“We never felt like we were one of Coach’s best teams, but we knew we had a chance because we had him in the huddle,” said Steve Myatt, an All-State forward on the ‘75 State Championship team. Myatt was joined by a talented group of players that included fellow All-State honorees Jim Birdwell, Wayne McKee and Craig Williams. Myatt remembered his team’s victory celebration in Gregory Gym: “We felt a lot of pride since it was Coach’s first championship…but it was relief too. We felt like we were supposed to win. The force of his program was so pervasive that winning it all was always on our minds.”
For all of Cleveland’s and Dimmitt’s glorious wins, there have been a few unforgettable and heartbreaking losses. Dimmitt suffered not one, but two one-point losses in state title games under Cleveland in 1978 and 1986 respectively. Both teams relinquished late, second half leads to add to the misery. But it was a devastating loss to Perryton, in a 1981 Bi-District Championship Game that spurred Dimmitt to its greatest run in school history. Cleveland quickly helped his team erase the pain of the second half collapse in Pampa High’s historic McNeely Fieldhouse to lead the Bobcats to back- to- back State Championships in both 1982 and 1983. The 1983 team finished the season undefeated at 38-0.
Aside from Kenneth Cleveland’s coaching skills, Dimmitt’s success was also due in large part to the friendly confines of their home court. Oddly, Dimmitt’s “home court” was a modest gym built in the mid-fifties as part of a new middle school. The gym was located half way across town from a relatively new high school. Ironically, the Bobcats never actually practiced in their “home court” gym. Instead, Cleveland’s teams learned that famed full court press and fast breaking style in the convenience of their high school gym. Not an ideal situation for sure, but “we never thought twice about it,” said longtime Cleveland assistant Alan Steinle. On Tuesday’s and Friday’s, the Bobcats traded a little familiarity for the ferocity of their home court.
That modest little gym attached to Dimmitt’s Middle School campus transformed into a mad house on game nights. The three o’clock school bell was the signal for fans to begin lining up on game days, especially when the likes of the Morton Indians came calling. “Walking past that line of people to get into the gym was the closest thing to celebrity I have ever known,” said Jerry Schaeffer, a standout on Dimmitt’s 1977 28-3 team.
Schaeffer played in front of some of Dimmitt’s biggest crowds. So big in fact, those games against rivals Friona and Morton had to be moved to the South Plains Coliseum in nearby Levelland. Dimmitt’s home court was simply not big enough to accommodate the number of fans who wanted to see games of such magnitude.
Those who were lucky enough to squeeze into that tiny little gym were treated to some of the best basketball the state had to offer. And those fans helped create one dandy of a home court advantage. Dimmitt’s Fire Marshall must have taken game nights off. Fans packed every aisle, stairwell and leaned on or sat under every guard rail to see a parade of all state players like that of Rocky Rawls, Jeff Bell and Mark Summers. When every space available in those concrete bleachers was taken, temporary folding chairs lined the court to make life tougher for opponents. Those seats were generally occupied, but rarely sat in, by what Dimmitt locals referred to as the Front Row Gang. The Front Row Gang was comprised of Coach Cleveland’s fiercely loyal former players. Every loose ball went the Bobcats’ way when the Front Row Gang was lurking on the sidelines.
Dimmitt’s basketball tradition became religion under Cleveland. And that tiny gym with the concrete bleachers was their place of devotion. “The gym, in many ways, was the soul of the town and found its highest calling on game nights,” said Jerry Schaeffer. The devotees who filled the gym to the rafters were there for one thing…to make sure the Bobcats didn’t lose. “Whenever we needed it most, the crowd would respond with that pulsating, unifying chant of Go, Cats, Go! Go, Cats, Go! Go Cats Go!” Schaeffer recalled. Opponents found winning games in that building were as hard as the concrete bleachers lording over the court.
“What that gym lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in atmosphere. That’s what I think sets it apart from any other gym I have ever been in,” said former player and longtime coach Steve Myatt. “I played many games in there when you could not hear the whistle blow. The referees would have to waive their arms and chase us down to get the play stopped,” he recalled.
The frenzied atmosphere created a sense of doom for opposing players and coaches. “I hated going over there,” remarked Leslie Broadhurst. His Randal Raiders visited that gym as alleged favorites as a 4A and 5A opponent, but usually came away defeated. “The only positive that came away from that game was that we knew we were going to learn a lot playing against Coach Cleveland’s teams. But those fans who lined the court, those tiny locker rooms and those great Dimmitt teams made most games pretty miserable. When we finally beat them, I felt like we conquered the world.”
