Bobby Washington coached under a cloud last season at Grambling, with his men’s basketball team emotionally devastated by a teammate’s sudden death — and, because he had no contract, without a clear path for his own life.
Washington’s journey started in the hazy steam of August 2009, as juco transfer Henry White collapsed while running on campus with six other teammates in a timed, 4-and-a-half-mile off-season drill. Twelve days later, White died of complications from heat exhaustion. In the controversial weeks that followed, Washington’s boss, head coach Rick Duckett, was released — and Washington took over a listing program.
He just kept coaching, finishing 7-21 overall and 4-14 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. But the campaign ended on a high note, as the Tigers advanced past regular-season conference champion Jackson State in the SWAC’s postseason tournament.
Fast forward a season later, and Washington has his own new deal as head coach, and the painful memories of White’s passing have become easier to bear.
“We got it back to normal,” Washington said during the SWAC’s preseason coaches teleconference. “I was hired, officially, and I able to get my staff together. Recruiting was great. We’ve been blessed in so many different ways. It was a normal offseason, like it should be.”
White, a prep standout at Washington High in Milwaukee, played his freshman year at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa before transferring to Hill College. A wrongful death lawsuit over his death was filed in January — though it remains unclear how something so horrific was allowed to unfold at Grambling in the first place.
“I am mindful of the tremendous loss by Miss Natalie Wood, the mother of Henry White,” Grambling athletics director J. Lin Dawson said during a September 2009 press conference. “This is a sacrifice that should not be asked of young men who came to this university.”
[TDR REWIND: Family of late Grambling basketball player Henry White sues; read the petition here]
White hadn’t even regisitered yet — and did not have medical insurance. Grambling rules stipulate that student-athletes must be added to the school’s policy before practicing, and that hadn’t happened either.
When White and the others arrived late for registration, a misstep that apparently led to the unscheduled disciplinary run, classes hadn’t begun at Grambling. NCAA rules also state that basketball practice “shall not begin prior to the beginning of the institution’s academic year.”
“This is one of the most egregious institutional failures I’ve ever seen since I’ve been practicing law,” said attorney Larry English, who filed the suit.
Duckett had taken over at Grambling the year before from Larry Wright, who went 88-160 during nine seasons. Duckett previously coached under Dave Odom at South Carolina from 2002-08. Prior to that, he boasted a 150-75 record as head coach at Fayetteville and Winston-Salem State universities over eight seasons.
Duckett was undergoing surgery, and did not oversee White’s run. That was reportedly handled by Steve Portland, who was also subsequently fired along with fellow Grambling assistant Phillip Stitt.
Bobby Washington was kept, Dawson said at the time, because he was not involved with the decision to conduct the run. He’d only been on campus for two days.
Players wore a memorial patch last year in honor of White, who himself had only spent four days on the Grambling campus — but changed much in passing.