Earlier this month, Hubert Davis replaced Roy Williams as the head coach for UNC-Chapel Hill’s men’s basketball team, becoming the program’s first Black head coach and fourth overall in any program at the school.
But it was another Hubert — Hubert West Jr. — who made history as the first Black head coach at UNC, for the school’s track and field program in 1981-83. The next Black head coach at UNC wasn’t named until 2011.
Today, West, 70, is a teacher at Chatham County Schools, but track and field is still “a very prominent part” of his life. Hearing about Davis’ historic hiring brought all his UNC memories back — where he was not only the first head coach of his race, but also the first Black student to receive a track scholarship when he attended in the early 1970s.
“Yeah, it’s very exciting,” West said, “because it brings back memories of the groundbreaking in being the first African American to sign a track scholarship and then the first African American coach at UNC. … Regardless of what goes on, that first is still behind your name.”
West started teaching in Chatham after working multiple years as the athletic director and physical education teacher at Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill. His wife, Beverly — they’ve been married for 41 years — started substituting first and then encouraged him to apply. A little over a decade ago, West became a teaching assistant at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, where colleagues know him for his kindness and dedication to his students. Of course, many also know him for his track and field laurels, though it’s not necessarily something he brags about.
“The thing I appreciate about Mr. West is his humility,” said John McCann, CCS public relations coordinator. “Here’s this pioneering guy who didn’t come running after me to brag about his place in UNC’s coaching history. That’s admirable.
“We’re dealing with two humble Huberts,” he added.
West coached at UNC from 1973 to 1988, starting and ending as an assistant track coach for the track and field program.
It all started with his coach at Davie High School, in Mocksville, asking him if he’d ever thought about running track during his junior year. At the time in the late 1960s, his school system was recently fully integrated, which meant he could play sports at Davie. After basketball season was over, the new track coach approached him about running — which led to him being a part of the winning conference, regional and state team his senior year. He was recruited by various college and university track programs.
At one track meet his senior year — it was a Friday, West still remembers — one of his guidance counselors struck up a conversation with a UNC alumnus in the stands.
“As I walked up through the stands, he said, ‘Hubert, I hear you’re interested in Carolina,’” West said. “I said, ‘Yes, I like the school,’ And then he said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’”
Not long after, West got a call from the late Coach Joe Hilton, who led the program from 1963-81. Four or five weeks later, West signed a scholarship with UNC. Less than two years after his high school coach first asked him to join the track team, West made history as the first African American athlete to sign a track scholarship.
“It all goes back to that, because I never thought about running track and field and never had opportunity,” West said, “But then it came to pass, and then of course the rest is history.”
During his time at UNC, West was all-conference nine times and was the Atlantic Coast Conference outdoors long-jump champion. In the spring of 1972, West would begin to pave the way toward another feat, though he didn’t know it at the time. It was his junior year, and West remembers performing poorly at a meet at N.C. State University. Afterwards, Coach Hilton asked West to ride back with him.
“I thought I was getting ready to get reamed out for a poor performance,” West said, “so I was sitting in the car holding my breath.”
Instead, Hilton asked him to be an assistant coach when he graduated the following year. West became a full-time assistant in April of 1974, another first at UNC. And soon after Hilton retired in 1981, West became the head coach, which meant, West said, that he was “the first African American head coach at Carolina, as well as the Atlantic Coast Conference at that particular point in time.”
In 2011, Everett Withers became the second Black head coach when he served as the interim football head coach after Butch Davis was fired. The third Black head coach, and second full-time, was Harlis Meaders, who was the track and field coach from 2012-19. The fourth coach, of course, is the recently named Davis.
Today, as a teaching assistant with the EC department at Pollard, West still keeps up with collegiate track and field — a topic he talks about at length with Principal Tristen Perlberg, who ran at Central Michigan University. He offers coaching advice where he can, looks for schedules and follows track results.
“I do keep up with it very consistently,” West said, “because track and field allowed me the opportunity to go all over this country to experience some experiences that probably without track and field I may not have had the opportunity to do.”
West said these opportunities extended to his sons, Brenton and Aaron, while they were growing up, even if they ultimately opted for soccer athletic careers over track ones.
At Pollard, an article written about West is framed and displayed in the school’s trophy case, titled, “The Anonymous Pioneer.” Perlberg said West is celebrated every year during Black History Month at school, so he’s known by most school members as the first Black coach in the ACC.
“I’ve always thought the world of Coach West,” Perlberg said. “No matter what it is that he’s done, he’s always done it with class and dignity. And he’s always put kids first — that’s something that definitely sticks out to me about Coach.”
With all his firsts, and athletic and academic feats — he was inducted into the Davie County High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006 and named Chatham County Schools Instructional Assistant of the Year three times — West doesn’t jump to brag about his accomplishments, though he’s happy to share should someone ask.
All these years after first coaching, he’s focused on the same thing: helping students recognize their potential and achieve their goals. He wants to be to others who his coaches were for him all those years ago.
“That is one of the main things that I thoroughly enjoy now,” he said. “With this COVID it hasn’t been as easy, but still being able to give back to the young people, and try to let them see that there is a higher achieving goal that they can set their sights on.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.