By L.A. Warren
The legacy of W.C. Gorden lives on.
He was the head football coach at Jackson State University from 1976 to 1991 and, after his death in October 2020, his presence remains large. He was 90 years old.
Gorden had earned prestige as JSU’s winningest coach by guiding the Tigers to a 28-game streak in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Today, his name still pops up. The annual W.C. Gorden Classic helps kick off the opening home game during the fall, and there’s even a golf classic that bears his name.
He also made another mark – an accent, to be exact. While respecting the university’s tradition and core blue and white colors, the legendary coach notably added a slight red accent on football uniforms that helped numbers, for example, stand out on student-athletes’ jerseys. Beginning in 1977, Gorden’s Tigers also donned red block JSU helmet logos.
Looking back over his life before joining Jackson State University, Gorden was at Temple High School in Vicksburg. He worked as its athletic director and head football coach. Subsequently, he was hired as an assistant to Head Coach Bob Hill by then-JSU President John A. Peoples Jr. Hill was “a very good coach but a poor loser,” Peoples said. Eventually, Peoples elevated Gorden to the head position.
“Gorden was a very cool-headed, skillful coach, and I got to know him personally even after he and I both had retired. He was a very fine person. We both served on the board of the Jackson-Hinds Community Health Center,” said Peoples, explaining that they stayed active in the community in a variety of other ways, too.
Peoples, 94, who now wears the title of president emeritus, recalled the acknowledgment he received from the iconic coach and his football squad. “During my last year in office, he had the team to dedicate the football to me. The captain of the team came to my box and presented the football to me. The coach was well liked by the players. You can do nothing less than to honor Coach Gorden.” Highly regarded and accomplished, Gorden was influential in leading the Football Championship Subdivision in game attendance seven times. Because of his legacy, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. Also, he entered the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and received the Capital City Classic Humanitarian Award, both in 1997. Before then, in 1994, he had been enshrined by the SWAC Hall of Fame. After all those honors and more, Gorden remained committed to JSU. In fact, he served as athletic director for two years when he retired from coaching.
During those glory days, Gorden’s athletic director was Dr. Walter Reed, who described his relationship with Gorden as the “best of friends.” “I’ve always said that Coach Gorden was one of the better coaches to ever coach football in America. He was always on top of the game. He kept up with the times, as it relates to coaching football,” Reed said. “He made sure students were academically and athletically prepared, and he assembled one of the better coaching staffs ever in HBCU football. Practically every one of his assistants became head coaches at an HBCU institution.”
Outside of their business relationship, Reed, 87, said, “We did things together. Even when I left JSU and went to FAMU, we still did things together. I always appreciated my relationship with W.C. Gorden.”