Former high school coach leaves legacy of encouragement

Blake Alsup
The Detroit News
Elbert Richmond

Former high school coach Elbert Richmond Jr. was so influential, the students he mentored still reflect on his teachings even though he retired in 1993, family and friends say.

Mr. Richmond, a basketball coach at Mackenzie High School in Detroit for about 20 years, died Thursday, July 5, 2018, at 87. He died at the Ambassador Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Detroit after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four years ago and had been undergoing kidney dialysis..

A funeral was held at East Lake Baptist Church in Detroit, which he attended for 47 years, his family said.

Warren Booker, a basketball player at Mackenzie from 1970-73, was one of many former players who returned to Detroit for Mr. Richmond's funeral on Saturday. 

"It was like a big celebration," Booker said. "He touched so many lives; he mentored so many coaches."

Booker, who lives in New Orleans, stayed in touch with Mr. Richmond, calling him every Sunday for close to 41 years.

"He was like my father," Booker said. "We just enjoyed talking to each other. So wherever I was at, it didn’t matter. I always called on Sunday morning."

Mr. Richmond coached and taught at several Detroit high schools, including Cass Tech, Northwestern, Kettering  and Mackenzie. He coached basketball at Mackenzie from 1972-92, with stints coaching football and baseball.

Elbert Richmond

Bob Dozier had Mr. Richmond as a coach at Cass Tech. He went on to coach football alongside him at Mackenzie.

"He had a faith in our young people that is not present as much, you know, over the years now," Dozier said. "He was a great coach, great person. He did things to help people."

Keith Bennett met Mr. Richmond as a student at age 13. Mr. Richmond was his physical education teacher and coach, and Bennett went on to work for him as an assistant coach, which launched his career as a college basketball coach. He said Mr. Richmond was like a father to him.

“He quickly found out that I didn’t have a dad ...he took a special interest in me,” Bennett said. “I’ve known him now for 50 years and I only knew my mom for 55 ... so between those two people, they literally raised me.”

Bennett is now a director at Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit and runs a program called “Flip the Script,” which is a mentoring and job training program for ages 16-30. Mr. Richmond used to tell Bennett: “Don’t be afraid of failure. Be worried when you don’t try.” It's a message that has stuck with him.

“I am who I am today because of him,” Bennett said.

Mr. Richmond, a Lynch, Kentucky, native, was born on May 25, 1931, to Elbert Richmond Sr. and Johnnie B. Richmond. His parents moved to Detroit when he was about 15, moving from a coal mining town to an auto industry hub.

A love of sports started early. Mr. Richmond went to Eastern High School, where he played football, baseball and basketball. He graduated from Wayne State University in 1954 with a bachelor's degree in physical education and played football there as a running back. He went on to earn a master's degree in special education from the University of Michigan in 1962, his family said.

He was inducted into the Wayne State University Hall of Fame in 1986. He also was inducted into the hall of fame for the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan and Detroit Public School Basketball Coaches Association.

He and his wife Velva were married 53 years, she said. Velva remembers her husband as a constant competitor in backgammon, a game they played often, and a travel companion — visiting 13 countries including Spain, Italy and Ghana, often with their two daughters. Valerie Beal and Lesa Clark.

"He felt that we should experience different cultures," ValerieBeal said. "It kept us humble, and he wanted us to be humble people."

Beal said Mr. Richmond also taught her to be giving.

"It was nothing for him to reach into his pocket and give kids some money," she said. "He would reach out the window and give what we considered a homeless person a couple dollars."

She recalled a quote Mr. Richmond liked to recite part of a poem by Edgar A. Guest titled "Work" to his daughters and the young men he coached.

The part Mr. Richmond recited was "It's work that's wanted, it's work that wins. It's through work alone that success begins."

Other survivors include two grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren. 

He did his best to pass along that work ethic to the students he coached and mentored.

Mr. Richmond's son-in-law Robert Beal, a retired teacher and football coach from Ohio, said Mr. Richmond placed great emphasis on education for his students and children.

"It’s nice to receive awards, but the main thing is, the awards that we receive are living awards," Beal said. "So that is, in turn, helping young people reach their goal or develop a goal and become productive citizens to the world."