Unfailingly Generous

USD alumnus Bernie Bickerstaff alongside JC Cunningham and Bill McGillis


At  USD, as it did across the country and around the globe, George Floyd’s tragic death sparked a critical conversation, prompting a key question: How could USD — and the athletics department in particular — do better?

“We recognized there was a need to enhance the experience of our Black scholar-athletes, in large part, because they shared their perspective with us immediately,” says Associate Vice President and Executive Director of Athletics Bill McGillis.

And so emerged the Bernie Bickerstaff Diversity and Inclusion Fund, whose monies will be used to enhance and expand diversity and inclusion education and training for staff, administrators and students, and to seed initiatives and programs developed to support USD scholar-athletes.   The fund has raised more than $60,000 to date through a private fundraising effort that has been supported by approximately 70 donors. And fittingly, it’s named for the university’s first Black head coach — a man so revered in the USD community he “belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of USD greats,” McGillis says.

If that sounds hyperbolic, consider Bickerstaff’s biography. Born and raised in tiny Benham in southeastern Kentucky, his father and grandfather were both coal miners who spent years toiling underground. Bickerstaff’s high school basketball team was forced to travel 44 miles round trip to practice at the “colored” school, while the white school was in walking distance.

After moving to Cleveland and briefly playing at a community college there, he worked at a steel mill and almost quit the game for good before driving out to San Diego at the invitation of Cal Western’s head coach Bob Kloppenburg. But a few open games at USD changed his plans and, as it turns out, his fate.

“Well I think the alarm finally went off,” says Bickerstaff ‘68 (BA). “I had a maturity problem. But USD’s professors, coaches and administrators were all very patient. It was always about character, integrity and fairness. And that’s basically the way I’ve tried to live my life.”

At 25, Bickerstaff was hired as the team’s head coach and from there went on to a storied career in the NBA that’s stretched across decades, teams and roles. He currently works for the Cleveland Cavaliers as a senior advisor. Despite his professional success, Bickerstaff is endlessly humble and helpful. His extensive connections and generosity drew so many fellow USD alumni into the NBA that they formed a unique fraternity among coaches.

“People look at me now and just shake their heads,” he laughs. “They’re trying to figure out how this small school could turn out all these coaches and administrators.”

Much of the credit goes to Bickerstaff himself, who keeps in touch with most everyone he has ever played with or coached. “The message I tell them is we all need to help bring one along,” he says. “Let’s spread out. That way if something happens, we can put out a hand and help out.” — Karen Gross

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