by Torsheta Jackson
The air outside is unusually cool, but the heat is on inside the Mississippi Coliseum. The scent of fresh popcorn and sweat fills the air as fans fill the lower section of stands. In the front row sits a basketball legend, dressed to perfection in a paint-white suit, deep emerald shirt and shoes and a matching top hat.
If he was anyone else he would appear overdressed for the occasion, but not Hall of Fame coach Lafayette Stribling. Everyone has come to expect the signature, brightly colored suit on the front row of the state’s biggest basketball stage each March.
And “Coach Strib,” as he is affectionately called, never fails to deliver.
Stribling hasn’t always had his trademark style. He grew up poor in the little community of Harmony, near Carthage, Miss. His father had no education and the family sharecropped to survive. His mother died shortly after her 39th birthday. When his brothers and sisters moved to California, he stayed to help out. Stribling says his parents taught him to be humble, to work hard and that material things did not define who you are.
But when Stribling finished school at Harmony High School, he needed a little help meeting the final requirement.
“I graduated and I didn’t have anything to wear. They were requiring us to wear dark suits, so I had to borrow a suit from my first cousin who lived in Detroit. We were living on her daddy’s place at the time and she sent the suit to him,” Stribling recalls. “But when I graduated that night, her daddy took the suit back and gave me an old pin-stripe suit that was too old for him. But I took that pin-stripe suit and went on to college because that’s all I had.”
He decided that that would be the last time he needed to borrow a suit from anyone.
“My mind was made up that one day, I was gonna own me some clothes,” he says.
START OF SOMETHING SPECIAL
Stribling took the hand-me-down suit with him to Mississippi Industrial College. There he stayed up late and borrowed the textbooks he couldn’t afford to complete his assignments. He was teased by peers who recognized that he didn’t have much.
What they didn’t know was the freshman could light up the gym. Stribling retells every move of a buzzer beater shot to win a game that landed him on the shoulders of the student body and sealed his acceptance on campus.
After graduation, Stribling watched his peers send out hundreds of applications for jobs. He sent just one. An application for the head boys basketball coaching position at his alma mater: Harmony High School.
“They already had a coach there but I guess they wanted me more because I got the job right off,” he says.
That single application was the start of something special. For the next 55 years, Lafayette Stribling had the same occupation – a head coach. He remained at Harmony High School until it’s consolidation with Murphy High School, and there through integration with South Leake High School.
Each time, Stribling was named head basketball coach. Each time, he won.
At South Leake, he picked up the head girls basketball and baseball positions. All of his duties, which also included driving the bus and serving as assistant principal, paid $2400 a year. Stribling loved his job and so found other ways to supplement his income. He spent summers surveying land and invested in bonds. When others were spending money on entertaining themselves, he began buying the clothing that has become his staple.
The All-Star coach went 741-171 at South Leake and won three state championships. In 1981, he went undefeated and won the state championship – with the boys and girls teams.
Two years later, he got the call to head the men’s basketball program at Mississippi Valley State University. His selection would have a seismic impact on the face of SWAC basketball – the most famous moment of which nearly shocked the world.
During the 1985-86, basketball season Mississippi Valley State won the SWAC Championship with ten straight wins to close the season and earned the 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. That meant that they would meet #1 ranked Duke in a game that was projected to be a blowout.
“(Commentator) Dick Vitale said on the television that the parking lot would be a full of people by three minutes into the game, they were going to beat us so bad,” Stribling laughs.
The coach had other plans. Stribling dialed up a ferocious zone press that capitalized on his team’s quickness and forced Mike Krzyzewski’s top-ranked Duke team into one turnover after another (23 for the game).
At the half, Valley led by three. The game remained close throughout the second half, with the Devils ahead by 7 at one point. Duke pulled ahead in the final 11 minutes of the game after four Valley starters, including their two leading scorers, fouled out. The Blue Devils came away with the seven point win, but Valley came away with the respect.
Coach K told reporters after the game,”We weren’t ready for the type of quickness they had….All of a sudden it hit us that we better stop them.” (Chicago Tribune).
“They gave us a standing ovation,” Stribling says.
Stribling would lead the Delta Devils to the NCAA tournament twice more while accumulating four regular-season SWAC championships, three tournament titles, and the most wins in Valley State history.
In 2005, the SWAC Hall of Famer who has never shied away from a challenge took the reins of the fledging Tougaloo Bulldogs. His first season there would be the only losing season of his career. The next season, they would win the school’s first-ever Gulf Coast Atlantic Conference (GCAC) regular season championship. In his seven years at Tougaloo, he won four conference titles and made five NAIA tournament appearances.
The sharecropper’s son from Harmony was dressed “to the nines” for every game.
A LOUD LEGACY
Last July, Stribling was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Former players, coaching colleagues and fans came from all over the country to celebrate. So many so that Stribling says there weren’t tickets for them all.
“[I] sold it out,” he says proudly. “I had so many people there… I had one busload come and they were going to buy tickets when they got there, but they didn’t have tickets.”
The 84 year old greeted guests and snapped pictures in a dazzling white, black and gold sequined tuxedo jacket with matching sequined bow tie and shoes. He finished the outfit with his signature top hat complete with a gold sequined band.
For Strib, the legacy of the suits is not about him, but showing the younger generation that they can succeed.
“My thing is to get our young kids who are coming up poor, that think that they can’t do nothing but [use drugs and commit crimes], that they can do something [bigger] with their lives,” he says.
His expansive wardrobe now includes more than 200 suits each with shirts and ties to match. There are also more than 200 pairs of shoes including alligator skin, sequined and glitter. (It’s not walk-in as much as walk-through.) But the apparel has outgrown the closet, which originally sold him on the Overlook Pointe home, and is now partly housed in an upstairs room.
And the collection is still growing. Stribling says that although he doesn’t shop as often as he used to, he still has to keep up with the latest trends.
“See all that glitter stuff down there,” he says pointing to a rack of gleaming jackets. “They just came out with that. I’m going to have a little taste of everything.”
Declining health caused the three-time GCAC Coach of the Year to retire from basketball completely in 2012. He underwent heart surgery the summer before he announced his retirement. He now wears a pacemaker and defibrillator. Prostate cancer, which had once gone into remission, has returned. He continues to receive quarterly radiation treatments.
Stribling admits that his health has slowed him down, but hasn’t stopped him. Although he no longer drives himself, he continues to be a fixture at Mississippi Valley, where the court is named in his honor, and Tougaloo basketball games.
His coveted front row Coliseum seat has been more empty than usual during this week’s state tournament – a reminder even the brightest stars must fade away.
This night, Strib is there, and there is no way you can miss him.
The final buzzer of the late session sounds and the old coach begins his exit. He is stopped several times by admirers of all ages, known and unknown to him, to chat, take photos and shake hands.
It’s obvious that the Lafayette Stribling legacy is about much more than his wardrobe.
Torsheta Jackson is a feature writer for Bash Brothers whose passion to showcase the rich sports stories of Mississippi is born out of nearly 15 years of coaching in the state. She holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and has been published in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss. with her husband and two of their four children. When she is not writing, she enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with her family. Email Torsheta at firstname.lastname@example.org