CLEMSON -- Oliver Purnell recently took the microphone in front of a packed gymnasium to talk about making sound life decisions. The Daniel High School student body could not have found a better featured speaker for its annual Black History Month celebration.
All eyes gazed front and center at Purnell as he wowed students with the tale of Len Bias, the standout basketball player at the University of Maryland whose poor decision-making cost him his life in 1986.
"Make choices that will blaze the path for others to follow, your family, your friends, people that don't even know you who look up to you as a role model," Purnell said in conclusion. "So make choices that will make your family proud, because the choices you make will affect you and will affect others as well."
What follows is the story Purnell did not tell Daniel High students, one of a remarkable man of 56 years who, while in high school, helped meld a small Maryland community by smoothing the rough edges of integration. It is the story of a man who cemented his place in coaching by standing up to his boss and by sticking to his rock-solid principles.
At nearly every turn in his life, this man has proved to be a pioneer. He was the first black men's head basketball coach at Radford, Old Dominion, Dayton and now at Clemson. He served one year as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, one of the first blacks to do so.
In seven seasons at Clemson, this man also has championed the cause to have the Confederate flag removed from State House grounds. Along the way, he has constructed a program that has moved into the upper echelon of what many consider to be the toughest basketball league in the country.
Every step of the way, Oliver Purnell has lived by the words he offered to those Daniel High students by making choices that blazed the path for others to follow.
Purnell is an unassuming sort, preferring to deflect attention whenever he becomes the subject at hand. He prefers to let his actions speak for him.
That is who Terry Don Phillips, Clemson's athletics director, found in his New Orleans Hilton hotel suite in April 2003. Unlike previous candidates for the Clemson men's basketball coaching position, who dressed in coats and ties, Purnell showed up in his best warmup suit.
When it came time to order room service, Purnell glanced over the lobster and filet mignon and settled on a cheeseburger with French fries. Phillips and his assistant Bill D'Andrea knew they had their man.
Phillips said he recognized then that Purnell was not a man born with a "silver spoon in his mouth." Purnell also understood Clemson's desire to build a program that would sustain success even if the coach departed.
"Oliver, to me, is one of the huge program builders in the history of our game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said recently, recognizing Purnell's efforts at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton. "The program becomes real good while he is there, and then when he leaves, he has established a program for somebody else. There are some people who wreck programs or never establish them. Oliver, he makes his bed really nice for people to sleep in it."
There is no doubting where Purnell learned to "make his bed" properly. He was the second of four children born to Phyllis and Oliver Purnell in the tiny community of Berlin, Md., a gas-station stop for Baltimore residents on their way to the beach eight miles down the road in Ocean City.
Purnell's father jumped from chicken factory to chicken factory, seeking the highest-paying job to support his family. His mother found what work she could, many years as a servant to wealthy white families in Berlin. The couple's first home included two bedrooms but no indoor toilet facilities.
A housing upgrade eliminated the need for an outhouse but still left six family members squeezed into two bedrooms. So young "Junie" - short for Junior - often bunked next door at his grandfather's home in the Briddelltown area of Berlin. That was all right with Oliver because his grandfather Elwood Purnell long ago had cut out the bottom of a bushel basket and attached the remaining wire rim to a light pole.
That dirt backyard was where Junie learned to play basketball under the guidance of his grandfather. It also was where he learned that people of his race could never test their athletic prowess against the white kids who lived across the tracks or, in Berlin's case, across Highway 113, which divided the town geographically as well as culturally.
The white kids aged 8-12 formed the Berlin Bombers Little League baseball team. Blacks were not allowed to play, even though Junie believed he could be a star on the white team. Junie instead honed his skills with adults on the semi-pro team with his father.
"You talk about watershed marks," Purnell said of being denied a roster spot on a Little League team. "That was something that really bothered me and really hit home with me. I loved baseball, and I never really got to play organized baseball."
This was the mid-1960s, when blacks were forced to sit in the balcony at theaters and only could be served at the back doors of Berlin restaurants. Despite the times, Phyllis Purnell knew that someday blacks would have the same rights as whites, and the path out of poverty would be paved by education for her children.
"Since I can remember, the push, the push, the push has been, if you're ever going to do anything in life, you've got to get an education," said Angela Wickman, Oliver's older sister by two years, who is in real estate in Baltimore. "She would say, 'You've got to get an education, you've got to get an education, you've got to get an education, you've got to get an education.' That's been her mantra forever."
Purnell's mother set the example, earning her GED when she was in her late 30s and later serving as PTA president at all-black Worcester High School. She also was the ward over her children's schoolwork, and a poor report card meant the child would be sent to the woods to find a switch.
Junie was the serious one of the four Purnell children, often referred to mockingly by his sister and brothers as "Old Man" because, while other family and friends were playing, he was contemplating his plan for life beyond Briddelltown.
That never became more clear than in the summer of 1965, when a 12-year-old Purnell made a decision that would have a lasting impact. Integration of Worcester County schools was a year away, so the school board gave students at the black high school the option of attending nearly all-white Stephen Decatur High.
