RAYMOND – Stature is defined in the dictionary two ways – to describe a person’s natural height and the importance or reputation gained by ability or achievement.
Dr. Cleon McKnight might not strike anyone as a physical giant, but his record as tennis coach at Hinds for 22 years makes him the biggest figure in the sport’s history at the college. On April 2, his stature grew in another way, as the tennis courts at the Raymond Campus were named in his honor.
“To me, it’s one of the highest honors a coach can receive – to let one know you appreciate what you’ve done,” McKnight said. “My former players are ecstatic about it. It’s a big, big deal to have a facility on a college campus with your name on it.”
Current Hinds tennis coach Jacki Millet said during a brief program that it’s inspiring to coach a program that McKnight helped build into a perennial contender at what is now the Cleon McKnight Tennis Center. An additional court is planned next to the current complex to host team matches and tournaments, Millet said.
“He’s been an example to me,” Millet said during a dedication program to mark the honor. “How he influenced and inspired his players, I hope I can do the same. I’m thankful to follow him.”
Now 73, the Bogue Chitto native still spends his days around the sport he’s loved since his days teaching chemistry and coaching women’s basketball at the Utica Campus, then Utica Junior College. It was there, at 30, that he discovered the game.
“When I started coaching there in 1977, Utica had just two courts,” said McKnight, now an assistant tennis pro at Parham Bridges Tennis Center in north Jackson and a referee on the college and pro tennis circuit. “The president, J. Louis Stokes, had four more of them built.”
His success at Utica made for a seamless transition to Raymond in the 1984-85 school year, shortly after the colleges merged. The men’s and women’s teams grew into national powerhouses, combining for a record of 430-49 by the time he retired from both teaching and coaching in 2001. His men’s teams won nine state and eight regional championships to go along with five undefeated seasons. His women’s teams won eight state and regional titles each, plus four undefeated seasons.
“Tennis really teaches you how to make decisions by yourself, since it’s mainly an individual sport,” he said. “You have to make decisions on the court in a split-second. You have to coordinate what your coach says at the same time you make adjustments to the other person on the court.”
The resume’ of honors that come with such success is a who’s who list for college tennis. He is the first African-American to be inducted into both the National Junior College Athletics Association men’s and women’s halls of fame and to the Mississippi Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He has 50 Coach of the Year honors combined from those organizations, plus the Mississippi Association of Coaches. In 2009, he was inducted into the Hinds Community College Sports Hall of Fame.
“Four hundred and thirty wins is enough to get a tennis complex named after you, but there’s a whole lot more to it than that,” said Hinds County District 4 Supervisor Mike Morgan during the program. Morgan said he’s followed McKnight’s career through the years, from his days working in a tennis pro shop years ago. “A tennis coach is expected to go to a lot of clinics, officiate tournaments and organize events. That’s a labor of love that’s not reflected in the number of wins.”
His first passions, chemistry and teaching, garnered McKnight a fair share of academic awards as well during his 32 years overall as a Hinds district faculty member. Twice, he received the Academic Achievement Instructor Award, in 1992 and 1999, and was named Academic Instructor of the Year in 1992 by Phi Theta Kappa.
“I discovered some time ago that God has a role for all of us to play,” he said. “I discovered that mine was teaching. I feel so blessed to take an average or intermediate tennis player who didn’t make their high school team and mold them to make them successful and make them feel about themselves.
Hinds President Dr. Clyde Muse touted McKnight’s influence on the court and in the classroom.
“We’re so proud of his record as a coach and equally so as a teacher,” Muse said. “He’s one of the best chemistry teachers I’ve ever seen. He made a great contribution to his students.”
McKnight always made sure to present the complex subject of chemistry in a way students could relate.
“What drew me to chemistry was learning about matter, which comes down to the kind you see and the kind you don’t see,” he said. “I always related the concepts to real life and bring it down to the students’ level of understanding. Any teacher should always relate concepts to real life. If you don’t, you lose the students. Students get excited about it when you do that. I’ve had students track me down 25 years later and tell me, ‘I’ve been to four-year universities and you’re still number one on my list of teachers.’”
On that long list of mentees on the fields of play and study is Katie McMahan Walker, whom McKnight said put her education on hold just to play an extra season with him.
“Coach McKnight instilled the love of tennis into me and mentored my teammates and me,” said Walker, who completed an undefeated season under McKnight and twice competed at nationals while at Hinds from 1995-97. She repeated the feat while at Spring Hill College in Mobile. Today, she works in the controller’s office at the University of Southern Mississippi as a business analyst. “He used the sport to show us that we are valuable and important. He built our self-esteem, molded our character and shaped our value system.”
That appreciation has run deep for a generation of other players and students McKnight helped achieve their career goals.
“Coach Mac was a great coach, mentor, and friend to all of his players and demanded that you gave maximum effort in everything you did,” said Mark Prewitt, who played for Coach McKnight from 1997-99 and is now a CPA in Atlanta. “Whether it be school, sports, church or friendships, you gave maximum effort in everything. He helped me become the man, entrepreneur, father and husband that I am today. I’m glad we still keep in touch 20 years later.”
McKnight’s influence on his chemistry students also went a long way in life, sometimes memorably.
“Once, a group of former students of mine did so well on their nursing tests at UMMC they decided to have a party and invite me,” he said. “I had the flu at the time, but they still wanted me there. They felt I taught them how to think and apply the knowledge.”
For Dr. Jay Allen, now president of Itawamba Community College, appreciation for McKnight came as time wore on.
“While I did not play tennis for Dr. McKnight, I had the opportunity to be blessed by his classroom instruction,” Allen said. “Most students would not say chemistry is much of a blessing, but my Principles of Chemistry II class and lab taught by Dr. McKnight was truly an experience I was blessed to have. At the time, little did I know that I was sitting in the classroom of someone I would later consider to be one of the best college professors from whom I would ever receive instruction. While he had a tremendous impact on tennis players and garnered many championships, he made just as significant an impact on the students in his classroom and laid an educational foundation to carry them to the next level of success.”
McKnight’s focus on the students over himself will hold serve even as the courts where his players dominated will grace his name.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the people who were the wind beneath my wings and got me there.”