Boys Basketball – Coaching Quartet Serves as Tribute During Black History Month
February is Black History Month in the U.S. and while people of different backgrounds celebrate the influence of Black pioneers of the past and acknowledge the influence of contemporary figures, there will be a special tribute to African-American leadership in Shore Conference basketball Sunday at Brookdale Community College.
It won’t, however, be in the form of a ceremony or a planned announcement, but rather in the presence of four coaches whose own hard work and that of their respective teams has led to a fitting collective accomplishment at the end of this particular month in the calendar.
There are currently five African-American head boys basketball coaches in the 47-team Shore Conference and four of them will be coaching in Sunday’s Conference Tournament quarterfinals at Collins Arena.
Ben Gamble of Mater Dei, Randy Holmes of Lakewood, Tahj Holden of Ranney and Stan Mooney of Long Branch will all be part of the proceedings, with Gamble and Holden squaring off against one another for the third time this season.
Holmes is the elder statesmen of the group, now in his 10th season as the head coach at Lakewood. A former standout player for the Piners and also at St. Peter’s University, Holmes played and later coached under Lakewood coaching legend John “Pot” Richardson before taking over the program a decade ago.
“It’s definitely significant,” Holmes said. “It’s a testament to the good coaching and the good leadership that is being provided in the programs and it’s just reassuring to everyone who plays and coaches in the game that anybody can be successful if you work hard and do the right things.”
During his tenure, Holmes has led a resurgence at his alma mater, guiding Lakewood to eight straight seasons of at least a share of a Shore Conference division title, including six straight outright titles – four in Class B South and two in now-defunct Class C Central. He also led Lakewood to an SCT title in 2013, which was the program’s first conference title since Holmes played for the team in 1991. Sunday’s quarterfinal appearance will be the fifth in six years for Lakewood.
“Coaching is a reflection the classroom, and being a black man coaching a majority African-American athletes, it gives me a platform to teach how to act a certain way, how to act in society, the importance of education and character,” Holmes said. “I’d like to think what I tell them has extra value because I walked the same streets they did, went to the same school they go to and shared a lot of the same experiences and challenges that they’re experiencing.”
Mooney has officially been the Long Branch head coach for three seasons, although he and assistant Don Covin have referred to themselves as co-coaches during their 11 non-consecutive seasons with the program. Covin was officially the head coach in 2011-12 and 2012-13 before the two switched titles prior to the 2013-14 season.
That same season, Long Branch advanced to the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals with a senior-laden rotation and felt the impact of graduation last season when the team went 3-16. Just one year later and two years removed from its last SCT quarterfinal appearance, Mooney and Covin have turned things around with a team comprised mostly of players from last year’s program, with the exception of Anthony Velazquez – a senior transfer from Puerto Rico who leads the team in scoring – and freshman starting point guard Marc Dennis.
The Green Wave finished second in the Class B North standings and then beat B North champion Colts Neck Thursday to advance to the quarterfinals as a No. 12 seed. Long Branch takes on No. 4 Toms River North at 4:15 p.m.
While Holmes, Mooney and Covin have been anchored in the Shore Conference for more than a decade as coaches, Gamble and Holden are much newer to the Shore coaching scene. Like Holmes, Holden is one of the great Shore Conference players to graduate during the 1990’s. As a 6-11 senior center, he led Red Bank to a Shore Conference Tournament championship in 1999 before playing for Maryland’s two Final Four teams in 2001 and 2002 – which included a national title in that second trip.
“It’s interesting that there are only five and four of us are left (in the tournament),” Holden said. “It is a big deal, because it still seems like it’s an issue in some places. We’re still seeing it in the NFL, where it’s still kind of a struggle for black head coaches for whatever reason so to see a positive example in 2016 is pretty cool.
“One thing I think is worth mentioning is that basketball has always seemed to be ahead of the curve on this particular issue. In football, you have a sport with a lot of black players and that’s not really being reflected in the head coaching ranks, while with basketball, players have been able to make that transition. Not necessarily speaking for myself, but there are a lot of players in the NBA and other high levels who would prefer to be coached by guys who played at the same level and that in itself has presented a lot of opportunity.”
Since graduating from Maryland, Holden has played overseas and coached as an assistant at the high school and college levels, including a stint on the Monmouth University staff. He spent two seasons as an assistant at Christian Brothers Academy before accepting the position as the head coach at Ranney. With Holden at the helm and a standout freshman class making a major impact in its first year, the Panthers have already had their best season in program history at 20-2.
“I probably had a little bit different set of circumstances than a lot of other coaches,” Holden said. “I was waiting for the right job to open up. It’s different in high school (than in college or professional ranks), because most of the time, if you’re not a teacher, you’re not going to get a public school job. A lot of the coaches are teachers, and any demographics are more representative of pool of teachers, and for whatever reason, there aren’t a lot of black teachers so it makes sense that there might not be as many black coaches.
To Holden's point, according to Dept. of Education data from the 2014-15 school year, African-Americans made up 2.6 percent of all public school teachers in Monmouth County and 0.8 percent in Ocean County.
“I was lucky in a lot of ways because I happened to have good credentials and I happened to fit what Ranney was looking for. It’s a more uniquely diverse student body than most people realize and they were looking for more socioeconomic diversity in their student body to go along with the diversity they already had.”
While Gamble is also new to the Shore Conference, he has the most expansive coaching résumé of the group of coaches and one of the most impressive of any of the Shore’s 47 coaches. He spent 15 years as an assistant under Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s after playing for Hurley during his high school days. Gamble also spent three seasons as the head coach at Hudson Catholic prior to his St. Anthony assistant tenure and also put in time as an assistant at Kean University.
Prior to taking the Mater Dei job, Gamble was the head coach at Cardinal McCarrick for one season before the Diocese of Metuchen decided to close the school due to financial hardship after the 2014-15 school year. In Gamble’s one season, he took a program that had gone a combined 10-32 in the two years prior to his arrival and turned it into a 21-5 emerging power in the Greater Middlesex Conference.
Gamble brought along four Cardinal McCarrick players with him to Mater Dei – seniors NyQuan McCombs, Brian Harris and Josh Green, as well as junior Elijah Mitchell – and Gamble’s move to Monmouth County piqued the interest of five more players that would transfer in. Senior Kyle Elliot made the move to Mater Dei from Marist in Bayonne and former Marist teammates Kenny Jones and Maleek McKnight followed. Junior Marvin Pierre left Rahway to attend Mater Dei as well.
Perhaps the most significant transfer was junior Elijah Barnes, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Central Regional who began his high school career at hometown Freehold Borough. The nine transfers with Gamble leading the way have been the driving force behind Mater Dei’s best season in more than three decades.
African-American basketball coaches are no stranger to recent success in the Shore Conference. Neptune girls coach Jon Brown led the Scarlet Fliers to three consecutive Shore Conference Tournament championships from 2009 to 2011, as well as a Tournament of Champions title in 2010.
Dave Johnson led Asbury Park four consecutive Central Jersey Group I championships from 2009 to 2012, including back-to-back Group I championships in 2011 and 2012. Johnson stepped down as head coach of the Blue Bishops prior to this season and was replaced by former Neptune standout Keith Coleman, who is the fifth of the five current African-American head coaches at the Shore.
“I never paid attention to (race),” Holmes said. I never gave any thought to whether or not the other coach I was coaching against was black or white or anything else.
“It comes down to this: coaching is a passion for us. We don’t look across and start counting the number of black coaches so we can make a social statement. We do it for the same reason everybody does it - because we love it and because we’re competitive. I’m very blessed to lead young African-American men and that I get to set some type of standards for them to aim for.”