Kinesiology professor and long-ago basketball coach John Payton would be the first to tell you that he doesn’t fit the bill for the Texas Basketball Hall of Fame.
He won’t hesitate to tell you that some other coaches may be more worthy than he is. And for that matter, he would tell you that football, not basketball, has been and always will be his first love.
But Payton did coach basketball for eight seasons at the high school level. He won district titles, state championships and the utmost respect from the Texas Hall of Fame selection committee.
And perhaps the committee looked past the years and numbers he didn’t put in for basketball and saw a man who was worthy for not just a Hall of Fame spot for that game but a man who deserves to be recognized in a Hall of Fame far greater – perhaps a Hall of Fame for life.
His coaching days began at Scott High School in Woodville in 1956, where he reigned as the head coach of both basketball and football. In his two seasons there, he finished with a 15-5 football record; and in basketball he led Woodville to a 77-7 record and won a pair of Class 2A state championships.
After taking a job in Beaumont with Dunbar Junior High in 1968, Payton then moved to Charlton-Pollard High School, where he once again achieved success as a head basketball coach.
In both the 1962 and 1964 seasons he and his team were crowned district champs. In ’62 Charlton-Pollard lost in the state championship game, but in ’64 Payton won his third and final state championship.
He coached one more season of basketball before stepping down from his head coaching position. Payton, however stayed with Charlton-Pollard for another six seasons as head track coach and assistant football coach. Payton said that looking back on his decision to get out of basketball would be easy to regret. However, he does not regret his decision.
“Knowing now,” he said, “that I would never get my chance to be a head football coach again and knowing the lack of balance in how much success black coaches have had in basketball over the lack there has been with black coaches in football, it would be easy for me to look back and say that I should have stayed in basketball.
“The opportunity hasn’t been there for black coaches in football.
“But no – if I had to go back and change anything I probably wouldn’t because I wouldn’t have known these things, and I may have not made it here (at Lamar).”
Payton said that football was his best sports during his playing days, and that was one of his reasons for opting to coach football over basketball.
“I opted out of basketball because I had kind of gotten tired of it. And in the old days when schools were still segregated, we had one day off for the Christmas holiday. My wife and I felt like I needed to spend more time at home; so when I was offered the track job, it was just what I needed.”
In 1970, before getting a job at Lamar in the fall working with running backs, Payton won a UIL Region III championship in track with Charlton-Pollard, which just adds to his list of accomplishments and stresses his abilities to work with students.
“I came to Lamar with the plan that I would stay three years as the assistant backfield coach and assistant track coach, then return to Charlton-Pollard as the head football coach.”
He said that he hesitated to take the Lamar job because he worried that his promise of being the successor to Charlton-Pollard’s then-current football coach might have gone to someone else if he were not there to claim it.
“I was told that taking the position at Lamar would not affect my getting the football job once the current head coach retired, and we felt like taking the college coaching job would only enhance my resume.”
Payton also said that he was aware of the times and knew the school systems were getting ready to integrate. Those were also concerns of his closest friends and family members.
“I went to all-black grade schools,” Payton said. “Woodville, Charlton-Pollard were both all black, and I went to an all-black college.
“I had no integration experience; but since I knew they were getting ready to integrate the schools, I wanted to get ahead of the game.
“Most people told me not to take the job – they knew about Lamar, the racial issues prior to those years.”
Payton said that Lamar was not integrated but they were integrating, and they were still having trouble getting African-Americans to enroll for classes. In his time of hiring, Lamar was primarily an all-white school, he said.
In fact, Payton was the first minority ever hired by the school, he said.
“Even though I had no experiences with the other race, I knew times were changing. And I felt like the kids were athletes and we’re all playing the same game.
“That’s what it was to me, just a game. Football is football, whether you’re black or white, and that goes with any sport.”
Payton never went back to Charlton-Pollard to coach football. The school joined with two others to make Beaumont Central before the job opened up for him.
Then in 1982, he put down his coaching whistle, ending his career with Lamar’s football program. However, it wasn’t long after that he picked up his officiating whistle and started his second chapter with Texas basketball.
“When I was first told that I was going to get the Hall of Fame, I kind of blew it off – I didn’t really think that I had spent enough time in the game to receive such an honor.
“Usually basketball coaches have to pay the price and stay at this thing for a long time. I haven’t been in basketball for a while n ow, so it was hard for me to see myself as someone who deserved this.”
But he said that between his success with coaching basketball and the years he spent officiating it, he felt as if he was getting in for both services rather than strictly for coaching.
After a heart attack in 2000, Payton said his doctor and wife encouraged him to give up officiating basketball, but officiating football games is something he does to this very day.
Payton said he always followed his heart and his hear always led him to coaching, teaching or officiating kids. That is what he did it for — the kids. He said that he hopes that after all his years in teaching sports that he has taught more than how to play.
He hopes through the sports that he has taught something about life.