Best mind in the college game? Northwestern State's 'Coach Black'
Harris Wilson Jr., an autistic savant better known as 'Coach Black,' has been a loyal aide at Northwestern State for nearly 20 years. And his fellow coaches can't say enough about him.
If today's Wednesday, Coach Black is firing somebody at Northwestern State. Then again, today could be Thursday or Friday and Coach Black would be firing somebody. He's always firing somebody. But today being Wednesday, and the first day of the Southland Conference basketball tournament, the Northwestern State coach in danger is Mike McConathy. And McConathy knows it.
"Been fired before," McConathy says. "Might get fired again."
Coach Black once fired an assistant women's basketball coach, a poor guy named Bob Austin who forgot to take Coach Black to lunch, by grabbing a grease board and writing the names of everybody he'd rather have in that position. He ran out of room at 37 names.
"He's fired everybody in that athletic department, including the athletics director, several times," says Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen, who was at Northwestern State from 1998-2001. "I've been fired more than once."
Cohen is chuckling, because it's been a good 13 years since he's had the pleasure of being fired by Coach Black. And he misses it.
"I do remember one thing," Cohen says, still chuckling. "A good home-cooked meal could get you back in his good graces in a hurry."
Who is Coach Black of Northwestern State? Well for one thing, he's not a coach. And his name isn't Black. This will come as news to some of his closest friends, but Coach Black's real name is Harris Wilson Jr., after his daddy, a cement mixer who died 10 years ago of a heart attack.
It was Harris Wilson Sr. who gave his son the nickname "Black," and the story about that is like so many stories about Coach Black. It's tender and beautiful, and this one involves a duckling that Harris Sr. gave his son when the little guy was 5.
Coach Black is autistic, and when he was born doctors told his parents he'd never talk. By age 5 he was talking, gibberish even to his mom and his siblings, but his daddy understood him.
"He and his father had this little thing," says Coach Black's mother, Joella Harris. "They communicated like no others."
Daddy gave him a duck one year and asked him to name it. His son looked at that duck, as dark as coal, and came up with something. Joella asked her husband what he'd said.
"Black," her husband told her.
Everyone liked that so much, they started calling the duck and the duck's owner Black. That was 30 years ago. Today being Wednesday, though, there's no time for duck stories. Coach Black is 36 and he has a trip to make today and a game to coach tomorrow, and he'll be sitting on the bench at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, with Northwestern State for its Southland quarterfinal Thursday against the winner of Southeast Louisiana-Nicholls State. From time to time Coach Black will signal plays to the team. He might not make the signal just right, but it won't matter.
Everyone gets Coach Black.
All the right answers
His brain doesn't work like yours and mine. There are times it works so much … better. Coach Black is an autistic savant, capable of staggering feats of memory, and while the Northwestern State athletic department has taken him in like family, the school gets as much out of Coach Black as he gets from them.
"More," says New Orleans basketball coach Mark Slessinger, a former Northwestern State assistant. "Black does more for us than we could ever do for him."
Slessinger is talking about unconditional friendship and loyalty, but there's more here than that. A brain like Coach Black's, it comes in handy.
"He's a human daytimer," says Northwestern State assistant AD/sports information director Doug Ireland.
On bus rides McConathy is always wanting to know something about the Southland -- who Lamar plays next, how many games McNeese has won this month, that stuff. Sitting next to McConathy, radio play-by-play guy Patrick Netherton pulls out his iPhone or iPad and starts searching.
One row behind them, Black doesn't have an iPhone or an iPad. He just has the answer.
"Coach Mike asks me because I'm a nerd with all this stuff, and I'll be looking something up -- and if it's about the Southland, Black will chime in and give him the answer before I can find it," Netherton says. "It happens continually. It's every road trip."
Black was in high school in Natchitoches, La., when he first showed up at Northwestern State in 1995. One of his best friends was NSU football coach Sam Goodwin's son. Since Black had begun speaking more coherently around age 9, he told anyone who'd listen that he was going to be a coach. That's how Black became Coach Black.
And one day Coach Black showed up at Sam Goodwin's office and asked to be put to work. Goodwin was about to have a staff meeting. He sized up Black, told him to sit by the door and make sure nobody barged in. Black did his job, and has been coming back ever since. That was 1995.
They noticed his ability for recall, but it wasn't until the following year when Coach Black pulled the veil off his magical mind. It was 1996 and Goodwin had just hired assistant Bradley Dale Peveto, who was filling out insurance forms. Peveto needed his license plate number, so he asked Coach Black to go to the parking lot and write it down.
Black never moved.
"FBC 130," he said.
Peveto shot to his feet.
"Black," he said, "you come with me right now. If my license plate is FBC 130, dude, I'm a believer for life."
Peveto is a believer for life.
"It would freak you out, what he knows," says Peveto, now the special teams coordinator at LSU. "You need a number for Popeye's Fried Chicken or Posey's Sporting Goods, and he'd quote it. I'm not kidding. He's a genius in so many ways, and if you judge people by their heart, really judge 'em by their heart, you can't find a better human being in the whole wide world than Coach Black."
