Pullman was new territory. Until he came to Washington State University, George Raveling had never traveled west of Kansas City, and he had never worked as a head coach.
“It was on-the-job training,” recalls Raveling, whose last trip before the COVID-19 pandemic was to the WSU Pullman campus. In early February 2020, he returned to watch his name raised to the rafters in Beasley Coliseum during a special halftime ceremony. He’s the only WSU coach to have that honor.
“I teared up,” he says. “It was one of those extraordinary moments in my life when I could walk back and see some of the faces from early in my career and feel their warmth and have nothing but good memories. I’ll be forever indebted to the school and (athletic director) Pat Chun and all of the people who were there for welcoming me back and showering their love on me. They went overboard to make me feel special. I’m pleased that I made them proud.”
On the court, addressing the crowd that day, he began, “Thank you for bringing me back home.”
Raveling resides in Los Angeles County’s Ladera Heights. He moved to LA in 1986 when he became head men’s basketball coach at the University of Southern California. He went on to work for Nike for more than two decades after that—as the director of grassroots, then global, basketball in sports marketing and, finally, international basketball—before retiring in 2016.
But the longest stint in his coaching career was for the Cougs.
“And I loved every second of it,” says Raveling, calling his time at WSU as “a marriage made in heaven.”
Raveling served as WSU’s head men’s basketball coach from 1972 to 1983, earning 167 wins in all. He was twice named the Pac-8/10 Conference Coach of the Year and twice took the Cougs to NCAA tournaments. The team’s 1980 appearance marked the first for WSU since placing second in 1941. He also took the team to the playoffs during his last season at WSU.
“It was such a joy to coach there,” Raveling says. “They took a risk on me, and they supported me, and it was such a great journey. Maybe in those early years I would have liked to have won more games. But I wouldn’t trade the eleven years I spent at Washington State for anything. They brought out the best in me as a human being. To be honest with you, I never envisioned leaving. I loved it there. You truly become part of the community.”
He figured when he retired he “would move over to Seattle and live happily ever after.” Then circumstances changed. Then-President Glenn Terrell announced his plans to step down, then-athletic director Sam Jankovich left for the University of Miami, and the University of Iowa came calling. “It was,” Raveling admits, “a lot more money at Iowa.”
He coached at Iowa for three years before heading to USC. Also under his belt: serving as assistant coach to two U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams—in 1984 and 1988—and winning numerous accolades. He’s been inducted, among others, into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which also bestowed him with its prestigious John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. The WSU Athletic Hall of Fame inducted him, too.
One of his most well-known quotes about Pullman pokes fun at its remote location: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.” He made the quip at “one of those sports dinners, where you get up and speak and tell some jokes. Most people had no idea where Pullman was, and I just used it as levity.”
Joking aside, when it came to WSU, Raveling says, “There wasn’t anything to dislike. Maybe the long drive to the regional airport in Spokane, but that was a small price to pay when you live in an environment where people respected each other and rooted for each other. We were looked upon as being one of the weakest school in the league when I got there, but we took pride in ourselves and the community, and we worked hard and were able to overcome that perception.”
Raveling arrived in Pullman on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, and he presented WSU with a milestone and lasting legacy, serving as the first Black head basketball coach in University history.
“At the time, I didn’t think a lot about it,” Raveling says. “I spent all of my time trying to prove to people that I could coach. When I look back now, race was never an issue. I don’t remember any time that I felt uncomfortable as a Black person at WSU. The University, its leadership, and its athletic department all supported me along the way. The most difficult part of the job was building a sustainable program. One of the biggest reasons it worked was because the administration and the student body were patient with me; they gave me enough time to grow.”
Today, “At 83, sports are no longer a dominant part of my life, but they are still part of my life,” says Raveling, who remains in touch with some of his WSU players, including Craig Ehlo (x’83) and James Donaldson (’79 Socio.).
He still coaches—through Coaching for Success, a consulting firm he founded to focus on leadership, inspiration, and motivation. His Twitter account, which has more than 40,000 followers, is full of positive thoughts and axioms, such as “Every day is a quest for wisdom” and “How we play the game shows something of our character. How we lose shows it all.”
Many of his tweets come from decades’ worth of his own writing. “I go back and share things that I’ve learned over my life that I’ve recorded in my journals,” Raveling says. “I’ve kept journals since 1972. I have them from back when I started at Washington State. I think it helps bring clarity to your thoughts, and I enjoy engaging with people and sharing my thoughts with people.”
On August 28, 2020—57 years to the day after the March on Washington (See related story)—he tweeted, “A fixed mindset is the enemy of possibility,” “Don’t silence the voices you disagree with,” “All voices have relevance,” and, finally, “Don’t use a person as a tool.”
One of the biggest differences he notes between today’s Black Lives Matter movement and the marches, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides of the 1960s is smart phones. “Technology has been our best freedom fighter,” Raveling says. “Technology was able to lay out to the world just what happened to George Floyd, and I think it galvanized not only a national conscience but a global one. Change is never easy—people inherently resist change—but I think people are really receptive to change right now and are trying to do the right thing. It’s going to take time, and we have to be patient and we have to be vigilant. But I remain enthusiastically hopeful that we are going to make the necessary changes.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Raveling says, “I didn’t have to make a big adjustment.” He was already working from home and continues “doing the things that I most enjoy doing: reading and writing.”
Raveling tries “to keep at least four books going at all times. I keep a set of books by the bed and a set of books on the patio. I write a lot of notes on all of the blank pages and in the margins. I enjoy the task of figuring out how to acquire new information and continue to grow as a person. It’s a lifetime game. A lot of it comes from self-leadership and self-discipline; I try to stay focused on the things that are necessary. The longer you live the more you realize you don’t know but need to know.”
Reflecting on his time in Pullman, Raveling says, “If I had to do it all over, I would—all eleven years. We might not have won the most games. But, as far as I was concerned, I had the best job on the league.”
Asked how he wants to be remembered, he pauses. “I just want to be remembered as a meaningful part of the community from a sport’s perspective. I want to be remembered as a person who loved every second of every day that he lived in Pullman, and I’m deeply honored and appreciate that I got to come back.”
“Can I have that, Dr. King?” (Raveling’s experience at Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech)
On the web
Raveling shares his favorite WSU memory (WSU Athletics)
Video: Raveling’s special halftime ceremony at WSU in February 2020
Podcast: Raveling on reading and meeting Harry Truman (The Daily Stoic)