By Sedrick Durr
Jackson Advocate Sports Writer
Eric Strothers is no stranger to paying his basketball coaching dues. After all, he has spent three decades as an assistant coach. With stints at Jackson State, Mississippi Valley, and most recently at Tougaloo, it became apparent that it was time for a return on his personal investment. Consequently, as legendary Thomas Billups decided to step down as head coach following the 2021-22 season, Strothers received an opportunity to step up into that role.
While, in many cases, the decision to promote most assistants usually comes with standard procedures, some may even come with a great deal of research. Then there are those hires that seem to make sense… the ones that need no smell test. Eric’s promotion appears to be of the latter ilk.
Strothers, a Vicksburg native, did not just pop up in Coach Billups’ office looking to be an understudy. These two individuals go back nearly 40 years.
“I actually played football for Coach Billups at Vicksburg High School,” said Strothers. “I did not decide to play high school basketball until my senior year.”
Strothers, 6’7, also mentioned that his only basketball season was cut short due to injury after the first three games.
One could surmise that would be the nail in the coffin to end playing hoops, but his determination won out. Strothers walked on at Jackson State and eventually made an impact. After going through a freshman learning curve, the former high school football standout improved each season on the hardwood while averaging 17.4 points per game for the Tigers as a senior. He was the team’s most valuable player, both as a junior and senior.
Following a brief professional hiatus in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and overseas, the criminal justice undergrad decided to go back to his alma mater and earn a master’s in physical education, which helped create his coaching path. A large portion of his coaching experience took place at JSU where he spent 20 years as an assistant.
As a player, the former All-SWAC forward managed to lead his team into the postseason on one occasion. His expertise as a coach was also a contributing factor in the Tigers three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He later left for Mississippi Valley in a similar role and managed to add to his legacy. Strothers had already been tabbed as the SWAC Assistant Coach of Year by the time he made it to Itta Bena. He did spend a short period as interim head coach, in addition to putting in time as the assistant for the Delta Devils.
Meanwhile during Strothers’ career, his former football coach became a legendary basketball coach, primarily with the Lanier Bulldogs, winning eight state championships, along with 13 appearances to the title game. Billups eventually landed at Tougaloo and added his former gridiron great to his staff.
According to former JSU head basketball coach Andy Stoglin, Strothers’ transition to coaching could not have come soon enough.
“Eric, along with Rob Carter, was [one of] the most important players our program had during my time,” Stoglin said. “His leadership was so valuable that I desperately needed him to coach after he returned to the states. Strothers was a leader as a player and did the hard stuff as an assistant such as discipline and maintenance of the team’s GPA.” At one point, the Tigers’ program went from one of the worst academically to second in the conference behind the guidance of Strothers. Stoglin emphasized that that quality is imperative for today’s college athlete. “He is needed more now than ever before.”
Stoglin also believes that SWAC teams may have made a mistake in not hiring Strothers as the head coach because of his ability to relate to young men. But he also pointed to a similar avenue that he regrets not taking. While looking back at many great achievements, the retired hardwood chief cringes at the missed opportunity to add Billups to his staff. “This definitely would have been the proverbial yellow-brick road to additional success to the program.” Regardless of what he described as a balk during his tenure, Stoglin expressed extreme happiness and is now excited about the ongoing working relationship between his two dear friends and pleased with their accomplishments at this point.
Together Strothers and Billups have won two Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) titles with an appearance in the NAIA Tournament. Despite stepping down as head coach, Billups will remain on staff alongside Strothers as an assistant.
“The goal is to win the GCAC and eventually NAIA,” said Strothers. “Having a winning program is extremely important.” The Bulldogs will return several key players, including Cameron Woodall, Darryl Jones, Cameron Copeland, and Antwan Beams.
The Bulldogs will play two exhibition games versus Southern University and Alcorn State before opening the season at home on Nov. 29th against Southeastern Baptist College. This will be Strothers’ first opportunity as a full-time head coach.