“Greene” Means Basketball In Michigan

Five days a week, Lofton Greene makes the trip. Last year, the destination was Robichaud High School in Dearborn Heights where he worked as a varsity assistant coach. This year, the journey was to Roosevelt High in Wyandotte where he assisted with the f reshmen squad. At 78, Michigan's leader in all-time varsity coaching victories still gets to teach kids about his passion - basketball. For that, he is grateful.

In the annals of the schoolboy game, Greene is legendary. His varsity squads posted an incredible 710 victories, 12 MHSAA championships and 20 regional titles in his 40 years at the helm at River Rouge. The Panthers were defeated but 200 times - an aver age of five times a season. In total, he has posted 739 wins and 231 defeats in the varsity ranks. Thanks to World War II, 42 of those years were in Michigan.

Born in 1919, Lofton was the sixth of seven children born to Jessie Ruth Thomas and William Henry Greene. One of six boys, he was raised on a farm near Barlow, Kentucky. In 1928, he moved with his mother and his brothers to Jackson, Michigan.

“My sister was the first born, and she was in nurses training in Owensbrough when we moved.” recalled Greene. “We hadn't planned to move permanently. My dad stayed behind to work the family farm. The plan was for my mother to move with my older brother s to Jackson so they could get jobs in the factories. My brothers would earn money so the family could buy some new farm equipment.”

The move was great for young Lofton. “I was nine years old going into the fifth grade. It was fun for me. I had other kids to play with. On the farm, it was quite a distance between us and our neighbors.”

The move wasn't so great in the eyes of one of Greene's brothers. Alton had just finished his junior year of high school and wanted to remain for his final year. He stayed in Kentucky with his father and worked the farm.

“We ended up staying in Jackson,” said Greene, laughing. “Once my brothers got some money in their pockets, well...”

Greene's father joined the family in Jackson a short while later.

“Some friends who lived adjacent to us in Kentucky, had moved to the south side of Jackson. To make my dad happy (about the move), we had a large garden there, and (the two of us) grew and sold vegetables and potatoes.”

Greene graduated from Jackson High School in June of 1936. A starter on the Viking basketball team, he had honed his skills under coach Howard Chanter in the old 5-A league.

“Our coach contracted pneumonia near the end of the season, and died just before the tournaments,” recalled Greene. “Our manager handled the team while he was in hospital. A guy from the old vocational school in Jackson coached us in the state tournaments. We beat Monroe then lost to Ann Arbor, 22-20. I got hot and had 10 of our 20 points.”

Following graduation, Greene returned to Kentucky, thanks to the efforts of his brother.

“After high school, Alton attended Western Kentucky,” commented Greene, “and he suggested that the coach, Mr. E.A. Diddle, get ahold of me. I got a letter asking me to come down.”

Lofton headed to Kentucky and enrolled at Western. He joined the basketball and baseball squads.

These were the days of the freshmen rule, and, after a year, Greene moved to the varsity. The basketball team did very well during these years, and in 1940 the squad was invited to the second-ever NCAA basketball tournament.

“It was my senior year. The eastern playoffs were at Butler in Indianapolis. We lost to Duquesne (30-29) in the opening round. Indiana won the eastern division, and then the title (defeating Kansas 60-42).”

Majoring in physical education with minors in social studies and science, Greene graduated in June of 1940, and returned to Jackson to work for the summer. There weren't many openings for teachers in Michigan at the time. He had an offer from Center High School in Kentucky to coach and teach for $90 a month, but was hoping to land a position that paid a little more. Greene considered rejecting the job, but his brother interceded. Alton reminded him that he had to start somewhere. Lofton accepted the offer and headed south.

“There were only three teachers in the whole school. and two of them were named Green,” he chuckled, reminiscing. “The principal was called Mr. Green No. 1 (no “E”). I was Mr. Greene No. 2. We taught just about everything. I taught the eighth and nin th grade subjects - Biology, Math, English.

“We played basketball in an old ramshackled barn. The floor was like a wood floor in a house - kind of wavy. You had to be a good dribbler to get down the court. We had two wood stoves in the gym. Some of the fans would keep the fire going in the sto ves while watching the game.

