UNION — Willie Jeffries is more than a legend, he’s a trailblazer, a role model and a pioneer who set the stage for many black men in the sports world. During a time when segregation was the law of the land, the former Union County resident broke down the racial barriers. He accepted a position at Wichita State University in 1979, becoming the first African-American head football coach to lead a NCAA Division I school.
Although it was a new concept for a black man to call shots, Jeffries said he had no trouble earning the respect of his peers and players.
“Most people in the world will treat you in accordance with the way you present yourself,” Jeffries said during an interview with the Union Daily Times in 2010. “When we went to play in Kansas, the people treated us royally. Those were great people. There were times in Kansas when there weren’t any black people at all, but when we went in to recruit they were very respectful and cordial.”
During his first collegiate head coaching assignment in 1973, Jeffries turned a floundering South Carolina State program around, going 50-13-4 in six seasons, before leaving for Wichita State. Five years after making his historic trek at Wichita State, Jeffries returned to the NIEAC in 1984 as Head Coach at Howard University. After five years, Jeffries made his way back to South Carolina State, his alma mater, for a second tenure in 1989. In 2001, he retired from coaching after 29 years as the winningest coach in the school’s history.
Over a 29-year coaching span, Jeffries compiled a 179-132-6 record and is known for inventing the “Freeze Option” offense. He was named coach of the year eight times and earned three Black National Championships and seven Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championships. An inductee of both the MEAC Hall of Fame and SCSU Athletic Hall of Fame, Jeffries was awarded the Order of the Silver Crescent (South Carolina’s highest honor for Outstanding Community Service) in 2001. He was recognized for his ground-breaking achievements with induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010 as well as the Black College Football and Kansas Sports halls of fame in 2011. Most recently, Jeffries was selected to coach opposite Danny Ford in this year’s College All-Star Bowl at North Greenville College on March 23.
Apart from his enviable record, titles and championships, Jeffries has earned the love and respect of many in South Carolina as a teacher and mentor to countless young men and women. In addition, Coach Jeffries has contributed to the development of many young men who earn a college degree, as South Carolina State graduates 70 percent of its football players, more than any other historically black college and university. Jeffries has produced a multitude of players who have distinguished themselves in the professional ranks including Robert Porcher, Harry Carson, Donnie Shell, and Charlie Brown. Jeffries has coached against some of the game’s legends such as Bear Bryant and Eddie Robinson.
He paved the way for many black men and credits his days at Sims High School — where he was a three sport athlete — and the city of Union for molding him into the outstanding sports figure that he became.
“James Moorer, the coach and principal at Sims, did so much for us players. He made us go to class and made us get good grades,” he said. “I modeled my coaching style after him.
“I want to thank all of our coaches, teachers and citizens of Union for watching over us as kids and seeing to it that we did the right things,” Jeffries said.
In 2000 a film called Remember the Titans debuted. It was inspired by real events that took place at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971 during the desegregation. Denzel Washington portrayed Coach Herman Boone, a good friend of Jeffries.’
Boone sent a letter or recommendation, supporting Jeffries’ induction into the College Football Hall of Fame three years ago.
“Without his leadership and example, there would not have been “Remember the Titans” or the advancement in race relations in sports that we have witnessed.”
Jeffries opened the door for future generations, and for that the sports world thanks him.
Editor’s note: The Union Daily Times will be running a series of stories about Black History Month throughout the month of February. If your church, civic group or other organization is planning any special activities or programs to commemorate and celebrate Black History Month, please contact The Union Daily Times at 864-427-1234, ext. 14 or email to UDTnews@civitasmedia.com.