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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Lenny Fant

Sport: Coach

Induction Year: 1998

Jack Clayton isn't in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, but he has to rank among the leaders in assists.

Clayton coached four Hall of Famers in two sports—at two schools.

Before he developed football standouts Charlie Tolar, Charlie Hennigan and Jackie Smith at Northwestern State , Clayton was Lenny Fant's first collegiate basketball coach at Centenary.

In fact, he is responsible for bringing Fant to Louisiana .

At the end of World War II, both men were stationed at the same Naval base waiting to return to civilian life. Clayton, who had already accepted the basketball coaching job at Centenary, saw Fant play in a basketball game at the base and offered him a scholarship.

Fant also was considering Miami of Ohio and the University of Colorado , and New York Giants manager Mel Ott tried to persuade him to sign a pro baseball contract. Clayton's persistence after Fant took a summer jog in a Birmingham steel mill eventually lured him to Shreveport .

As it turned out, Fant lasted longer at Centenary than Clayton and two other men who coached him. He was a four-year starter for the Gents under four different coaches—Clayton (who then left to go into football coaching), Ab Young, Glenn Smith and F. H. “Buss” Delaney. The popular Fant was team captain, and was elected class president in both of his last two years at the Shreveport school.

Fant scored 25 points in the second game of his collegiate career, Fant would ask, “Who was the greatest player in Centenary history?”

The answer usually was “Robert Parish”—and Fant would reply in mock disgust, “You guys don't know anything about basketball! Parish's number was retired at Centenary, but I'm talking about a player whose number was retired at every school in the country.'

Of course, the answer was Lenny Fant, who wore No. 7 during his college career. A few years later, numbers larger than five were eliminated because of the problems they caused in reporting fouls.

For Fant, it all started as a barefoot boy on his sharecropper father's farm near Hamilton , Ala. When his dad organized a baseball team, Lenny—who wasn't old enough to play—chased foul balls. “If we lost two balls,” he recalled later, “the game was over.”

His coaching career started with three years at Delhi High School . Then he went into college coaching—spending one year at Louisiana College and three at East Texas Baptist. Northeast Louisiana was his next (and last) assignment. His first three teams had losing sesons. Then the 1961-62 Indians won the Gulf States Conference championship and started a streak of 18 consecutive winning seasons before Fant stepped down. At that time, it was the sixth longest streak of winning season in the nation.

His 1978-79 team set school records for most victories in one season (23) and most consecutive victories (17). At a time when only 40 teams went to the NCAA tournament and 24 more participated in the National Invitation Tournament, the Indians received an NIT bid—losing to Virginia, 79-78, on a last-second shot.

Society changed during his coaching career, but Fant didn't. He started out coaching all-white teams and would up coaching predominantly black teams, but Fant didn't change a philosophy based on the Golden Rule.

“If you treat people like you want to be treated,” he said, “you'll be all right. It doesn't matter where your players come from, or what color they are. If you treat them right, they will try to do what you want done.”

He had a reputation for developing great outside shooters, many of them coming from Class B and Class C high schools. One sharpshooter who rewrote Northeast Louisiana scoring records was Glynn Saulters, a member of the United States team that won the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics.

The bottom line numbers in Fant's coaching career were 388 victories and 258 losses, for a winning percentage of .601, and he did it without a hint of a recruiting scandal.

He also did it without taking himself too seriously. When his wife, Jo, read John Wooden's book They Call Me Coach, she said, “I could change some names in this, and I'd think it was you.”

Fant told that story to Wooden during one of their regular visits at the NCAA Final Four, adding, “I think that's a great compliment.”

“Lenny,” replied Wooden, “I think that's a great compliment, too.”

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