Ron James didn’t just want to make his players better athletes, he wanted to make them better people. A pioneer among African American high school football coaches on Long Island, James patrolled the sidelines at Malverne High School for 25 years.
“He liked helping people." said Janet James, his wife of 18 years. "He loved kids and he wanted to see them succeed.”
James, believed to be the first African American high school football coach in Nassau County, died suddenly in his home state of South Carolina on Feb. 15, his family said. He was 65.
“He was in the business of, not just coaching, but teaching life lessons,” said longtime friend and assistant Fred Brewington, of Freeport. “That’s what he prided himself on. His coaching staff was committed to him to the point where we would go out in the middle of the night if we knew something was going on, just to keep our kids from getting into trouble. He was that committed.”
James coached at Malverne from 1977-96 and again from 2001-05, compiling a 105-90-2 mark, according to Newsday records. His 1990 squad finished 10-0, won the Nassau Conference IV championship, went unscored upon in the regular season, and won the Rutgers Cup as the most outstanding team in Nassau County.
"He played a vital role in my life as a young male,” said former player and current Malverne football coach Kito Lockwood. “Coach James was well put together. He was educated, a great teacher, and a great role model. He always went beyond for myself, my teammates, and other Malverne students…I couldn’t have had a better example.”
Lockwood, who has led the Malverne program for a decade, said he has tried to continue what James built.
“I haven’t created anything,” Lockwood said. “I’ve just followed suit to what Ron James and his coaching staff did when I was a player.”
Brewington said that James, who he and Nassau historians say was the county's first African American head coach, was very aware of his place in history as an African American high school coaching pioneer
“He understood the role that he was playing and the standard that he was setting,” Brewington said. “He worked day and night analyzing and evaluating film, (seeing) what worked and what didn’t, and who opponents were and what their tendencies were.”
Born May 9, 1953, in Florence, South Carolina, James spent his childhood in New York City before moving to Long Island as a teenager. Upon graduation from Roosevelt High School, he received a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Morgan State University in Maryland and a master’s degree in the same subject from Rhode Island University, Janet James said.
James was a physical education teacher at Malverne High School for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2006. James spent his retirement living in South Carolina and coached tennis to athletes of all ages at Wilson High School and the Dr. Eddie Floyd Florence Tennis Center, both located in Florence, South Carolina.
Janet James said her husband was a funny and compassionate person who enjoyed fishing and photography. “He was a wonderful guy,” she said.
James is survived by Janet, parents Andrew and Helen of South Carolina, and sister Andrea James of Syracuse. A funeral service, followed by burial, was held February 20 in South Carolina.
—With Kenny DeJohn