Larry Waples had made the switch a year earlier to become the first black student at Stephen Decatur. Then Purnell weighed his options and convinced his best friends, Al Handy and Ron Dixon, to follow along on the road to integration. A couple of other seventh-graders joined them.
"There were things we were taught by our parents growing up," Purnell said. "Those schools are better. They had better textbooks, better facilities, better gyms. So I was excited to have a better situation, knowing also it was going to be uncomfortable."
Six years later, Purnell, Handy and Dixon were the toast of the town. While the winds of change blew threw Berlin, the exploits of those three and their Stephen Decatur High basketball team eased a community through what could have been trying times.
Where once Stephen Decatur games were played in near-empty gyms, now the Berlin fire marshal had to close the doors to spectators. The city rallied around a group of young men who played in three consecutive Maryland state championship games, winning the title in 1970.
Following that championship, Berlin hosted a parade to salute its beloved Seahawks. Blacks and whites stood side by side along the parade route. From that day, blacks more often sat with whites in the best theater seats. Blacks began to enter Berlin restaurants through the front doors.
To this day, Purnell says those Stephen Decatur High teams instilled a belief in every member that anything could be accomplished, both on and off the court, through hard work and determination.
Purnell carried that belief to Old Dominion, where as a player he led the Monarchs to the 1975 NCAA Division II national championship.
While in college, Purnell began working basketball camps at nearby colleges, including Maryland, where he left an impression on coach Lefty Driesell. By 1985, Purnell was on Driesell's staff.
Then came that fateful day a year later when the news of Len Bias' death from a cocaine overdose shook the sports world. Purnell was home with the flu when Driesell called his 32-year-old assistant and told him to clean room 1103 at the Washington Hall dormitory. It was where Bias had partied with his friends.
Purnell never made it to Washington Hall. Knowing it could cost him his job, Purnell refused Driesell's orders to alter what became a crime scene. Within a year, Purnell was the only basketball staff member still employed at Maryland. The news of his courageous decision swept through the college basketball coaching fraternity.
"I think I was fortunate I used pretty good judgment," Purnell said, "which I thought at the time - and I still think today - wasn't anything brilliant. It was just my upbringing, what I was taught. It was just a reaction.
"I tell my players today, when the pressure is really on, that's what's really going to come out. You're going to react. You're not going to have time to think. Your habits, whether good or bad, are going to come out."
Purnell was marked as head coaching material. He was hired at Radford in Virginia in 1988, and in his third season his team won 22 games. Then he was off to his alma mater, Old Dominion, where in three seasons his teams played in one NCAA tournament and two NITs.
In nine seasons at Dayton, Purnell's clubs reached the NCAA tournament twice and played in the NIT three times, finishing as the runner-up in 2007. At each of his three head-coaching stops, Purnell was named conference coach of the year.
He has made his mark along the way in international basketball as well. He is one of five USA Basketball coaches to win five gold medals. He served as an assistant coach on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and was the head coach of the 1999 USA World University Games team.
His teams at Clemson have come to be known for their work ethic. They are among the few in NCAA Division I that use a full-court press as a staple. To effectively run that engine, Purnell recruits players who are willing to make a commitment to all-out effort as soon as they step on campus.
Purnell's recruiting style is as easygoing as the man making the pitch. He picked up tips by watching Driesell, a master recruiter. On visits to the homes of recruits, Purnell is as likely to kick off his shoes, don an apron and help with the dishes as he is to sit at a dining room table and discuss the value of a Clemson education.
All Purnell really has to do to win over a prospective student-athlete and his parents is tell his story, one of perseverance and sound decision-making. His sister, Angela, contends that once Purnell sets his mind to something, there is no standing in his way.
She uses as an example the way in which Purnell wooed his wife of 35 years, Vicky. Purnell first noticed Vicky when he and his father were parking cars at the Ocean Downs Racetrack in Ocean City, Md. It did not matter that Vicky was a cheerleader for Snow Hill High, one of Stephen Decatur's rivals.
Not long afterward, Purnell was picking up his date in a 1965 Chevy Impala purchased for him by his grandfather. Purnell was smitten with someone whose mother stressed the same value in education as his mother did.
Vicky now runs her husband's annual Tigerfest fundraiser, which has contributed more than $225,000 the past two years to Coaches vs. Cancer, a partner of the American Cancer Society.
In their down time, the Purnells host cookouts at their home, which sits atop a hill overlooking Lake Kiawah 13 miles from the coach's office on the Clemson campus. The two share a love of music. Vicky was a music appreciation major in college, and Oliver has some 2,500 songs on his iPod, ranging from progressive jazz to rhythm and blues to gospel.
Purnell likes to read two books at once, one motivational and the other relating to sports. He sometimes reads while exercising in the fitness room of his home, where pictures of his Clemson teams line the walls. Or he shifts to the den downstairs, where more memorabilia documents his successful coaching career.
There, on one bookshelf, is Purnell's most prized basketball possession. It is the team picture of the Stephen Decatur High School Seahawks, Maryland state Class B champions in 1970.
To any visitor, including the players on his Clemson team, Purnell forever can point to that picture and cite it as the best example of the payoff for having a purpose, working hard and making sound decisions.