By Sedrick Durr, JA Sports Writer
Some people will choose style over substance…then there are those that would prefer the opposite. Either way, optical and ethical advantages can apply to both. But with a vision, daily dedication, and strong work ethic, the substance of the Tougaloo basketball program has become the style. This was evident after the Bulldogs were not only awarded the opportunity to host last weekend’s 2023 Hope Credit Union Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) Tournament but managed to put an exclamation point on a near undefeated season by conquering the championship.
Make no mistake about it, winning is the ultimate goal for most programs. Staying ahead of the competition definitely moves the moral compass, but under the leadership of first year coach Eric Strothers, the biggest competition lies within.
“Even if we win the game, our record is 0-0 every morning,” said Strothers. “We are not building a program just to win one championship because ultimately we want people to want to come here, trust the process, and know they always have a chance to win. Discipline and studying are the top priorities for our program. It promotes character and a sense of responsibility not only for the team as a whole but also for each individual that is a part of it.”
Despite the individual thoughts, Strothers’ vision for the program didn’t just jump on his lap. This is something that has been a part of his DNA as an assistant for over two decades, and he credits a number of mentors who were instrumental on the road to him becoming a head coach.
“Coach Stoglin (Andy) taught me about life while grooming me as coach. I get emotional thinking about it because he is just like a father to me.”
In addition to the former Jackson State head coach, Strothers continued to mention a number of trailblazers such as former Lanier Coach Thomas Billups, who currently serves as an assistant to Strothers; former JSU skipper Tyvester Anderson; along with Chris Giles and Andre Payne. Each of these individuals continue to lend an ear and provide advice to the Bulldog leader.
Of course, being named 2023 GCAC Coach of the Year is a rewarding testament to Strothers’ prowess but even he would admit that you have to have the talent on the court to win basketball games. Senior Guard Cameron Copeland, who averaged just over 14 points per game, was named Conference Player of the Year. Additionally, Darryl Jones, a senior forward, was named as part of the All-Defensive Team as well as second All-Conference, along with senior forward Cameron Woodall and senior guard Trajan Fielder.
“Some of these guys are mid-major level players,” Strothers said. “The proof of that was found in the pudding throughout the year, whether it was lopsided victories or nail-biters such as the 62-61 win over Philander Smith College in the Championship game Sunday. With the score tied at 61 with 0.5 seconds to go, Andre’ Brunt sank the second of two shots to seal the title for the second consecutive season.
As a result of the triumph, the Bulldogs, 29-1, now shift their focus to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Tournament in an effort to win a national championship; but meanwhile, the impact on hosting the conference tournament was a major deal for the program and the city as Strothers revisited those thoughts.
“This was a great fit for Jackson. KiKi Barnes did a wonderful job promoting the importance of producing such an event to the area,” Strothers continued. Barnes, who currently serves as the GCAC Commissioner, was touted as a key advocate in bringing the tournament to Tougaloo’s campus which took place from February 23-26. Her efforts coincide with Hope Credit Union who not only serves as the primary sponsor for the tournament, but their contributions appear to be rooted in positive vibes for future ideas and objectives.
“Given the unique alignment between the mission and impact of the two institutions (GCAC and HOPE), we saw an opportunity to not just sponsor the conference tournament, but to partner deeply to advance financial inclusion in the Deep South,” said Ed Sivak, Hope Credit Union’s Executive Vice President of Policy & Communications.
“This partnership builds on HOPE’s long legacy of involvement in Historically Black Colleges and Universities through strategic investment, supplier diversity and business development in the communities surrounding HBCU campuses. Over the next two years, HOPE will serve as the official credit union of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference serving as its financial partner to navigate future opportunities and engaging with its students, faculty, and alumni through internships and expanded access to its full suite of products and services.”
Established in 1981, the GCAC is an eight-member conference that is currently made up of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) across six states. Tougaloo serves as one of the original members.