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STOVALL: Clayton State coach isn’t all about hoops

Gabriel Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

MORROW — Dennis Cox and his Clayton State team have grown to dislike Monday games.

He stopped short of saying that his undefeated and top-ranked Lakers — 32-0 and having won its last seven games in postseason play by an average margin of victory of 24 points -- had peaked.

“If you would’ve asked me that Saturday (after Clayton State’s win over USC-Aiken) I’d have said yes,” Cox said during Monday’s postgame press conference following his team’s Southeast Regional championship win over No. 8 Limestone.

Cox said his team did not play as well as he hoped they did, for whatever reason.

And then he began to try and explain those reasons. So immediately, my reporter instincts went up, and I flipped to the next blank page in my notebook, prepared to jot down some coachspeak.

You know, the normal coach jargon: We didn’t play well. We were looking ahead to the next opponent. We didn’t practice well the day before.

Actually, that last one was pretty close to the real reason Cox gave for his team’s sluggishness. Except that it wasn’t that the Lakers didn’t practice well on Sunday.

They didn’t practice at all.

The reason why is what raised eyebrows in the Clayton State media room.

“I hope I can say this,” said Cox, carefully prefacing his comments.

He paused. Then he began again.

“I’ve made some changes in my life over the last year, regarding my faith and putting my trust in God and my Lord and Savior,” he said. “And we just decided as a team that we wouldn’t practice on Sundays. That Sundays would be a day of worship for our team.”

Wow.

I’ve known some coaches who follow such a practice for religious reasons. Sometimes, even if they themselves don’t practice a religion or system of faith, they will scale back practices and team activities out of respect for the other coaches and team members that do.

But Cox is the first coach I’d personally covered — not to say there aren’t others — who seemed so comfortable, so open with how his faith had positively affected, no, changed his life.

It was almost as if a floodgate opened once he made that initial statement. Cox suddenly made the shift from thoughtful coach to gregarious family man. He began shouting out his loved ones in front of the camera that streamed the press conference anywhere where there was Internet access.

He said hello to his fairly new wife — whom he said he met at church. He shouted out his children and grandkids.

He celebrated other family members, friends and Clayton State fans who had already pre-ordered plane tickets and hotel reservations before the Southeast Regional title game had been played, in anticipation of the school’s Elite Eight appearance in San Antonio starting Tuesday.

Then he stretched out his arms toward seniors Kayla Mobley and Shay Jackson who flanked him at the press conference table, refering to them and the rest of the Lady Lakers as “family.”

Forget about whether or not you share Cox’s Christian faith. It was refreshing to see a coach who openly embraced the fact that there were more things important in life than championships, trophies and banners.

Especially when dealing with the molding of young people.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our favorite collegiate athletes are still kids in a sense. Developing, yet undeveloped minds. They’re on the brink of adulthood but still needing guidance and direction that transcends learning how to execute a zone defense or a box-and-one.

Most of the seniors on this team will face the prospect of not playing the game of basketball at this competitive level again. They’ll need something else to fall back on. Something other than the game of hoops to hold them up when they face a sometimes cruel world that won’t care much about how many points they averaged or how many championship rings they have.

Some may not like it, but I can’t see how. Kudos to Cox, not just for the changes made in his own life, but for the seeds of change he’s planting in his players — not by force, of course. But just by his mere presence.

Thank you, Coach Cox for exposing these young ladies to things that can feed them in ways that basketball cannot. Cox said this year his aim was to enjoy the journey toward another possible championship more than he did the first time.

I can’t help but think that his newfound faith is helping him accomplish that goal.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. Contact him at gstovall@news-daily.com. On Twitter? Follow him @GabrielStovall1