Few coaches remain at a school for 25 years, but former Alabama A&M coach L. Vann Pettaway can hardly be considered just another coach. He became head coach while in his 20s and won a majority of his games for the next quarter century. He battled NCAA tourney teams on the court and cancer off it, becoming the winningest coach in school history in the process. Coach Pettaway sat down with Jon Teitel after retiring in 2011 to reflect on his past accomplishments and his future plans.
You were born in Selma, AL, and moved back there for high school: what was it like to be in Selma in the 1970s, and what effect did it have on you either on and off the court? It was great being in Selma at that time: integration was at the forefront and I got along with everybody. I was the only Black player on the baseball team but there were more of us on the football and basketball team.
You became coach at Alabama A&M in the mid-1980s at age 29, and your team spent the next 10 years as one of the best D-2 programs in the country. Did you feel like you were ready to be a head coach at such a young age, and how were you able to come in and have so much success? I think I was ready because I had great tutors in Ben Jobe (who won over 500 games) and my JC coach. I learned from two of the best around, and it helped that Coach Jobe even said I was ready. We were successful because of my age: I could identify with the kids and convince some great talent to come here.
In the late-1990s your program made the leap from D-2 to D-1. Why did the school decide to move up to D-1, and what was the biggest difference for you as a coach? That was a football decision but in order to do that the rest of the sports had to move up as well. I voiced my opinion against the move at the time because we did not have enough in place to be consistent (facilities, a nest egg of money, etc.). The biggest difference is that the talent pool is smaller and recruiting is tough if you do not have what they are looking for.
One time in a road game at Alabama-Huntsville both you and your coaching staff entered Spragins Hall dressed in Army fatigues. Why did you decide to do that? That was the Mayor’s Cup Classic, which was an annual game with our cross-town rival. We wore different costumes each year (doctors, undertakers, etc.), and would never let people know what we would be wearing until right before tip-off, although I would leave a hint during the pre-game press conference. It was great for our fans and our city and we played in front of great crowds. I made a promise to our fans that I would coach in my BVD’s if the other team had more fans there than we did!
One of your best players was Obie Trotter, who chose Alabama A&M because his mother wanted him to play for a “godly man”. Where does Trotter rank among the best players you ever coached, and what role does faith play in your own life? Obie and his family chose me after seeing that we attended church as a team, had a team chaplain, and that I was a PK (preacher’s kid). He is one of the best I have ever coached and one of the most personable kids I have ever met. His demeanor did not change during his four years there: he was steady and stayed with his religion due to his upbringing. I have had a lot of players go into the ministry, which I am very proud of. You have to develop into a well-rounded person, and there is more to that than just basketball. I knew it was a blessing for me to even be a head coach and it has been great to coach at my alma mater: I owe it all to the Lord, who has guided my steps.
In 2005 your team won the SWAC tourney title while you were battling prostate cancer. How were you able to remain on the sideline despite your diagnosis, and what was the reaction like in the locker room after you won the title? It was very emotional. I was able to stay on the sideline because my staff (Willie Hayes/Sammy Jackson) took care of most of the other stuff besides practices/games. I could not use a whistle all year so I took more of an administrative role. I told the team before the season what I was going through and they dedicated the season to me. We were ineligible for postseason play for seven years after moving up to D-1 but that group of young men kept our program going that whole time.
What are your memories of the 2005 NCAA tourney, the first in school history (Rawle Marshall scored 29 points in a 10-point win by Oakland in the play-in game despite having a losing record)? It was a blur: we won the SWAC title game on a Sunday and the next day we were flying out to Dayton. We only had time for 1 good practice and the game was hard on us because we were moving so fast and did not have enough rest. We did not even get our legs until late in the second half and Marshall was a little too much for us. I wish we could have had more time to play that game: Oakland had almost a week of preparation.
You are the all-time winningest coach in school history: what makes you such a great coach, and do you think anyone will ever break your record? I do not think that I am a great coach but I am a pretty good communicator. Kids like my up-tempo style of play, which is how we convinced quite a few good players to come here. I do not think the record will be broken because in this era there are not a lot of coaches who can last that long.
After spending 25 years as coach at your alma mater you left in 2011. Why did you leave, and what do you hope to do in the future? We had a new administration come in and I thought it was time for me to go in a different direction. To have one of my former players and assistants (Hayes) take my place is great and I am blessed for the opportunity I had. I will do a lot of fishing, become more involved in my church, and just work with kids. A coach is always a teacher.
When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? I was a guy who loved what I was doing and did it my way. I did not look at it as a job because I enjoyed going to work every day. In order to enjoy your job you have to be committed to it and enjoy what you are doing. I made it through seven school presidents and countless athletic directors so I had a great run. Wherever God leads me, that is where I will be going.