But he has a big heart and he’s very loving. And for a lot of us from singleparent homes, he filled that void with structure and discipline and the teaching aspect of basketball.”
That dedication was obvious to fellow coaches.
“We played him when he had Andre Allen; those were some of his best teams,” said Tippett, now the head coach at ECS. “They’d come to White Station and we’d go over there. He’d show me around BTW; he was very proud of the people and the program.
“One thing about Fred, he was the right man for that job. He’d always make sure the right people were in the gym. He was the enforcer.”
Harris is one of the success stories and there are plenty of others. The late Lorenzen Wright, Antonio Burks and Allen all went on to have standout careers at the University of Memphis with Wright and Burks playing in the NBA. Another former Warrior star, McKinley Singleton, also had a stint in the league after graduating from UAB.
But Horton still has special fondness for one who didn’t make it, Taurean “T-Head” Moy. One of the best pure shooters ever to come out of Memphis, Moy scored 83 points in a game against Manassas in December 2000, setting a national record with 24 3-pointers in the game.
But academic and legal troubles cut the promising guard’s career short and he eventually was sentenced to three years in prison for sexual assault.
“T-Head was something special,” Horton said. “He never had a bad night. (During the record game) he just could not miss. The kids all loved him and they just kept feeding him the ball. I think my assistant called The Commercial Appeal during the game and said ‘Y’all need to come down and see this.’
“It’s unfortunate what happened to him but sometimes kids have to bump themselves on the head before they start to see reality. And as a coach, you have to bend a little; you have to sometimes give a kid a second or third opportunity. Not just wipe them out or throw them under the bus. But if they tried to push my buttons, they knew just how far they could go.”
Although it came earlier than perhaps he would have liked, Horton is settling into to a life without coaching. He walks frequently to maintain his terrific shape — the whip-thin Horton could easily pass for a man 10 years younger — and works part time managing the L.E. Brown city swimming pool on South Orleans, not far from the BTW campus.
It’s not as exciting as coaching a top-flight high school basketball team but it allows Horton to stay close to a community that is dear to his heart.
“I love those kids and that school,” he said. “They still consistently come and talk to me. I put my blood, sweat and tears into the kids at BTW.
“I’m most proud of having the opportunity to coach these kids that didn’t have the opportunities other kids may have had just because they went to BTW. They had to overcome so many barriers and obstacles. Those kids went through a lot and it was a challenge for them and in spite of all that they were able to overcome.
“And that’s saying a lot.”