“We had a pretty good team - played a lot of ball games. We won 11 and lost 14. Of course we had no bench strength. I remember one kid left because he had to help his family out on the farm.”

With the onset of World War II, the coaching ranks across the nation were depleted. It opened the door for Greene's return to Michigan.

He landed in New Buffalo in the fall of 1941 as varsity cage coach of the Bisons. Greene led the team to a 5-12 mark in his first year, then a 12-5 record one year later. He moved to River Rouge for the 1943-44 school year and stayed for 41 years.

He found a program that was pretty dilapidated. The Panthers had advanced to the semifinal round of the state tourney in 1939.

“It was just a matter of getting things organized,” said Greene. “We had some good athletes.”

He nurtured the entire program, coaching the sport at junior high, freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels for a time.

Greene cites his college mentor as the greatest influence on his coaching style. “Diddle was a football teammate of “Bo” McMillin at Centre College. He was my biggest influence. But I was also influenced by two others in particular. I went to two or three clinics where Bud Foster, the basketball coach at Wisconsin spoke. I was really impressed. And, of course, John Wooden from UCLA - the manner in which he carried himself - I was deeply impressed with him.”

Despite the fact that Greene missed a year and a half while in the Army, his squads matured quickly. Rouge advanced to the final round of the Class B tourney in the spring of 1949. Al Driscoll scored a finals record 24 points, but it was not enough as the Panthers were defeated by Floyd Eby's Coldwater squad, 49-42. The media suggested an eight of 25 performance at the free throw line was the reason for the loss. Greene, however, focused on something other than the poor performance at the charity str ipe. Eby's team defense left an indelible mark on Greene, and for years to come, Rouge basketball.

“He sold me on the man-to-man press,” declared the coach who would become known across the midwest as one of the finest teachers of the defense. “We installed one starting that next year. I figured that if they could do it, we could.”

The Panthers returned to the title match in 1951 with an undefeated squad. But again disappointment came as Rouge dropped the contest to St. Joseph, 39-33.

“We lost that one on one of the most controversial calls in the tournaments up to that point,” stated Greene, still doubting the referee. “Our guy got called for a charge near the end of the game.”

In 1954, the Panthers returned to East Lansing with a team christened the “Mighty Mites” Averaging five feet, nine and one-half inches, Rouge tripped up Ludington and their six-foot-six inch all-state center Pete Tillotson in the semifinals on Friday, 5 4-52. On Saturday, they pressed, pestered and ran past a big Holland Christian team, 56-53. Greene and the Panthers had their first title. Jack Belken and Blanche Martin led the victors in the contest.

They repeated in 1955, and grabbed another title in 1959. Back in the suburbs of Detroit, they were the toast of the town.

“The Rouge people really supported us,” said Greene. “The Department of Public Works carried around big signs on their trucks with various sayings, like ‘On to Lansing.’ Service clubs would help us, donating money to rent buses (so the fans could trave l to the final rounds of the tournament). It was quite a community effort. We would have 10 to 12 buses go up there for the games.”

The Panthers earned an unprecedented five consecutive Class B crowns from 1961 to 1965. Players like Kenny Wilburn, Frank Price and Willie Betts - the first player to appear on four consecutive MHSAA champions - led the team during those years.

“The pressure was something else,” recalled the soft-spoken coach. “Every one wanted to knock us off. Fans expected you to win. It wasn't an easy route. But we had some wonderful kids during those years. They came out to play. We emphasized, and they understood, you don't look ahead. You prepare for the game at hand.”

Rouge posted four consecutive titles from 1969-1972. The 1972 win over Muskegon Heights - the 12th crown for Greene's Panthers - was nothing short of a miracle. The title, in the words of Detroit writer Joe Falls had “become almost their divine right e ach March.”

Trailing the Tigers 64-57 with 58 seconds remaining on the clock at Jenison Fieldhouse, it appeared to be over. The Heights had lost to Rouge in the 1971 final. It was revenge time for the Tigers.

