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The Pac-12 put a spotlight with this year’s inductees by putting the names on the back of the school’s jersey (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — I thought Fred Snowden was as cool as a fox since the time he guided me and my brothers into the Arizona locker room for player autographs when I was about 7.
We waited for his television show to end on KZAZ Channel 11 to get an autograph from him after a game at McKale Center. I sported a long afro. It was about 1974. Afros and long hair were en vogue. Snowden had one also. I remember him patting me on top of my head and taking a good liking to me.
When he told us we could follow him into the locker room, it was like getting an escort into Disneyland. As I grew older I thought Snowden was nicknamed “The Fox” because of that charisma, that smooth personality that won people over without fail.
After all of these years, I discovered today the true genesis of his nickname, which became as legendary as Snowden with him being the first African-American to coach a major college basketball program.
His daughter Stacey Snowden, a delightful woman who carries the same people skills as her dad, informed me of the story behind “The Fox” nickname while she waited to take part in the Pac-12 Hall of Honor ceremony for her late father at the MGM Grand.
“That name goes back to his days at Michigan, actually when he played baseball,” Stacey said. “My father was a very talented baseball player and was actually drafted into the Detroit Tigers franchise. But he didn’t want to play baseball.
“He was an educator. Basketball was his first love. He loved baseball, too. He was as sly as a fox playing baseball, so that’s where it really started. I guess he was pretty slick out there.”
Stacey Snowden is the CEO of Snowden Sports Management, LLC., which is based out of Chantilly, Va., close to Washington, D.C. She lives in the Los Angeles area and keeps in contact mostly with Eric Money and Bob Elliott from the early generation of Snowden’s time at Arizona from 1972-1982.
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Money and Elliott were part of a 12-person party Stacey invited to the Pac-12 Hall of Honor ceremony.
Her father passed away from a heart attack at age 57 in Washington, D.C., where he attended the unveiling of President Clinton’s empowerment zones legislation, which included South-Central Los Angeles.
The Snowden family relocated to Los Angeles after Snowden’s time at Arizona. He was based there as an executive with Baskin-Robbins and Food 4 Less.
Stacey’s mother Maya passed away in 2008. She has also lost her brother Charles.
“Everybody here with my invite group, with exception of two friends from New York, knew my father and had a personal relationship with him,” Stacey said about the Pac-12 Hall of Honor ceremony. “I have done similar things for him a couple of times (including the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame and Pima County Sports Hall of Fame). Hopefully I’ll be used to it.
“I know this honor will be an emotional experience. Ceremonies like this allows younger people to know there is always someone before you to open the door and create these opportunities. Fred Snowden happened to be that person as far as college coaching for African-American coaches.”
The Fox’s induction into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor is long overdue. Aside from being the first African-American head basketball coach at a major university, he made Arizona a national program. Upon his hire at Arizona as a Michigan assistant in 1972, he established a recruiting base in the Midwest, far from the traditional recruiting grounds of the southwest Arizona was accustomed to under predecessor Bruce Larsen.
The late Arizona athletic director Dave Strack, who knew Snowden from their days at Michigan, lured the coach with the premise that “we have the opportunity to really build something really special here,” Stacey said.
Fred Snowden saw promise in Arizona’s program despite a humble and sometimes very difficult beginning in Tucson.
“The early years were not easy on a personal level,” Stacey said. “There was not a lot of acceptance and racial tolerance and so forth at that time. We lived under the constant threat of life with death threats and bomb threats all of the time.
“That was really difficult, but we persevered and got through it. My father knew that as a pioneer these are the types of things you have to endure. He got through it and created something really, really special in the Arizona basketball legacy.”
“After my dad got there, that first season they started to fill up Bear Down. Then we opened McKale Center and it was a packed house and it was magical. That really set the pace for Arizona basketball. McKale has been basically full and sold out ever since. It was a great legacy to be part of.”
Stacey Snowden, daughter of former Arizona coach Fred Snowden
Snowden coached the “Kiddie Korps” to unprecedented success at Arizona early in his tenure. Young, talented, prolific-scoring recruits such as Money, Elliott, Coniel Norman, Al Fleming and Jim Rappis helped fill McKale Center after it opened in 1973.
“I remember when we first got there we were still playing at Bear Down Gym,” Stacey said. “They couldn’t fill Bear Down Gym when we first got there. I remember my dad being kind of, ‘Wow, what did I get myself into here, going from Michigan to this little Bear Down Gym?’
“But McKale was on the horizon, about to be opened. After my dad got there, that first season they started to fill up Bear Down. Then we opened McKale Center and it was a packed house and it was magical. That really set the pace for Arizona basketball. McKale has been basically full and sold out ever since. It was a great legacy to be part of.”
A concern of Stacey’s is Arizona’s younger generation of fans — those born since the 1980’s — will not appreciate what her father built in Tucson.
The Wildcats went as far as the Elite Eight in his fourth season in Tucson in 1975-76. Players from all over were coming to Tucson to be part of his fast-breaking style of basketball.
Lute Olson was impressed by Snowden’s popularity when his Iowa team faced Arizona at a Hawaii holiday tournament in 1975. He noticed Snowden interviewed as part of a TV show following the game.
“I realized then that Freddie had the makings of a big-time program,” Olson told me when I covered the Wildcats for The Arizona Daily Star in the late 1990s.
“I have heard Lute say that before,” Stacey said. “If there wasn’t a Freddie Snowden and what he built here, Lute was not so sure he would have taken a look at Arizona. It’s part of the wonderful basketball legacy Arizona has become. It’s a basketball town. It truly is.”