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Meet the man who put Arizona Basketball on the map

Fred Snowden broke color barrier as first Black head coach in major college basketball
Posted: 2:50 PM, Feb 27, 2023
Updated: 2023-02-27 16:50:12-05
Former Arizona Basketball Coach Fred Snowden

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It is a sometimes forgotten part of Arizona Basketball history. In ways, it is more important than any conference title of even the 1997 National Championship.

It is the hiring of Fred Snowden as Arizona head coach in the early 1970s.

"Often his name, his story, his place historically gets lost," shared Stacey Snowden. "That's why I'm trying to make sure that it's not lost. That everyone does know the Fred Snowden story."

She knows the Fred Snowden story very well. Stacey Snowden recently came back to Tucson to take part in a chat about her late father.

"You are only the first once," she explained. "There was only one who was the first, Black head coach at a major university. That's Fred Snowden and I'm proud of that. I want to make sure that everyone knows about his legacy."

That legacy really began in 1972. A 36-year old, who grew up in inner city Detroit and weathered the riots of 1967, who the University of Arizona hired.

Fred Snowden

He became the first Black head coach at a major NCAA Division I University.

"He knew he had to start right away, do two things -- win and sell the place out," recalled Bob Elliott.

Elliott was Fred Snowden's first star player at Arizona, helping the young coach win and sell out the brand new 14,000 seat McKale Center.

Fred Snowden coached Arizona Basketball from 1972 to 1982

"It unlocked the door for a lot of other coaches," said Elliott. "All of a sudden now, Washington State hires George Raveling away from Maryland, who was an assistant coach. Georgetown hires John Thompson, who was a high school coach in D.C. It opened the door for a lot of people because there's only one first and coach Snowden was the first. And it happened here, Tucson, Arizona. Not in a metropolitan area. Not in Detroit, New York, L.A. it happened here in Tucson, Arizona."

While Snowden was blazing a trail for future African American coaches, he was having to deal with overt racism.

Stacey Snowden was a young girl when her father took over the Arizona program in 1972. She says the first five years in Tucson were the toughest.

Fred and Stacey Snowden

"There were bomb threats, there were fire threats, there were kidnap threats," remembered Stacey Snowden. "It was just constant. My father, I think, he felt his role in all of this was to protect us all. That was a lot of pressure."

He kept much of that from his players, only sharing once with Elliott in his McKale Center office.

Fred Snowden with Bob Elliott

"He said go ahead, open up that bottom right drawer," Elliott said. "You're the Academic All-American, you can read, what's that say? Death threats. N-word I will shoot you with your white shoes on. He said now, here's the deal Bobby, you and I have to keep this to ourselves. When the time is right, I decide when I tell the team. And he never did tell the team."

Snowden persevered, and so did his teams in the mid-70s. The Wildcats won a Western Athletic Conference title in 1976, reaching the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament the same season.

"Coach Snowden, besides being the first Black head coach, was the first black head coach to win a NCAA tournament game," said Elliott. "But a lot of this gets lost because time, it's 50 years ago, and the fact that he didn't stay in the ranks. Coach moved on after 10 years and went into corporate America."

Snowden was also a success in the corporate world, before his untimely death in 1994 of a heart attack.

He was just 57.

A half century after taking over as Arizona head coach, Tucsonans are remembering him. You'll find a display at the newAfrican American Museum of Southern Arizona inside the U of A Student Union.

"It was so much fun working with Bev Elliott putting that together," Stacey Snowden said. "I was like what do you need, I'm sending it to you."

While Bob and Beverely Elliott have done a remarkable job remembering Snowden in their museum, Bob believes this is just the beginning in terms of honoring Fred Snowden within McKale.

"Never forget the past, because that's where we came from as a program," said Elliott.

This championship program began with the Absolutely Arizona story of Fred "The Fox" Snowden.

Both Stacey Snowden and Bob Elliott say they are thankful Arizona Head Coach Tommy Lloyd has made it a point to remember Arizona's illustrious past, which includes Fred Snowden, who laid the groundwork.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.