Many people are aware of the long and distinguished Tennessee State tradition in football. Whether it’s the coaching excellence of such names as John Merritt or Joe Gilliam Sr., or the exploits of such players as Hall-of-Famer Richard Dent, Ed “Too Tall” Jones or Jim Marsalis, TSU football is a nationally known and greatly respected commodity. However the Tigers also have an equally impressive, though much lesser touted and recognized tradition of greatness in basketball.
From the coaching genius of John McClendon to the on-court dynamic play of Dick “Skull” Barnett, Leonard “Truck” Robinson, Carlos Rogers and Anthony Mason, the Tigers have a lengthy and proud basketball legacy. They have had 17 players go to the NBA. But their most notable team achievements came in the late ‘50s. While in the NAIA, the Tigers became the first college team to win three consecutive national titles at any level of college basketball. That occurred in 1957, 1958 and 1959. They were the first HBCU team to win a national championship.
A lot of folks are either unaware or never knew about Harold Hunter. That’s because he came after John McClendon. But Hunter is the school’s second-winningest coach in history, and he led the Tigers from 1960-68. Houston Rockets forward Robert Covington represents the contemporary class of TSU pro basketball players. A 2013 graduate, he made it the hard way, initially starring in what was then the “D” League (now the “G” League) before becoming a starter with first the Philadelphia 76ers. then the Minnesota Timberwolves and now the Houston Rockets.
Still, though he wasn’t part of those earlier great teams, Covington is deeply aware of the school’s past greatness, and now is playing a major role in helping it bolster its fortunes in the 21st century. Last week he made the largest gift to an HBCU by any former athlete who was a product of its program.
Covington is funding the development of a new practice facility on campus, which will be known as the “Covington Pavilion.” He made the announcement while thanking his alma mater for its role in his emergence as an NBA star. “I want to thank the city of Nashville for embracing me, Coach Brian “Penny” Collins, Dr. Mikki Allen, President Glover and the University for giving me the opportunity to do something special like this,” Covington said.
“I love my alma mater, I’m not donating a new practice facility for the recognition or because I NEED to – I am doing it because I truly WANT to. I know what the school didn’t have when I was here as a student and I want future generations of kids to have the best resources available to them, to build their futures both on and off the court. I want them to step on this campus and feel like their dreams can come true here, because mine really did.”
Construction for the project will begin in late spring of 2021. It will have two practice courts, locker rooms and offices for the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
“We are extremely proud of Mr. Robert Covington’s success and are grateful for his contributions to the University,” TSU President Glenda Glover said. “Most importantly, his success on and off the court speaks volumes about the caliber of students TSU and other HBCUs produce. We thank him, his family and the Allergic To Failure Foundation for this generous gift.”
It’s not the first time Covington has donated funds to TSU. He made a $75,000 donation in April of 2019. But this new step is an extraordinary one, an example of an athlete going the extra mile in giving back to his school and community.
“Rob and I have a shared vision for TSU Basketball becoming a nationally recognized program,” AD Mikki Allen said. “The fact that Rob has decided to make an investment of this magnitude accelerates this process and helps bring us closer to this vision becoming a reality. “As the Director of Athletics, I’m extremely gracious and thankful for Rob becoming a stakeholder in helping to change the national trajectory of our basketball programs. The narrative is shifting in the landscape of college basketball recruiting in respect to HBCUs landing 5 star talent. Through this historic gift, the Covington Pavilion will now undoubtedly put Tennessee State University in the mix.”
Covington has also started a foundation named after his life mantra “Allergic To Failure” to give back to communities across the country. There are events throughout the year in such cities as his hometown of Chicago, Nashville and other NBA markets like Philadelphia, Minnesota and now Houston. Increasingly, more Black athletes are looking at HBCUs as viable options for college, seeing it is possible to attain professional status without being at a mainstream college or university.
But what Robert Covington has done goes beyond beating the odds and making the pros. His action will benefit a host of TSU athletes, both present and future, whether they become NBA/WNBA stars or never play again upon graduation.