On of the biggest questions this month is whether Wichita State can run the table and hoist a championship trophy after completing a perfect season, and this month marks the 75th anniversary of one of the first teams to turn the trick. Long Island went undefeated en route to winning the 1939 NIT, so we take time to reflect on the life of their Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee. Coach Bee actually had two undefeated seasons and two NIT titles during his tenure, but 1939 was the best of both worlds.
Even though he retired in 1951 he still holds the record for highest winning percentage by a coach whose basketball team is a current Division One member by winning more than 82% of his games. In addition to being a winner he was also known for contributions to the game including the 1-3-1 zone defense and the three-second rule. If you read a sports novel in the 1950s it was probably the Chip Hilton Sports Series, a set of 20+ books that was written by Bee, and in 1968 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. CHD’s Jon Teitel sat down with Bee’s grandson Mike Farley to discuss the coach’s legendary career both on and off the court.
In addition to your famous grandfather Clair Bee, one of your great-great-grandfathers was Ephraim Bee (a member of the very first West Virginia state legislature). What is it like to be a descendant of such noteworthy ancestors? I did not know anything about the legislature part until after my grandfather passed away when I was only seven years old. There are only two kinds of people who still talk about my grandfather these days: readers of his “Chip Hilton” novels and basketball historians. His biggest disciples are well-known coaches like Bobby Knight.
After graduating from high school in 1917 he served in WWI, and he took 2 years off from coaching to fight in WWII: how proud is your family about his service to the country? The family is very proud of his service (especially my mom) and we have met many military families while living in Virginia Beach. He was a nationally prominent coach but set aside his career to enlist (he was not drafted): he was a real throwback. He and his team also protested the 1936 US Olympic trials due to Hitler’s policy on Jews, which we only learned about a few years ago.
His 43-game winning streak came to an end in one of the sport’s most significant games when Stanford’s future Hall of Famer Hank Luisetti introduced the one-hand shot to the East Coast in a 45-31 win over LIU at Madison Square Garden in 1936. Did he ever talk about that game, and did he realize how the one-hand shot would change the sport? He definitely talked about it. It was a different world back then before the Internet, so coaches on the East coast were only able to read wire reports about Luisetti scoring 30-40 points per game. Even though my grandfather lost that game we are proud that he was involved in such an important game. CCNY coach Nat Holman famously said, “”If my boys ever shot one-handed, I’d quit coaching”, but my grandfather started teaching it to his own players soon after that game.
In 1939 when employees of a West Virginia hotel refused to let African-American team captain Dolly King stay in the main building, Bee told his team to pack up their bags and return to the train station because he refused to accept segregation. How did he feel about race relations, and how do you think he would feel about having an African-American president? I honestly do not think he cared about race, but he would be happy about today’s racial equality. He must have known that he was making some sort of social commentary but that was just what he believed and he would not compromise. He also did not care about ability: he just wanted players who would win. Despite a horrible scouting report regarding his playing ability, Col. Bob Smith got a full ride to LIU because he was “a tough SOB who would not be beat.”
In 1939 and 1941 he won NIT titles (the latter by stopping Seton Hall’s 42-game winning streak) as he turned LIU into a national power. How did your family’s life change after he won the titles? My mom was not born until after he stopped coaching so we never got to experience the titles with him. After coaching his real focus was writing the Chip Hilton books. I think everyone would agree that he put the school on the map, and he helped bring in a lot of gate revenue at the Garden.
He also coached the LIU football team until it was disbanded in 1940, which sport did he enjoy more, and how good a football coach was he? He might have been a good football coach but his record was not that good. I think that baseball was actually his favorite sport but he ended up getting engrossed in basketball.
He resigned as basketball coach in 1951 after learning that some of his players were involved in a point-shaving scandal, how could he have not known about the scandal while it was happening, and did he take it personally when the situation came to light? It really crushed him: by all family accounts it really brought him to the brink of death. I think the scandals are the reason why he is not more well-known. It also affected his legacy, as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a contributor rather than a coach. My grandfather wrote an article after the scandal to give his side of the story, and made it clear that while he knew gambling was going on at Madison Square Garden back then, he genuinely believed that his boys were not involved. He even had team meetings to confirm that belief and his players always said that they were not involved. He went back to review the games where the point-shaving allegedly happened and said that the players actually played harder in those games.
His 82.4 win-loss percentage is the best in D-1 history, do you feel like he is the best coach in the history of the sport? Yes. I do not think his vision for the game has been surpassed, which I think most modern coaches would agree with. He was also able to get the best out of his players regardless of their athletic ability.
He was known as the “Innovator” for creating the 1-3-1 zone defense, implementing the 3-second rule, and helping the NBA develop the 24-second shot clock. Is it weird to watch a game today and know that many of the current rules trace all the way back to him? The shot clock was created by a committee, so he shares the credit for that. When North Carolina coach Dean Smith ran his four-corners offense and the Bulls later changed it to a diamond-and-one, I was told that my grandfather was the origin of that. His old files have hundreds of plays scratched out on papers, napkins, etc. When an announcer sees a pick-and-roll and says “Clair Bee must be smiling somewhere”, that just makes my day!
He also conducted summer sports camps, wrote technical coaching books, and held coaching clinics around the world. Did you ever attend one of his camps while growing up? No: the camps were long before my time. I think the camps helped save him after the scandals because he wanted to get back to the part of the sport that was untainted.
He was a prolific writer, completing more than 20 non-fiction books and 20 juvenile sports fiction books in the “Chip Hilton” series, which is considered one of the top sports fiction series ever written. How did he get into writing, and what is the legacy of the Chip Hilton books? He wrote the first Chip Hilton book on a whim. After a friend of his brought it to a publisher without his knowledge, the publisher called and asked him to write a whole series of them. He wrote 23 of them from 1948-1966, and after he died we found an unpublished manuscript in his files, which became book #24. The legacy of Chip Hilton is coaches like Bobby Knight, Coach K, etc. who said that they read the books while growing up and it helped influence their career choice.
In 1968 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, where did that rank among his career highlights? My mom asked him about this before he died. He said that he was proudest of the Chip Hilton series because he got to teach kids about sports and values. When Dr. James Naismith (the inventor of basketball) wrote his only book called “Basketball: Its Origins and Development”, he chose my grandfather to write the foreword, which I think says a lot about his legacy.
He died in 1983 at the age of 87, how much time did you get to spend with him while he was alive, and what are your favorite memories of your grandfather? He lived with us in Ohio for the final two years of his life so I got to spend a lot of time with him. He was blind at the time and needed our constant attention. I remember him listening to games on TV: he was always frustrated because the announcers would talk about who the players were instead of what was happening on the court! His favorite meal was a Whopper and chocolate shake from Burger King. Coach Knight would occasionally call us after a loss: when the phone would ring after an IU game my grandfather would say, “Damn: Bobby lost another one!”
The Clair Bee COY Award was created in 1996 for a D-1 coach who makes an outstanding contribution to the game of college basketball, how do you think he would feel about knowing that such an award is named after him? It has been really gratifying for our family to keep his name alive. The neatest part is to see the reaction of the winners: the coaches are flattered to get an award with his name on it because they meaningfully appreciate his own contribution to the sport. There is also a Chip Hilton Award given out to a player who is a good all-around student-athlete, and the winners get to learn all about him.