Trailblazer Fred Snowden

Photo by The Tucson Citizen

By Troy Hutchison

Before 1970, there were zero black head coaches in D1 college basketball, The first coach to break through was Illinois State’s William J. Robinson. In 1972, a man named Fred Snowden took the head coaching job at the University of Arizona, becoming the school’s first black coach and the first black coach at a major institution.

Back in the 70’s, Arizona wasn’t a part of the Pac-12; in fact, the conference was known as the Pac-8, and the Wildcats were in a different conference called the Western Athletic Conference, also known as the WAC.

Before Snowden’s arrival to the desert, Arizona had been in a drought when it came to college basketball. The program had suffered three straight losing seasons and hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1951. 

In his first season with the Wildcats, he took a team that finished 6-20 the season before and started five freshmen: Eric Money at point guard, Jim Rappis at shooting guard, Coniel Norman at small forward, Al Fleming at power forward, and John Irving at center. Called “The Kiddie Korps,” it was the first time in NCAA history that a team had started five freshmen. The team went 16-10, forever changing the city of Tucson.

During that first season, Snowden’s team played half of their games at Bear Down Gym before they moved to McKale Center. The change was massive in helping him kick start the program; they went from selling out Bear Down, which had a capacity of 3,000, to selling out McKale, which back then had a capacity of around 13,000, proving Tucson could be a “basketball town.”

As time passed, Snowden built the program by adding players like Larry Demic, Phil Taylor, Gilbert Myles, and Arizona basketball legends Herman Harris and Bob Elliott

The program finally broke through during the 1975-76 season, making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1951. The tournament wasn’t what it was today with 64 teams; back then, only the top 32 teams in the country made the big dance.

In the first round of the tournament, Snowden made black history by facing Georgetown, who was coached by Hall of Fame coach John Thompson. It was the first time in NCAA history that two black head coaches faced each other in the tourney. The Wildcats won the game 83-76, though their season eventually came to an end in the Elite Eight, losing to UCLA who would later become conference rivals with Arizona when the program joined the Pac-10 in the 1978-79 season. 

Snowden was a trailblazer who impacted many lives during his nine-year coaching career in Arizona. I sat down and talked to Elliott and Harris about the man and what he meant to them long after their days playing for the Wildcats. 

Here’s Arizona’s second all-time leading scorer Elliott talking about Snowden’s coaching career and discussing what impact he had on his life: 

Here’s Arizona alumni Herman Harris, who in his senior season became an all-conference player by averaging over 20 points a game, talking about what Snowden meant to him and the impact he had on Tucson: