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Memory of ‘Tricky’ Harris’ firm hand guides Virginia Union coach

By Joey Lamar

For NCAA.org

Thump! Barvenia Wooten didn’t hear a thing.

Wooten was too focused on winning the 1982 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament championship. With her Virginia Union Panthers leading Norfolk State by one, she was thinking about where she should position herself for the next play. Teammate Maria Nicholson caught only a glimpse because she turned to the bench for guidance on the next offensive set.

By this time, the arena had fallen silent. Eyes were no longer centered on the court. Everyone had diverted their attention to the Panthers bench.

“Beanie, look,” Nicholson shouted. All of Wooten’s teammates called her “Beanie.”

Wooten finally turned and could not believe her eyes. Lying on the floor, twitching and convulsing, was Virginia Union head coach Tom Harris.

Officials sent both teams to their locker rooms. Inside the Panthers dressing room it was completely silent. No one muttered a word. Wooten sat on a dilapidated wooden bench with her forearms resting on the top of her thighs. Most of her teammates assumed similar positions, with the exception of a few leaning against the faded blue lockers. Everyone wondered what was happening just beyond the walls.

“Where are you going?” Wooten asked Nicholson.

“I’m going to see what’s wrong with coach,” Nicholson responded.

The paramedics were already doing all they could to sustain Harris’ life. As Nicholson approached her coach, she took special notice of his countenance, which appeared lifeless. His chest remained stationary.

Nicholson, the team’s floor general, returned to the locker room to address her teammates.

“What does it look like out there?” Wooten questioned.

“Coach is gone, Beanie. He’s gone.” Nicholson said.

Wooten was particularly close with Harris. This was the coach who convinced her to turn down several Division I scholarships to join a unique team atmosphere at Virginia Union. All she could do was turn around and face that faded blue locker.

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Wooten garnered Parade All-American honors as a high school senior in 1979. That same year, she was named Ohio’s AAA Player of the Year.

Hughes Center High School was frequented by plenty of basketball coaches that year, many taking a look at Wooten’s abilities. Louisville, Maryland, Cincinnati and Texas A&M were just a few of the schools to express considerable interest.

Friends and family members lobbied Wooten to stay close to home, including Clabert Smith, the principal at Hughes Center. But despite visits from college coaches, Smith felt Wooten was not collecting all the attention she was due. He asked Wooten to stop by his office and put together an information packet acknowledging all of her on-court achievements. Once that was completed, letters piled high inside the family mailbox.

Grateful was Wooten for Smith’s help, but it was not enough to sway her to remain nearby.

Division II schools, in what Wooten classifies as “the Southern states,” also expressed interest. One school stood out above the rest: Virginia Union. “Tricky” Tom Harris was running the program and had a vision to take it to national prominence. His expectation was very lofty for a school in its first year of NCAA Division II competition.

Wooten liked Harris’ vision, but more importantly, she liked the way Harris took interest in her academic future. Harris was not solely concerned about the talents she could bring to the hardwood floors. Wooten felt torn between selecting a school just for athletics advancement and choosing a school that offered the right fit academically and socially.

In the end, Wooten choose both. She decided to make the 518-mile trek to Richmond, Va., and enrolled at Virginia Union.

 

 

Minutes after Nicholson gave her shocking report on Coach Harris’ health, Virginia Union assistant Louis Hearn walked in to reassure the team. He informed them that Harris was still alive and had been taken to a local hospital.

Wooten clung to the promise of hope. She remembered some of the lessons learned from her head coach just a short time prior.

During her freshman year, Wooten’s immaturity had gotten the best of her. She missed her return flight at the end of the holiday break coming back from Cincinnati. There was no sufficient reason she and teammate Lisa Smith failed to board the plane before departure.

Both walked into practice late and Harris immediately directed them back to the airport.

Being punctual was very important to their head coach. Wooten did not go back to the airport. Instead, she found a place in the bleachers and watched. Harris had kicked her off the team and taken away her scholarship.

Wooten grew up immediately. Thrust into reality, she was going to fight for her true love. She was not going to leave until she was back on the team.

Waiting until all the players cleared the floor, Wooten approached Harris and pleaded her case for reinstatement. She spoke from her heart. Harris stared back at the freshman unsympathetically.

Harris relayed two important facts of life that remain ever present in Wooten’s mind:

  • Being on time to places and events is vital to success in life. People associate your arrival with your attitude toward the event.
  • \No player is bigger than the team, no matter how talented or highly touted. For the team to succeed, everyone must embark upon the same path both on and off the court.

Eventually, Wooten was given a second and final chance. She sat on the old wooden bench, faced that faded-blue locker and cherished the opportunity as Harris was rushed to the hospital.

Wooten’s reflection was jolted when officials presented Virginia Union with two options for completing the CIAA title game. They could either the finish the game, or choose to split the 1982 CIAA conference championship.

Assistant coaches left the locker room, giving Virginia Union players a chance to discuss the two options.

“You all know coach would want us to play, right?” Nicholson said. Those words were the only ones that needed to be stated.

And the Panthers emerged ready to play. Virginia Union played with intensity and fire. They won by the slimmest possible margin. In the end, it was the intensity that propelled them to their second consecutive CIAA championship.

Hugs, high-fives and many other celebratory exchanges occurred after the final buzzer, but the Panthers would soon face a difficult reality. Coach “Tricky” Thomas Harris died from the medical complications he suffered earlier that day.

Harris’ legacy remained with Wooten throughout the remainder of her tenure at Virginia Union. His lessons were some of the reasons she would eventually get into coaching.

In 1983, Wooten’s senior season, Virginia Union would win the NCAA Division II national championship. Virginia Union had accomplished an unthinkable feat for a team playing in the NAIA four years earlier. The Panthers finished with a record of 27-2.

Wooten would go on to be named MVP of the title game, scoring 25 points and grabbing 15 rebounds as she culminated her senior season. She was also named to the CIAA all-tournament team in 1983 and was named Miss Virginia Union University for her well-rounded collegiate experience.

Two years ago, Wooten returned to her alma mater to become the Panthers head women’s basketball coach. Giving back to the game was a quality that “Tricky Tom” promoted often during her playing days.

Wooten’s prolific career at Virginia Union, and dedication to collegiate basketball as a head coach, earned her recognition in 2013 as the CIAA’s female representative on the NCAA Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team. She was inducted into the Cincinnati Public School Athletic Hall of Fame this year, as well.

When asked about the honors, the coach struggled to put the lifetime achievement award into context. She sat silently. Wooten is proud, there is no doubt, but personal achievements never ranked high for her. Harris’s team-first philosophy is something she stresses to her teams today.

Looking back 30 years, she questions why she chose a smaller university. Receiving these honors confirms her legacy – and that the trip down