By Marty Gordon
Both the Radford University men’s and women’s basketball teams were knocked out of the Big South Tournament this past weekend, but off the court, the whole event had a Highlander feel to it..
The media guide honored former Radford University Athletic Director Chuck Taylor and former RU women’s basketball coach Charlene Curtis. Both passed away earlier this year.
Taylor served as RU’s athletic director from 1974-1996, leading Radford on a remarkable journey from a six-sport unaffiliated small college program to Division I. Today, the Highlanders sponsor 16 varsity sports and have played at the Division I level since 1984.
During Taylor’s tenure, Radford Athletics was nationally recognized as a leader in opportunities for women and minorities, as well as in graduation rates for student-athletes. In competition, seven different programs achieved national rankings in Taylor’s time guiding the Highlanders.
Also serving as men’s basketball coach from 1974-78, Taylor compiled a 56-43 record, never suffering a losing season and setting the stage for the program’s future success.
The Radford Athletics Hall of Fame inducted Taylor in its third-ever class, enshrining him alongside Nan Millner (women’s basketball), Steve Robinson (men’s basketball) and Dante Washington (men’s soccer) in 1997. He was also inducted into the Big South Conference Hall of Fame in 2006.
Curtis passed away in August and was a true trailblazer at both Radford University and in the broader collegiate athletics landscape.
“Charlene Curtis is one of Radford University’s most accomplished alumni,” said Director of Athletics Robert Lineburg. “She was an outstanding student, a tremendous basketball player, an excellent musician, and a great coach and administrator. She has had and will continue to have a profound impact on our university. Charlene was the coach that made a difference in her players’ lives by teaching them so many foundational values that impacted them in so many positive ways,” Lineburg said. “In addition, Charlene loved Radford University and remained involved throughout her life by devoting her time, service, and money to helping so many young people. Today is a difficult day for the Highlander family, but we know her incredible legacy will live on at Radford University. I speak for myself and countless others in saying that it was a true honor and privilege to know Charlene Curtis.”
Curtis was the first African-American to play on the Radford women’s basketball team (1972) and was the first 1,000-point scorer – male or female – in Radford basketball history. After her playing career ended, she secured her first job as a teacher and band director in Bedford County, Va., where she served as the first African American teacher and coach ever at her school.
Her coaching career took her back to the collegiate ranks where she earned a graduate degree and worked on the staff of legendary head coach Debbie Ryan at the University of Virginia.
Curtis would eventually return to Radford as the women’s basketball program’s head coach from 1984-90, posting a 121-53 (.695) record overall and an incredible 46-2 (.958) mark in Big South Conference play.
She was twice the Big South Coach of the Year, leading the Highlanders to four Big South regular season championships, three Big South Tournament championships, and an appearance in the 1989 WNIT.
“On behalf of our current team, staff and alumni, we are saddened to hear about the passing of Charlene Curtis,” said Head Women’s Basketball Coach Mike McGuire. “Radford has lost an amazing pioneer, leader, teacher, and coach. Quite simply, Charlene is a legend for our women’s basketball program. She had incredible careers at Radford, both as a student athlete and as a coach. Each season, we could feel the impact that Charlene has had on the women’s basketball program here,” McGuire said. “She helped to raise the bar and expectations for women’s basketball success at Radford. Charlene loved Radford and was committed to making a difference for the young women in our program. She is the epitome of what a dedicated and invested alumna is all about,” said McGuire. “But, even with all of the success that she had, Charlene will be remembered for the type of person she was. The way she cared about other people and encouraged them to pursue excellence will never be forgotten by anyone who ever met her. She lived a life that impacted others and must be celebrated.”
From there, Curtis went on to become the first African-American women’s basketball head coach in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference at Wake Forest University. Curtis also made stops at Temple University as the school’s first-ever African-American head women’s basketball coach and at the University of Connecticut as an assistant under Geno Auriemma.
Down the road, she was named the head of officiating for women’s basketball in the ACC and contributed to ESPNU and Fox Sports South as a women’s basketball analyst.
Her accomplishments, both on the sidelines and in the community, led to the dedication of the Radford women’s basketball coach’s suite in her name on Feb. 5, 2022.
Media members also learned of the death of former Western Carolina Coach Phil Hopkins, who led that school to 65 victories from 1995-2000.
Hopkins guided the Catamount men’s basketball team to its first Southern Conference Championship and its first berth in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (1996). That Hopkins-led squad came within two points of pulling what would have been the biggest upset in tournament history as the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed, falling 73-71 to top-seed Purdue in Albuquerque, N.M.
Hopkins is also a former assistant coach at Radford University.