When John Bates Jr. played basketball and football at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, his mother, Althea, was in the stands for every game, but his father's attendance was more sporadic. At the time, his father was the head men's basketball coach at Coppin State.
It wasn't until the younger Bates went to South Carolina State to play for the football team there that he understood why his father was frequently absent.
"When I was young, I didn't understand until I went away to college and I realized that coaches are the parents of the kids they have," he said Friday afternoon. "You make a promise to the parents you're going to take care of their kids. That's the life of a coach."
John Bates, who also coached the University of Maryland Eastern Shore men's basketball program, died Wednesday night of an apparent heart attack near his home in Ellicott City. He had turned 77 last Sunday.
Mr. Bates, who began coaching the Eagles in 1974, guided the program to the 1976 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship with a 96-91 victory over Henderson State in the title game. That squad set a school record for wins in a single season with 39.
Tony Carter, a guard on the 1975-76 team who was inducted into the Coppin State Hall of Fame in 2013, said he is forever grateful to his former coach for ignoring criticism about Mr. Carter being uncoachable and giving him a second chance.
"It was a lot of negative things being said about me," Mr. Carter said. "Coach gave me an opportunity to come out for the team and prove myself. People don't know this, but he and I had a heart-to-heart talk that he was going to give me an opportunity, but if I messed up, I was going to have to go. He gave me a chance to prove myself, and I haven't looked back since."
Mr. Carter said he is still trying to absorb the reality that he will no longer see his coach at Coppin State games.
"I'm still in disbelief that this happened," Mr. Carter said. "It's sad because we didn't get a chance to say goodbye to him. It still bothers me now. It makes you reflect on life."
In 12 years with the Eagles, Mr. Bates compiled a 209-121 record and led the university to three consecutive Potomac Intercollegiate Conference championships in the mid-1970s. His 209 wins rank as the second-highest total in Coppin State history behind Ron "Fang" Mitchell's 429 victories.
Kyle Locke, who chairs the school's Hall of Fame committee, which inducted Mr. Bates as part of the inaugural class in 2012, said Mr. Bates was a fixture at men's basketball games at the Physical Education Complex.
"From my perspective, it definitely is a huge loss to the athletics program and the men's program," Mr. Locke said. "He had a great run while he was overseeing the program, and he touched a lot of guys. A lot of his players still come to games to support the program. Any time you lose a player or a Hall of Fame coach, it's not a good thing, and we're all in support of his family. We definitely want to keep what he did going and celebrate his life the way it's supposed to be celebrated."
Mr. Bates' son said some of his fondest memories are of spending time in the gym with his father and his players.
"Ever since I was little until I went away to the school, it was just always being in the gym with him," he recalled. "With the players, I was an only child, and I always looked to them as my big brothers. So I always followed them. He was always there for me. Anything I ever needed, it was always there."
Mr. Bates, who was born in Union, S.C., and attended Allen University in Columbia, S.C., began his coaching career in his home state before moving to the Eastern Shore, where he compiled a combined record of 135-21 in seven years at Woodson, Somerset and Washington high schools.
Mr. Bates' teams at UMES went 73-14 in three seasons. The 1973-74 squad earned a berth in the National Invitational Tournament, becoming the first historically black college or university to play in the NIT. The Hawks advanced to the NIT quarterfinals where they lost to Jacksonville, 85-83, and finished with a 27-2 mark.
"Today the Hawks family mourns the loss of one of our most successful and well-known coaches," athletic director Keith Davidson said in a statement distributed by the university. "Coach Bates' teams set the standard to which University of Maryland Eastern Shore basketball teams will forever be measured."
Bill Gordon, a co-captain of the 1973-74 squad, said Mr. Bates — who was elected to the UMES Hall of Fame in 1999 — was a father figure to many of his players.
"This is a great loss for the UMES and Coppin State communities," Mr. Gordon said. "This man was a legend in the MEAC and beyond. God knows he will be missed."
Mr. Bates would have celebrated his 51st wedding anniversary with his wife, Althea, 73, on Dec. 29. In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Bates is also survived by two grandchildren, Tyla and John III.
A wake for Mr. Bates is scheduled for Wednesday from 9 to 10 a.m. at Coppin State's auditorium with the funeral beginning at 10 a.m. A burial site is still to be determined.