The Randall Raiders were one of many teams who lived a futile existence in what is now known as Kenneth Cleveland Gymnasium. Even the teams who thought they had Dimmitt’s number were reminded of how powerful the Dimmitt program became under Cleveland.
The Friona Chieftans won the district title over Dimmitt in 1974 and made it all the way to the state championship game before losing to Bowie. Dimmitt’s record that year was 26-5. The two foes were again locked in a battle for district supremacy the following year. To settle the District Championship, the two teams met at the Texan Dome on the South Plains College campus in Levelland. The sold-out crowd of over 3,000 people saw an epic, three overtime thriller that the Bobcats won, propelling them to their first state championship under Cleveland. From that game in 1975 to 1998, Dimmitt beat Friona 46 times in a row! Half of those games were played in Dimmitt.
The 1975 state champion team of Coach Cleveland’s did not return a single starter from the previous year. That team represented one of Cleveland best traits as a coach. “I think one of many things that made Coach so good was his ability to get the most out of his players. They competed hard every play and every game,” said Tony Mauldin of Morton.
Aside from his on court excellence, Cleveland was instrumental in the formation of the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches and one of its earliest Presidents. He is a member of Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame, the THSCA Hall of Fame and the TABC Hall of Fame. A list of Cleveland’s superlatives could go on forever.
Dimmitt’s designation as a basketball school was rooted in the early success of the girls’ program and cemented with the long-standing excellence of Kenneth Cleveland. His passing was tragic, but many people still speak in reverence of his coaching and character. “He’s one of my all-time favorites,” proclaims Charles Breithaupt, UIL longtime Executive Director. No doubt others feel the same.
Kenneth Cleveland knew exactly what he wanted, which was a chance to coach at a genuine basketball school. Having just finished his third season as head coach of the Sonora Broncos, Cleveland learned of an opening that fit that description. Although he had been handpicked by Sonora’s superintendent to give life to its basketball program, Cleveland could not ignore this chance to move. The eager young coach recounted his enthusiasm for the opportunity. “I didn’t walk, I ran to the nearest phone when I heard the Dimmitt job was open.” And who could blame him? By 1961, the year of Cleveland’s arrival, Dimmitt had firmly established itself as a basketball powerhouse in both boys’ and girls’ basketball.
The girls’ program was actually the first team to put Dimmitt on the basketball map. By 1961, the Bobbies had already captured six state titles and laid claim to producing one of the most dominant players of the time in Lometa Odom. Odom, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, not only led the Boobies into the record book, but she later went on to star for the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens and helped produce a remarkable 131 game winning streak during her illustrious collegiate career.
Five of those Dimmitt Girls Championships were under the guidance of legendary coach John Blaine. Blain’s Bobbies even captured a mythical “National Championship” with a win over Iowa’s state champion in 1952. That same year, Blaine did what no other Texas high school coach had done before: he led both boys’ and girls’ teams to state titles and undefeated seasons for both squads. The girls captured the High School Girls Basketball League of Texas title in Waco, while the boys won the UIL Championship in Austin.
A decade later, Dimmitt completed a two-year run as UIL Conference AA Runners-up. The John Ethridge led Bobcats fell to Linden - Kildare in 1960 and to powerful Buna in 1961. Cleveland watched those near-miss Dimmitt Bobcats with admiration from the floor of Gregory Gym. He returned to Sonora and told his wife about the fabulous Dimmitt team he had seen. He and his wife Libby had been inseparable since the fifth grade, but during the tournament, she was at home with her 2-year-old daughter, Beth. Cleveland watched admiringly as a tough and talented Dimmitt team came excruciatingly close to back-to-back state titles. Cleveland gushed to his wife Libby about the support the Bobcats had in Austin. The large and rowdy fan base put their farming responsibilities on hold to travel over 450 miles to Austin from the Panhandle to back their team.
Now, over fifty years later, thanks to coaches like John Blaine, John Ethridge and Kenneth Cleveland, few programs can match the historical significance and success created by the Bobbies and Bobcats. The two programs have combined to win a dozen state championships, produced a whopping 61 All State Players and seen three former players and coaches be inducted into various halls of fame, both around the state and nation. Dimmitt’s mark on the basketball world goes far beyond state titles.
Thanks to the athletic exploits of one of their earliest stars, Dimmitt High School will forever be recognized as the school that helped break down racial barriers for athletes. Junior Coffey is the greatest athlete in the history of Dimmitt High School and arguably in all of Texas. Coffey excelled in football and basketball, earning all-state honors in both. He guided Dimmitt to consecutive appearances in the Conference AA UIL State Basketball Finals. As a senior, he was one of the most heavily recruited football players in the nation, finally choosing to venture far from his native Texas home to become a Washington Husky. At Washington, Coffey led his team to a 1964 appearance in the Rose Bowl against Illinois. He finished his collegiate career among the school’s all-time leading rushers. Drafted by the Green Bay Packers, Coffey was a member of Vince Lombardi’s last NFL Championship team. He was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the 1966 Expansion Draft and finished his 6-year NFL career as a New York Giant before his retirement in 1972.
