From the sidelines
By Marty Gordon
I will never forget the years I spent on the sports information staff at Radford University. I was a sophomore wandering around the Dedmon Center when I ran into a woman walking down the hallway. She asked me if I was lost. I told her no, but I was looking for the women’s basketball coach’s office.
She laughed and pointed me in the direction of the basketball offices. I walked in and sat down. The receptionist said the coach had stepped out but would be back in a moment.
Shortly after, Charlene Curtis walked in. She was the women’s basketball coach and the same woman in the hallway that pointed me in the way of the office.
Over the years, she would always flash me her famous smile and greeting. Curtis would leave for Wake Forest but again, I ran into her in Winston-Salem. She never forgot my name and was always gracious when we bumped into each other.
She passed away last week. Leaders at Radford University called her a trailblazer at both RU and in the broader collegiate athletics landscape. She was also a two-time member of the Radford University Board of Visitors.
“Charlene Curtis is one of Radford University’s most accomplished alumni,” said Director of Athletics Robert Lineburg. “She was an outstanding student, a tremendous basketball player, an excellent musician, and a great coach and administrator. She has had and will continue to have a profound impact on our university.
“Charlene was the coach that made a difference in her players’ lives by teaching them so many foundational values that impacted them in so many positive ways,” Lineburg said. “In addition, Charlene loved Radford University and remained involved throughout her life by devoting her time, service, and money to helping so many young people.
“This is a difficult time for the Highlander family, but we know her incredible legacy will live on at Radford University. I speak for myself and countless others in saying that it was a true honor and privilege to know Charlene Curtis.”
In 1972, Curtis was the first African-American to play on the Radford women’s basketball team, and she was the first 1,000-point scorer – male or female – in Radford basketball history. After her playing career ended, she secured her first job as a teacher and band director in Bedford County where she served as the first African-American teacher and coach ever at her school.
Her coaching career took her back to the collegiate ranks where she earned a graduate degree and worked on the staff of legendary head coach Debbie Ryan at the University of Virginia.
Curtis would eventually return to Radford as the women’s basketball program’s head coach from 1984-90, posting a 121-53 (.695) record overall and an incredible 46-2 (.958) mark in Big South Conference play.
She was a two-time Big South Coach of the Year, leading the Highlanders to four Big South regular season championships, three Big South Tournament championships, and an appearance in the 1989 WNIT.
“On behalf of our current team, staff, and alumni, we are saddened to hear about the passing of Charlene Curtis,” said Head Women’s Basketball Coach Mike McGuire. “Radford has lost an amazing pioneer, leader, teacher, and coach. Quite simply, Charlene is a legend for our women’s basketball program,” McGuire said.
“Charlene had incredible careers at Radford, both as a student athlete and a coach. Each season, we could feel the impact that Charlene has had on the women’s basketball program here. She helped to raise the bar and expectations for women’s basketball success at Radford.
“Charlene loved Radford and was committed to making a difference for the young women in our program,” McGuire said. “She is the epitome of what a dedicated and invested alumna is all about. But, even with all of the success that she had, Charlene will be remembered for the type of person she was. The way she cared about other people and encouraged them to pursue excellence will never be forgotten by anyone who ever met her. She lived a life that impacted others and must be celebrated.”
After her time at Radford, Curtis went on to Wake Forest University as the first African-American women’s basketball head coach in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference. She also made stops at Temple University as the school’s first-ever African-American head women’s basketball coach and at the University of Connecticut as an assistant under Geno Auriemma.
She was eventually named the head of officiating for women’s basketball in the ACC and contributed to ESPNU and Fox Sports South as a women’s basketball analyst.
Her accomplishments, both on the sidelines and in the community, led to the dedication of the Radford women’s basketball coach’s suite in her name on Feb. 5, 2022. A special ceremony was held in the Dedmon Center Sport Performance Facility where Curtis gave a speech while surrounded by former players and staff members.