Coaching Legend Willie E. Jeffries To Speak At Limestone’s Black History Month Observance On Feb. 7

Charles Wyatt
Willie Jeffries

* NOTE: Venue has changed from Hines & Riggins Center to Fullerton Auditorium.

Willie E. Jeffries, one of the most legendary football coaches in Cherokee County and the state of South Carolina, will be the keynote speaker at Limestone University’s Black History Month Observance on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 1 p.m., inside Fullerton Auditorium.

The public is invited to attend, and admission is free.

Jeffries captured three consecutive Class 3A state championships at Granard High School in Gaffney from 1964-1966. During his seven-year career leading the Trojans from 1961-1966, Jeffries had a remarkable winning percentage of nearly 90 percent. Granard served as the high school for Gaffney’s African American students during segregation. Granard’s three state championships during Jeffries’ tenure are featured prominently on the scoreboard at Gaffney High’s current football stadium.

In his 29-year college head coaching career, Jeffries compiled a record of 179-132-6. He served as the head coach at South Carolina State University for 19 seasons in two stints, five seasons at Wichita State University, and five seasons at Howard University. Jeffries was the first African American head coach of a NCAA Division I-A football program at a predominantly white college when he coached Wichita State.

Jeffries grew up in Union, SC, and played football at Sims High School. He went on to play football and graduated from what was then known as South Carolina State College. He started his coaching career in 1960 as an assistant at Barr Street High in Lancaster before becoming the head coach at Granard High. He started his college coaching career when he departed Granard to take a defensive line coaching position at North Carolina A&T. He spent three seasons at North Carolina A&T and one as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh in 1972.

With the chance to become a head coach at the college ranks, Jeffries took over at South Carolina State, his alma mater, in 1973. In his first stint with the Bulldogs from 1973-78, they went 50-13-5 and won five Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and back-to-back black college national championships in 1976 and 1977. He realized that to ascend the coaching ranks he would have to leave his comfort zone and do what no one else had done. In 1979, he was introduced as the 32nd football coach at Wichita State.

Jeffries was inducted into the Wichita State Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 for breaking the coaching color barrier. Despite a 21-32-2 record during his tenure at Wichita State, he made a lasting impact as a racial pioneer. He was elected to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 2010.

Granard High School merged with Gaffney High in the late 1960s as part of the integration process. The former Granard building was then renamed West Junior High School before eventually being renamed again in 1989 to Granard Junior High (eventually the name changed again to Granard Middle School). In 2006, Granard Middle School dedicated its gymnasium in honor of Jeffries.

In 1988, South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell presented Jeffries with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor for those who make a statewide impact. During his final season at South Carolina State in 2001, he was awarded the companion honor of the Order of the Silver Crescent, honoring those who make community or professional accomplishments of local significance.

Jeffries is credited with inventing the “Freeze Option” offense and is the only person in history to coach against College Football Hall of Famers Paul “Bear” Bryant and Eddie Robinson. Named Coach of the Year on eight separate occasions, he was given the lifetime achievement award by the Black Coaches Association in 2002. He is a member of the MEAC Hall of Fame and South Carolina State University Athletic Hall of Fame.

Jeffries now resides in Orangeburg and serves as a member of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame Board of Directors.

A new documentary will soon be telling Jeffries’ story on the big screen. Entitled “Success Has No Zip Code: The Story of Coach Willie Jeffries,” the film will premiere on Feb. 12 at the Nickelodeon Theater in Columbia. Plans are also in the works for the movie to be shown in Gaffney.

The documentary will detail the life of Jeffries and his involvement in the formation of the new public charter school located in Orangeburg. The documentary will feature exclusive interviews with Jeffries, his family, and the Berkeley Charter Education Association. Other featured interviewees include the founding principal of WJSE, Fabien McGill, past athletes who played under Coach Jeffries, and various South Carolina political figures.

(Accompanying photo by S.C. State University)