DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Basketball greats mourn former DU coach

Troy Bledsoe’s former players remember their basketball coach’s embrace of diversity on DU’s basketball team. And in the 1960s, that stance wasn’t always popular.

“During my first year in 1965, there were probably two black players on varsity,” says Rick Callahan (BS accounting ’68, JD ’72). “By the time we were sophomores, there were around five … and by my senior year, the team was half-half.”

Callahan, a white player, and Harry Hollines (BS ’68), a black player who became DU’s all-time leading scorer, became the best of friends during that tumultuous time in American race relations. They even roomed together — thanks to Bledsoe, they say — which was another rarity for the time.

“For someone like me, who came from a very poor background, he really opened up the world to me,” Hollines says of Bledsoe. “He recruited me, and he was a father figure to me.” And unlike other college coaches around the country that were making promises left and right in an effort to recruit the talented athlete, Bledsoe simply told Hollines he would have the same opportunities as any other player, and that Hollines would earn his place on the team.

“I think I respected that the most,” Hollines admits.

Bledsoe, who served as DU’s head coach for six years and assistant coach for three years prior, died Dec. 30 after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 82.

The Pioneers produced one of their most successful runs in Division I basketball during Bledsoe’s stint. The team went 5-20 in his first season, but by 1966, Bledsoe had coached the Pioneers to their first 14-win season. Bledsoe also recruited and coached DU legends such as Hollines, Horace Kearney and Byron Beck, whose number was retired by the Denver Nuggets in 1977.

Bledsoe even taught the team an important lesson after one of the future NBA star’s indiscretions.

“We were in New York and played in Madison Square Garden,” Callahan recalls. “Beck missed curfew and gets in the elevator in the hotel about two hours after curfew only to find Coach Bledsoe in the elevator. He was absolutely busted.”

Bledsoe subsequently punished the whole team with wind sprints in practice the following day. “Harry [Hollines] and I say, ‘Hey, Coach, why should we have to run? Beck is the one who broke curfew.’ Coach Bledsoe told us to ask Byron.”

“So we go up to Beck, and we said, ‘Byron, we don’t want to run sprints,’… he kind of looked at us with a smile and said, ‘Next time I break curfew, I will remember to peek in the elevator or take the stairs. How’s that?’”

Bledsoe always believed that a team is a team, and they should be disciplined as one.

“He wanted us to be good players, but even better men,” Callahan says. Former players recall that Bledsoe wouldn’t let them compete if they didn’t keep their grades up and he stressed the importance of giving back.

Players also remember that Bledsoe never cursed. The worst thing he said to his players was something such as “Dang, I hate to fuss at you” or “Dangnabbit,” Callahan laughs.

“He was truly a great guy who cared about his players,” says Moses Brewer (BA ’71, MA ’76). “He had an infectious smile and he rarely got upset with his players, even when they made mistakes — and that’s rare in coaching.”

Until college, Brewer had never left his small Alabama hometown. He says severe homesickness made him approach Bledsoe and tearfully tell him he wanted to go home.

“He just put his arm around me and told me to give it some time,” Brewer recalls. “He stated, ‘You don’t want to go home and have people think you failed.’ He assured me the homesickness would subside, that I’d get acclimated to the campus and I’d learn to handle my classes just fine.”

Turns out, Bledsoe knew what he was talking about. “I played basketball and better yet, graduated from DU. I even got my master’s degree from there — and all because coach wouldn’t let me give up,” Brewer says. “To this day, I follow that rule — to never give up.”

Troy Bledsoe was born March 5, 1926, in Little Rock, Ark. He graduated from North Little Rock High School and went on to serve in the Army Air Corps from 1944–45. After being honorably discharged, he attended Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., where he was a multiple letter winner in football, basketball and tennis, and won two all-conference awards in basketball and football.

He married Helen Childs in 1949. They had three children, Robert, Joseph and Diane.

He earned his master’s degree from the University of Memphis in 1955, and taught and coached at the University of Arkansas before joining DU in 1962.

After earning a PhD in education from DU in 1974, Bledsoe left to serve as director of athletics at Fort Lewis College. While there, he also coached men’s golf and women’s basketball. He retired in 1992.

“Much of my college success I attribute to Troy,” says Bob Hofman, Fort Lewis’ head basketball coach. Bledsoe hired Hofman in 1983.

“He treated me like another son,” Hofman says. “My father died the same week I got the job at Fort Lewis, and [Bledsoe] really took me under his wing.”

Hofman says Bledsoe gave some of the best advice he’s heard: You are never as bad, or as good, as you think you are.

Bledsoe also stressed strong ethics.

“You wouldn’t even think of crossing an ethical line with him,” Hofman says. “There were no gray qualities with him. I was honored to even be in his circle.”

Bledsoe was inducted into the Fort Lewis College Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995.

A memorial service will be at First Presbyterian Church in Grand Junction, Colo., at 1 p.m. on Jan. 16.

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