But that memory thing. Really cool, right?
"Too cool," he says. "If you call him right now, he could tell you my license plate number from 1996."
I'll make that call in a minute.
A coaching fan club
But there are other calls to make, and receive. I text Peveto, a stranger who just a few days earlier had been hired at LSU, and he calls back within 45 seconds.
"When it has anything to do with Coach Black," Peveto says, "I don't wait."
Everyone called back, fast. John Cohen at Mississippi State. Rob Childress, now the baseball coach at Texas A&M. Slessinger at New Orleans, McConathy at Northwestern State. Even basketball referee Mike Thibodeaux. Why did I call Thibodeaux? Because I was told every referee in the Southland knows Coach Black, so I picked a name to test that theory. I picked Thibodeaux. He called back.
"I've been knowing Coach Black for probably 20 years," Thibodeaux says. "He comes before games, shakes your hand, introduces himself. He already knows your name, makes you feel like you're welcomed at Northwestern State, like you're a long lost friend."
And his memory … ever notice that?
"Unbelievable," Thibodeaux says. "I've worked four or five Southland Conference championship games, and he remembers which ones. He'll come up and talk to you about a certain point in a game, even if Northwestern State wasn't in it."
Some say Black's closest friend is Peveto, who has coached all over the South and brought Black each place to work summer camps, sometimes sending airfare and sometimes sending his wife to Natchitoches to pick him up. Some say Slessinger, who used to room with Black on road trips and has pictures of Black sleeping in his den in New Orleans. Some say McConathy, whose sons grew up wrestling with Black in the family pool after church, after which Black would pass out in his den. Some say …
"Everybody cares for Black," says Childress, the Texas A&M baseball coach. "Somebody picks him up in the morning, and whoever's the last one out takes him home. He's with the football team during fall. Winter he'd move to basketball. Spring he'd be with us."
Coaches at Northwestern State buy his meals and take him for medical and dental care. They feed him so well during the school year that Black typically reports to football down 25 of 30 pounds after being away all summer. He goes on road trips, he hangs around the office, and he fills down time by playing solitaire on a coach's computer.
"He wins like that," Slessinger says. "Rain Man stuff."
Loyal to a fault
Coach Black comes to the phone a few days before the Southland Conference tournament. It's 9:30 in the morning, but he's already been to basketball practice and now he's having his hot chocolate in the sports information director's office. Black tells me his day is just starting.
"Big ball game tomorrow night," Coach Black says. "There's more to do. Have to prepare. Got to watch film."
He's so loyal to the Demons that he has missed weddings for them. McConathy's son, Logan, got married on a Saturday during the 2011 football season, and Coach Black had to RSVP in the negative. A few years earlier Black's own sister got married without him. Same reason. Northwestern State had a football game, Black had a team to coach. All of which has Black's mom wondering where she rates.
"I've told him, 'Boy, if I die you better be at my funeral,'" Joella Harris says. "I don't care what game's going on."
Black loves Northwestern State, and the love is returned. In 2009 Slessinger was recruiting a forward from Oklahoma named Will Pratt, a future all-conference player the Demons wanted badly, and Slessinger could tell his official visit was going well. In fact, he was pretty sure Pratt was going to commit. If you're ready, Slessinger told Pratt, don't commit to me.
Commit to Coach Black.
"I told Will, 'Black wants to meet with you one on one,'" Slessinger says. "Black goes in there and has a seat. He's stone-cold serious. 'Will, we want you here, we really love your game. I think you need to come.' Will said: I'm coming.
"Black pops up and claps his hands: 'I got him Sless -- he's coming, he's coming!' He runs across the hall and tells McConathy, 'I got it done, Coach Mike!'"
When Slessinger left for New Orleans in 2011 he had to break it to Coach Black. Every coach who has left Northwestern State, and left Coach Black, has done this in his own way. This was Slessinger's way: He told Black he needed him in New Orleans, was going to make him his lead assistant, but Black said he couldn't possibly leave Northwestern State. So Slessinger drew up a contract that made Black a part-time assistant, two weeks a year. The contract gives Black a room in the Slessinger house and all the Mountain Dew he can drink. Black signed it, beaming, and told Slessinger he'd see him soon in New Orleans.
Black calls all the time, too. He calls all his friends. "My guy," he calls them, when he's not firing them for losing a game or missing a lunch.
"I hear from Coach Black out of the blue about twice a year," says Childress. "I haven't been there since 1998, but he'll still call me and say, 'Just want to check in on you.' I bet you he has my number memorized."
Black has numbers plugged into his cell phone, but just numbers. No names. He doesn't need the names -- and he doesn't need the numbers, really, but it's faster that way. His brain is an amazing thing, and at the end of our phone call I mention Peveto's license plate number, a number Black saw once in 1996.
Eighteen years later I tell Black I'm sure he doesn't remember it, but Coach Peveto wanted me to ask about the license plate, so … Coach Black cuts me off.
"FBC 130," he says.
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