Coles, and his men, have one more day at Millett

Charlie Coles and his players got together one last time Thursday on the middle of the basketball court at Millett Hall.

Five minutes before the closing of the silver casket in which Coles lay wearing a gray suit with his trademark red turtleneck sweater, two dozen former Miami University players migrated from the crowd of nearly 800 who had gathered for the funeral service and huddled in front of the man who had changed their lives.

Soon they were joined by a few of Coles’ assistants during his 16 years as the RedHawks head coach. Some of his former teammates from his own playing days at Miami came up too as did some of the school’s other hoops legends, including another Hall of Famer, Springfield’s Randy Ayers.

Above the players, the overhead scoreboard with its jumbo video screens beamed a touching photo of Coles surrounded on this very same court by his four grandkids after a game in December of 2011, his final Miami season before retiring.

That was the theme of this “Home-going” service as they called it — hoops and family — and nobody summed Coles up better than Miami president David Hodge: “He was a man of deep character … and guy who was quite a character, too.”

That line struck a chord with Rob Mestas, a guard for Coles in the late 1990s, who last year — his first as a head coach himself — took over his alma matter Minneapolis Roosevelt.

“Charlie Coles is the most influential male I ever had in my life,” the 36-year-old Mestas said. “And yeah, he was a character. He’d be yelling at you so much that his dentures would fall out and then he’s shove ‘em back, crack a joke and you were laughing.

“I remember one game — on the very first week we cracked USA Today’s Top 25 — we went to Wisconsin-Green Bay. We went out and blew the game and after that I was sitting in the meeting room watching film with the team.

“I had a new gold chain on. I’d just gotten my Pell Grant and I went off and bought a gold chain with a bulldog on it.

“Well, Charlie sees it and stops the film and says, ‘What’s that gold chain? You’re either a gang member or a winner if you’re wearing that and I KNOW you ain’t either of them. Take that (crap) off.’ I remember I never wore the chain again.

“He could whip your butt and make it a life lesson at the same time. And today I draw on that when I coach my own team and in the way I raise my own kids and especially when I evaluate my own moral code.

“One way or another, I think of Charlie Coles every day.”

Coles died suddenly last Friday morning at his Oxford home. He was 71. He had had heart issues for years, but instead of a bad ticker, he’s known for having a good, good heart.

And that’s why former players showed up on short notice from all across the country for what ended up a being a three-hour memorial service, followed by a private burial at Oxford Cemetery and then a reception back at Millett.

Ira Newble — who now coaches the San Antonio Spurs D-League team, the Austin Toros — played professionally for 14 years, including 10 in the NBA, after leaving Coles. Ironically, as his career wound down at Miami, he said he had no idea he’d be a pro.

“When I first came here out of junior college it was a tough transition for me,” he said.” I had some conflicts with (head coach) Herb (Sendek) and Charlie was the assistant then and he made sure I got on the right path.

“When my career ended here, he sat me down and said, ‘I don’t know when or where, but you’re going to play professionally.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but he saw things in me — in all of us — that we didn’t see.”

Jermaine Henderson — who spent 18 years at Miami as a player and Coles’ assistant coach — agreed.

“Charlie taught me how to be a man,” he said during the service as his voice dissolved in tears.

As he gripped the podium and tried to compose himself, a voice came from the crowd: “Take your time, Brother.”

With a nod Henderson explained how he had been the product of a 15-year-old mother and 13-year-old dad. When he came to Miami out of Columbus’ Short North, he, too, had trouble adjusting and Coles took him under his wing.

“Now Charlie Coles was crazy, too,” he said to laughter. “He was a nut … every day and all day, but he was also majestic and powerful and kind. He was just a real man. And he taught all of us to be men.”

No one knows that better than Devin Davis, who showed up in Oxford in 1994 from inner-city Miami, Fla., looking like no other RedHawk.

“He saw this young kid from the ghetto with gold teeth and dreadlocks trying to make it here and I think it reminded him of his own experience,” said Davis. “He came here back in the day and struggled himself, so for us there was a connection. He made it easier for me here and helped make me who I am.”

Davis has played professionally all across the world for much of the past 16 years and now is about to open a business in Oxford.

“I’m going to miss Charlie,” he said quietly. “He and I just hit it off.”

As he smiled you noticed the gold teeth were gone. Across the way, Mestas wore a white dress shirt and red tie, but no gold necklace.

On this day, they only had golden memories of the coach who made them all men.

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