Barbara Brown-McCoy was sixteen that summer of 1974, when she gave birth to a son just weeks before she was to begin the tenth grade at South Oak Cliff High School. That she would go on to become one of the greatest women’s basketball players of her generation and a 1980 Olympian before beginning a distinguished career as a coach, educator, and administrator could not have seemed more unlikely. Now 64, she traces much of her success to a relationship she made at South Oak Cliff.
Gary Blair was a 29-year-old former Marine hired by the school two years earlier to teach architecture and physical education. At first blush, this young white man with his flowered silk shirts and disco haircut seemed an unlikely fit for a school whose student body was nearly all Black. He steered his ’71 Camaro across the Trinity River from his apartment in Lower Greenville each morning determined to make it work.
At the time, the Dallas Independent School District was dipping its toe into the then-new world of women’s sports, mandated by the 1972 Title IX legislation. South Oak Cliff’s first challenge was finding coaches for its new teams. One day, a group of girls knocked on Blair’s door and asked: “Will you coach us?” He would end up coaching all four women’s teams—basketball, track, cross-country, and volleyball—and requiring his basketball girls to participate in all of them.
Meanwhile, Brown-McCoy had a more formidable challenge: DISD rules prohibited young mothers from playing for their school teams. “I didn’t know her,” Blair remembered, “but I knew the rule wasn’t fair.” He showed up at a DISD school board meeting and persuaded the body to change the policy. He remembers refusing to leave until he got the answer he wanted, and it would be several months before Brown-McCoy found out what her coach had done.
“He believed in me when no one else would have given me a chance,” Brown-McCoy said. “If he can believe in me, I need to believe in myself. I didn’t even know what Coach Blair had done for me. He never made it a big deal. Pretty much a secret. I didn’t hear the story until probably after my first year at South Oak Cliff.”
Blair recalled telling the school board: “We just cannot deprive kids this way.” He told me later: “Besides, Barbara was a great mother. I knew that about her. And her mom, Myrtle, was tremendous. What you’re trying to do with kids is show ’em there’s a way out. Now, South Oak Cliff was not a ghetto school. I just wanted to show the kids you can get an education, whether it’s an athletic scholarship or something else.”
For Blair, South Oak Cliff was the beginning of a five-decade career in coaching that will culminate this weekend, when he’ll be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, along with San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, former Dallas Mavericks great Dirk Nowitzki, and nine others.
Blair’s South Oak Cliff teams won three state championships and went 239–18 in his seven seasons there. He won another 852 games, the thirteenth most in Division I women’s basketball, during head-coaching stints at Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. It was with the Aggies that he had his greatest success, leading them to sixteen NCAA tournament appearances in nineteen years, including a national championship in 2011. He retired after the 2021–22 season, and the Aggies men’s and women’s teams play their home games on Gary Blair Court, at Reed Arena.
“You don’t get into coaching with the idea of getting into the Hall of Fame,” he told me recently, over lunch at the Traditions golf club near his home in College Station. “You get into it because you love the sport and the kids and the competition. But this—this is overwhelming. To think of all the people you want to thank, to remember those early years, it’s impossible to get your mind around.”
In those first years, before his Aggies regularly drew big crowds to Reed Arena, he sold women’s basketball like nobody’s business. He would greet people outside Walmart and Exxon, introduce himself, and hand them tickets to a game.
At Stephen F. Austin, he convinced a local furniture store to run a “Come See the Ladyjacks Tonight” addition to its newspaper ads. “Didn’t cost them a dime,” he said, “and it got the word out about our team.”
At Texas A&M, he would walk onto the court 24 minutes before tip-off and flip candy into the stands. Free candy became such a part of his identity that people still wanted it when he showed up last season as the Aggies’ former coach.
Along the way, Blair built a monster of a program. Bill Byrne, Texas A&M’s athletic director at the time, lured Blair, then 57, from Arkansas in 2003 by doubling his salary to $350,000 and describing a goal to compete nationally in every sport. “I believed in his vision,” Blair said, “and he believed in me.” By the time Blair retired, A&M had facilities and a track record of winning to rival those of Tennessee, UConn, Baylor, and the nation’s other women’s basketball powerhouses.
I’ve known Blair since those early years at South Oak Cliff, when I covered his teams for the Dallas Times Herald. “I love South Oak Cliff,” Blair told me. “It’s what made me who I am today. It taught me communication skills. It taught me to not even think of being prejudiced. You remember all these wonderful things. The games and wins, sure. But the way you saw their confidence grow, the way they lit up in the gym and had so much fun and worked so hard. Those were special years.”
What I’ve remembered for all these years is the school pride he instilled in his players, telling them every year: “When you go to the [State Fair], wear those gold-and-white letter jackets. Let everyone know where you’re from.” From that pride grew a sense of camaraderie. He did the same thing at every stop that followed in his coaching journey. Once, when I visited one of his practices at Texas A&M, he marveled at A&M’s beautiful women’s practice facility, with its leather theater seats, hair salon, Apple desktop computers, and an aircraft carrier of a desk overlooking the practice court below. “Can you believe it?” he asked.
He built his teams around tenacious defense and a motion offense with frequent screening, the ball reversing from one side of the court to the other, and players capable of creating their own shots. In the end, though, his programs always began with personal relationships. “Coach is one of those people that never meets a stranger,” said Pam Green, who played on two championship teams at South Oak Cliff and went on to run a series of restaurants and clubs in the Dallas area. “He’s just good people. We called him our white daddy.”
