June 22, 2018
DENTON - March 30, 2018, was one of those special nights in the evolution of an athletic program - the kind that offers a springboard to bigger things and primes fans for next season.
That night, North Texas ended the inaugural campaign under head coach Grant McCasland by defeating San Francisco to win the College Basketball Invitational championship. More importantly, the Mean Green energized a boisterous Super Pit crowd of more than 6,200.
For the gray-hairs in attendance, the raucous Pit rekindled memories of past big wins. Of big crowds. Of a genuine home-court advantage that once elevated North Texas to a top-20 national ranking.
Of the Bill Blakeley years.
Blakeley, known to his family as "Big" and known to fans for his big sideburns, big mustache, big glasses, big personality and 6-foot-6 stature, was one of the most beloved coaches in Mean Green history in any sport, and he led North Texas men's basketball to some of its greatest years.
Years when North Texas beat the likes of Kansas State, Arizona State, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech. When it knocked off Texas in front of 8,100 fans at the Pit, then beat the Longhorns again the next season. When it topped SMU before a packed house of 10,600. When the Mean Green amassed a 19-game home win streak and three-straight 20-win seasons, during which North Texas went 38-2 in Denton.
Years when opponents, reeling from another Mean Green scoring run, called timeout to staunch the bleeding only to be serenaded with deafening chants of WELCOME TO THE PIT.
So for that Friday night in March in the CBI final, it felt like there was still a little Blakeley left in old place.
Turns out, there was.
Meet Chris Blakeley, North Texas men's basketball graduate assistant, product of Richardson Pearce High School and Abilene Christian University, and grandson of Bill Blakeley.
"My dream is to be a basketball coach," Chris said. "I have a lot of family that's in the business, but I'm the only one pursuing coaching in our family. Big is the one I've always looked up to, that started it all in our family. I learned so much from him without really knowing him."
Bill Blakeley coached the Mean Green from 1975 to 1983. His 1975-76 team is the highest scoring in school history, averaging 96.0 points per game in an era without a shot clock or 3-point line, and Blakeley was inducted into the North Texas Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002. But he died in 2010 after a long, debilitating illness, and Chris never knew the towering figure who owned the Super Pit sidelines.
Bill Blakeley and his grandson Chris.
"Most of what I know of my granddad is from stories and pictures," Chris said. "There are some old interviews that have surfaced online that are really, really cool. I knew him when I was really young. He came to all of my games, but he was in a wheelchair by the time I was in seventh or eighth grade. He'd always sit there on the baseline and watch."
Coach Blakeley and his wife Rosemary, who died two years after her husband and was known to her grandchildren as "GG" (for Gorgeous Grandmother), were two of Chris' biggest fans.
"They loved coming to every game," Chris said. "In one infamous game when I was in fifth grade, Big and GG both got thrown out from the stands for being overzealous and getting on the refs."
Though not a purveyor of profanity, coach Blakeley had his share of colorful run-ins with officials. Some things never change.
Chris, who played college ball at his grandfather's alma mater, clearly inherited his grandfather's love of the game and desire to become a coach. Unfortunately, other parts of the Blakeley DNA skipped Chris.
"Yeah, I didn't get the Big genes," the lean-framed, 5-foot-10 Blakeley said.
The Blakeleys have long been connected with North Texas and Abilene Christian. Bill played college ball at ACU, as did Chris' uncle Jeffrey. Chris' father, Robin, started his college career at ACU then transferred to North Texas where he played for Bill. He now works for HKS Architects, the firm that built UNT's Apogee Stadium.
When Chris' playing days at ACU ended, he began the quest for his own coaching career by studying his grandfather's techniques, style of coaching and his approach to the game. He talked to coaches who worked with Big and to the players who played for him, and he discovered that Blakeley was more than just a coach. Those student-athletes were an extended part of the Blakeley family, a family that included three children and 10 grandchildren and swelled with coach's players for holiday gatherings at Big and GG's home.
That's something Chris plans to emulate, and it's an attitude that fits nicely into McCasland's coaching philosophy.
"His work ethic and his devotion to helping the team anyway possible is elite," McCasland said. "His heart for other people and his desire to help other people is special. He's got a great skill set, too. He's got great basketball knowledge. But its his passion for what he does and the time and detail he puts in that really sets him apart. You want people who believe in something bigger than themselves and are excited and passionate about what they're doing. Chris is one of those guys that lifts other people up. He wants to be about how to help others, and it's an inspiring way to live.
"I've seen some of the videos of coach Blakeley speaking," McCasland added. "You can't talk about North Texas basketball and not talk about coach Blakeley. If it's not the stories, it's the wins. If it's not the wins, its the ranking. If it's not the ranking, it's the people and the excitement around the program. It's such a cool heritage to a part of, and I know Chris appreciates that and really takes it seriously. He feels inspired, like this is his purpose."
It's a purpose Chris Blakeley is hotly pursuing with boundless energy and intense focus.
Not content to wait until after college to start his career, he spent his senior year at ACU as an intern for the Texas Legends of the NBA's developmental G League. After graduation in December, he secured a GA position on McCasland's staff. This month, Blakeley is marrying his fiancée Landa (who shares Chris' affection for big families) before working North Texas basketball summer camps and diving into preparation for another season with the Mean Green. He has considered seeking coaching opportunities in Australia and Europe, though his ambitions always return to Texas.
Anything to become a head coach. He's already putting in the requisite long hours.
"Being available is what you do," Blakeley said. "You're there first and you're there last, every day. If one of us (Blakeley and fellow GA Luis Lopez) had to leave, we staggered it so one of us was there. We'd throw on a practice jersey and be the opponent, scout team. Anything and everything to make sure everyone was taken care of. It was a lot of serving, and that's one of coach Mac's pillars. Believe, serve, compete. We did a lot of that second part. The players are our main focus, from helping them do their taxes to helping them get up shots before games."
"We immerse them in a lot of different areas of the program, so there's probably not anything he doesn't touch," McCasland said. "There's not a shortage of work to go around. At North Texas, you get an opportunity to be a part of every facet of a college basketball program. That way he has a great foundation for what it takes to be successful at this. Chris is the model for how to approach it."
There's no mistaking that Blakeley has the passion to go along with the pedigree.
"It really is neat," McCasland said. "We've got a couple of former head coaches' family members on our staff, and it gives it a different feel and an appreciation for being a part of North Texas basketball."
"I knew it would be so cool to be at the same place my granddad coached," Blakeley said, "and continue that legacy."