Coffey did all of this as an African-American athlete in an era when racial tensions were high and segregation was the norm. He moved to Dimmitt with his Aunt and Uncle and had only attended all black schools prior to his move. The move proved liberating for Coffey. Dimmitt was one of the state’s first communities to embrace the decision handed down by the Supreme Court’s hearing of the landmark 1955 case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Kent Hance, former Chancellor to Texas Tech University was another one of Coffey’s allies and teammates on those two state runner-up teams. Hance unwittingly began his career in politics as Coffey’s unofficial spokesman in that era of segregation. Hance was responsible for finding restaurants and hotels that would accept Coffey as a patron. Young Kent would exit the bus and enter the restaurant ahead of the team and pave the path of for Coffey’s admittance into the restaurant. And if the restaurant was not willing to serve Coffey, the bus would move on to find a more accommodating eatery.
Coffey’s resolve and low-key approach ensured his success. So much so that he is recognized as the first black athlete to play for an all white team in the Texas Panhandle. He was the first black athlete to be named to the All State Basketball team.
“We didn’t know, and neither did Junior, of the history that he made back then,” recalled Gene Bradley, one of Coffey’s Bobcat teammates.
Despite the excellence Dimmitt achieved before 1961, the legend of Dimmitt basketball will forever be linked to one man. And that man is Kenneth Cleveland. Revered by his players, respected by his peers and missed by all who still morn his tragic passing, Cleveland created a standard for all genuine basketball schools to follow. Thanks to Cleveland, Dimmitt will be forever cemented as one of the state’s all-time basketball powers. Cleveland’s record is astonishing. In his 32 years as head coach, the Bobcats won 27 District Championships, 10 Regional Titles and 3 State Championships. At 56, Cleveland had already won 887 games and saw 35 players named All State, including his son Kevin, a two-time honoree. Cleveland’s teams won 20 or more games in 29 out of 32 seasons in Dimmitt.
One of Cleveland’s most memorable teams was the 1967 squad, nicknamed the “Prairie Bandits” by Castro County News scribe Don Nelson. Although they came up short in the State Final game against Sour Lake Hardin – Jefferson, this team personified the fight and tenacity that was perpetually represented in every team Kenneth Cleveland coached at Dimmitt and it started with their suffocating full court press.
Guards Kent Lindsay, Tommy Stafford and Ronnie Kenmore provided the cunning and quickness to befuddle and dominate opposing ballhandlers. And John Howe and Bill Glidewell provided the muscle and might to secure loose balls and rebounds.
The Prairie Bandit press wreaked havoc all over the Panhandle and pressed their way into the UIL State Tournament. Dimmitt found themselves pitted against the number one team in the state, the San Antonio Cole Cougars. Dimmitt entered the contest as a decided underdog. Cole was the bigger, stronger and deeper team. And as the game drew near, fans in Gregory Gym sensed an easy Cole victory. “The fans were laughing at us as we took the floor for warm-ups,” recounted reserve guard Stan Byrnes. “In their minds, the game was already decided because we looked weak and frail compared to their bunch.”
The Bobcats lost the tip but that was all they lost in that Semi – Final contest. “Well John Howe was caught flat footed on the opening tip, but they got careless with the ball and Kent (Lindsay) stole it from their guard and passed ahead to Ronnie (Kenmore) and he fed Tommy (Stafford) for a lay – up and it was 2-0 before they knew what hit ‘em. We never looked back,” Byrnes recalled.
Every thing went right for Dimmitt in that Semi Final to produce what many felt was an upset. But the final score would perhaps tell a different story. Dimmitt built a 15-point lead well into the third quarter and wound up winning by 8. John Howe led all scorers with 32 points on the night. Dimmitt expended a lot of energy in that victory and the Bandits’ streak came to an end in the Finals. But the Legend of the Prairie Bandits was cemented forever.
After some near misses, Cleveland’s first title came in 1975. No one outside Dimmitt’s city limits saw it coming. Dimmitt was locked into a fierce regional rivalry with district foes and state contenders, Friona and Morton. The Bobcats returned no starters from the 1974 squad that finished second in district play…the worst a Cleveland team would ever finish, and far below the expectations of a program who believed it had to “win it all” to be considered successful.