Xavier University/St. Augustine High School
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “KISS Principle”. You know—Keep It Simple Stupid?
It’s one of the guiding principles for one of the most successful prep basketball coaches in Louisiana.
However, Bernard Griffith has his own unique and typically Griffith-like interpretation. “The difficulty is determining who is stupid,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the players, sometimes it’s the coach. So you have to keep that in perspective.”
The Washington D. C. native who directed the Purple Knights of St Augustine High School for 18 seasons, winning one national championship (ESPN, 1995) and three Louisiana High School Athletic Association State titles (1992-95-99), didn’t spend much time in the stupid category. That’s why he is set for induction into the 2021 Class of the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame.
“Coach Griff,” as he is usually called by his players, graduated from Xavier University in 1971 after joining the Gold Rush as a transfer from Kansas State in 1967.
Griffith was an assistant coach at St. Aug when head coach Watson Jones directed the Purple Knights to a perfect 35-0 mark and the 1983 State Championship. In 1987 he became head coach at St. Aug and continued the school’s tradition of success, amassing a won-loss record of 491-127, a winning percentage of 79.4.
What separated Bernard Griffith teams from most was discipline.
“It‘s all about focusing on your task,” he said. “You don’t have to be the best at your task, but you have to be able to perform it. The more you practice at it, the better you get at it.
“A lot of things in life will not go your way, including officiating. You can’t raise hell about it. Step back, evaluate the situation and take on the challenge.”
The winner of 13 Catholic League titles, including 11 in a row, Coach Griff had some decorated players; like Torrey Andrews (Rice), Pointer Williams (Tulane), Hollis Price (Oklahoma) and Kerry Kittles (Villanova). But the “star system” was never part of the “Griffith Plan.”
“He always stressed the team concept. No one was bigger than the collective,” said Kittles, a 2014 inductee into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame. “He was demanding of everyone and was always big on working hard to achieve. If you didn’t, you suffered the consequences. You didn’t want to suffer Coach Griff’s consequences.”
There was another reason for the “no-star” system. The Coach wanted everyone to get into the act.
“People were amazed that we would do things like put in a whole new starting five and we didn’t lose a beat,” Griffith said. “If a kid knows he’s going to play he’s going to pay attention. And besides, sometimes his grandparents were in the stands and they’ve come to see him play.”
Bob Hopkins, his coach at Xavier, was a major influence emphasizing position-less basketball. Everyone should be able to play every position.
Paul Furlong, his coach at Mackin High School in Washington, D.C., taught him about the importance of speed and endurance – “They can’t push you around if they can’t catch you.”
His first coach was a swimming coach in the nation’s capital named Clarence Bell. Griffith says from age 6 to 16, Bell was coach of the local playground’s swimming team. He was a strict disciplinarian who insisted that every member of the team work toward water safety certification.
Coach Bell is the reason why Griffith is a certified water safety instructor and lifeguard. For 20 summers Griffith was aquatics director for the New Orleans Recreation Department.
Chris Jennings has a unique perspective of Bernard Griffith. In 1974-75 as a ninth grader at Jesuit High School, Jennings learned under Griffith, who was his World Cultures teacher. When Jennings later became the Jesuit basketball coach, he faced his former teacher from the opposing bench for 13 seasons. Jennings says both vantage points were eerily similar.
“Both the history teacher and the coach didn’t put up with any foolishness,” said Jennings. “He was prepared and he got his point across. His teams were tough and they were relentless.”
The man who took his team to the final four in nine of his 18 seasons says entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame is indeed a team effort, just like all the years of winning – with discipline.
“I didn’t take any shots or play any defense. Some might say all I did was ‘fuss and cuss,’” Griffith laughed. “But this is about all those guys who participated. The majority have gone on and got degrees and they are doing well. And a lot of them are still using the discipline and principles we tried to teach them.
“One star doesn’t shine brighter than the whole galaxy. I’m proud that there are a whole bunch of ‘twinklers’ out there.”
Griffith also coached at Sarah Towles Reed (three years); at Dillard University (head coach, 2011-15); and with the Dallas Mavericks (assistant coach, 2005-07). He also served as athletic director at Landry High, Sophie B. Wright High and at SUNO (2017-20). Prior to his team at St. Aug, Griffith was the interim head coach at Xavier University in 1976-77 and 1977-78.