So strong are the bonds between Blair and his players that both Brown-McCoy and Green circled back to me after our initial telephone interviews to flesh out stories of their experiences with him. Green remembered showing up one day to apply to be a team manager, but Blair said, “You should try out for the team.” She did and became a two-time All-State guard and a member of all three of Blair’s South Oak Cliff state-championship squads. Green didn’t make it off the bench during the state tournament in her first year, but she said Blair took her aside beforehand and told her: “Okay, this is going to be your position next year. I want you to get a feel for all of this.”
Green recalled being in the weight room one day when she heard Blair mention her name in a telephone conversation. “He was on the phone convincing the University of Missouri to give me a shot,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have gone to college. Maybe I would have. But having someone believing you could do it made a difference. It gave my life a different trajectory. We joke that he got us to college, and we got him to the big time.
“I was in College Station when he was inducted into the A&M [Athletic] Hall of Fame, and he sees me and asks, ‘You remember you weren’t even coming out for athletics? You wanted to be the manager,’ ” Green went on. “I couldn’t believe he could remember that when you think about all the girls he has coached.”
In those early South Oak Cliff years, no player grew closer to Blair than Brown-McCoy. The Bears were 102–9 in her three varsity seasons, and Brown-McCoy is believed to be the first woman ever called for goaltending in Texas. Which still gets Blair going.
“Bad call,” he said. “She was only six feet tall, but that ’fro made her about six three.” He didn’t stay mad long, because as word of the goaltending made its way around the state, it became part of South Oak Cliff’s warm-up routine. Intimidation is a tactic, too.
Brown-McCoy remains so close to Blair that even now, when she speaks with the coach, her husband will joke, “Was that your daddy on the phone?” After our original interview, she texted a couple of days later: “I read a quote today that I think is so fitting for Coach Blair. My prayer is that it can be used in your story. ‘Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has to overcome to reach their goals.’ This is what and who Gary Blair is.”
She recalled driving to games in his Camaro. He’d assign her the passenger seat and quiz her on the game plan during the ride. All these years later, she’s certain their relationship was about more than any game plan. “I always felt comfortable talking to him, and I think he felt comfortable talking to me,” she said. “You can feel when someone genuinely cares about you and loves you. Every time I’m inducted into a Hall of Fame or receive any type of honor, he’s the first person I think about because he gave me a chance.
“Most of us came from single-parent homes, so Coach Blair was that father figure we needed,” Brown-McCoy said. “He was an excellent role model for us. If he told you something, it was like coming from your dad. Even our parents bought into it because they believed he had our best interests at heart. He always made you believe you were better than you really were. And you try to live up to that. He knew how much we needed him.”
University of Texas head women’s coach Vic Schaefer was by Blair’s side for fifteen seasons at Arkansas and Texas A&M, and they remain fast friends. “Man, we won a lot of games together,” Schaefer said, laughing at the memories. “We had a lot of fun together. Fifteen years. He was just so ahead of his time. He could see things on the floor. He hired good people and didn’t micromanage us. He expected you to do your job. There’s so many things other than x’s and o’s that are part of building a program, and he had all that down. The ability to relate in the community. The guy’s a marketing guru.
“Here’s the other thing to know,” Schaefer added. “He has a deep, deep appreciation for the game, the history of the game. If we go play Tennessee in Knoxville, he was gonna take our team to the [Women’s] Hall of Fame. He wanted our team to know the history.”
Blair wants his induction speech at Saturday’s ceremony to reflect his gratitude to the five schools that gave him a chance and to all the players and assistant coaches who contributed to his success. Barbara Brown-McCoy may be forever atop that list, but Pam Green is special, and so are the Rodman sisters, Debra and Kim, from South Oak Cliff. Blair played Ping-Pong with their little brother, Dennis, and Blair, who didn’t play basketball, joked that neither of them was good enough to make their high school team. (Dennis, who was cut from South Oak Cliff’s team, did, of course, go on to his own Hall of Fame playing career in the NBA.) At Texas A&M, there were Aqua Franklin, Katy Pounds, Danielle Adams, and many others, including Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter, Blair’s “two Sydneys” who were the heartbeat of the 2011 NCAA championship team.
In the year-plus since his retirement, Blair and his wife, Kyla, have settled into their new life. Both play several rounds of golf each week, and before our lunch at Traditions, Gary approached a table of men and passed out dollar bills to settle that day’s bets on the course. They’ve attended almost every A&M home football and basketball game and led “Traveling Aggies” tours to Europe and Alaska.
Blair, who turned 78 on Thursday, will have an even greater milestone to celebrate during the Hall of Fame induction weekend. “I’m humbled,” he said, “and appreciative of all the people I’ve worked with, Vic and Kelly [Bond-White, Blair’s longtime associate head coach at A&M and now head coach of the Southern Illinois women’s team] and all the others. And that’s one of the things I’m proudest of. In nineteen years at A&M, I only had eight assistant coaches. We had stability. Now, I’ve got ten former players or coaches that are Division I head coaches. I started out hoping to get a chance to coach high school baseball and ended up going a different direction and living the greatest life one could dream of.”