The comeback started innocently, with 45 seconds remaining. Ralph Perry’s easy lay-up cut the margin to five. Fouled on the play, Perry missed the free throw, but teammate Byron Wilson pounded home the rebound and the Panthers trailed by three. Still the game still seemed out of reach as the Heights controlled the ball. But an errant inbound pass kept the dream alive. Leighton Moulton sank a 22-foot jumper with 23 seconds remaining, and the score was 64-63. The Tigers were called for traveling on the change of possession and Rouge had its chance.

Moulton, the leading scorer in the contest, was again called upon. He drove toward the basket and was fouled before the shot.

“The clock read: 0:02. If Moulton missed the first, it would have been all over,” wrote Falls in the Detroit Free Press, capturing the scene in characteristic clarity. “All of it rested on his lean, lithe shoulders...and the delicate touch in his finger .

“He stepped to the line while the crowd quieted. The pressure was immense. Moulton looked up, let it go-and swish.

“Now utter bedlam. Moulton broke toward the center of the court, thrusting his fist into the air. He jumped and danced and was mobbed by his teammates...He'd tied it. Rouge could do no worse than go into overtime.”

“But now he had another chance-the chance to win it. He made the most of it by dropping in his second free throw...That's when the tears started coming out of Lofton Greene's eyes, if you can imagine that.”

Greene remained at the helm for 12 more years. His squads returned to the finals in 1976, losing to Flint Beecher. The Panthers scored trips to the quarterfinals in 1980 and 1981, losing both year to Ron Tarrant's Willow Run team. Following the 1983-8 4 season, Greene retired from duties at Rouge.

“The last year or two, the school got into financial trouble, and our junior high programs were shut down,” said the coach. “I thought maybe it was time to get out.”

Recruited by various colleges and universities over the years, Greene finally moved to the next level, accepting the head basketball position at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. He remained for three years, coaching “with no success.”

“We had no scholarships to offer,” uttered Greene. “There are no dorms, so the kids had to commute. Most of the good prospects (in the area) wanted to go away from home. We played in the Great Lakes Conference against schools like Saginaw Valley, Gran d Valley, Wayne, and Hillsdale. They were too strong for us. The situation was not conducive to winning.”

The coach sat out one year and found that he missed basketball.

“My wife said I should referee,” continued Greene. “I told her that I couldn't keep up with the kids, so she suggested that I coach again. I thought that coaching in the junior high would be fun. “

“I had moved to Dearborn Heights Robichaud,” said Tarrant, “and I was looking to get my staff together. I really didn't think about Lofton - he had retired. We had become friends over the years, but I guess I didn't think that he would be interested. He called one day, and asked how I was doing with coaches. I told him I had a couple spots to fill. He asked, ‘Well, what would you think of me.’ He said he was bored and looking for something to do. So he coached our freshmen for a number of years. Later, I asked if he would join me as an assistant on the varsity.”

“He's a basketball-aholic,” added Tarrant, who retired from coaching following the 1995-96 season. “Lofton really doesn't say much, but when he does, it makes complete sense.”

“I used to pick his brain all the time,” stated Monte Dennard, a former assistant to Tarrant, now handling the squad at Robichaud. “He's a walking encyclopedia. With a guy like that, you got to sit back and listen and watch.”

This year, Greene shopped around, and landed at Wyandotte Roosevelt.

“He had heard that I was looking for a ninth grade basketball coach,” explained Mason Grahl, athletic director at Roosevelt. “As a high school kid in Wyandotte, I used to go over and watch Rouge. I felt he could help my younger coaches. I'm tickled to have him coaching for us.”

Greene now shares a lifetime of basketball knowledge with kids that were toddlers when he was coaching at Rouge.

“I'm sure the kids didn't know about him, although some of their parents probably recall his days as a head coach. We talked to the kids and coaches and discussed his background. The kids like to have him around. He's low key. They're not in awe, but they do like to show off for him.”

At this year's regular season finale at River Rouge's Buck Weeber gym, school officials hoisted jersey number 12 to the rafters. The number is now officially retired - honoring the school's 12 MHSAA cage crowns and the legacy of Greene.

--Ron Pesch

Ron Pesch is the historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Story ideas and potential statistical records submissions are always welcome. Write to Pesch at 1447 Henry Street, Muskegon, MI 49441.