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Langston University’s Triumph Is Bigger Than An NAIA Title

On March 23rd, Langston University men’s basketball team fell short of their quest to become the first historically Black college to win a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship since 1977, losing to Freed-Hardeman University (71-67) at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Lions (35-2) did not achieve the desired outcome in their first NAIA championship appearance. However, for Oklahoma’s only HBCU, it marked the turnaround Coach Chris Wright had envisioned when he assumed leadership of the program in 2022.

And for Langston University, their journey is much bigger than a championship.

“Langston is a special place. It’s a place where I know that we can win and win big every single year,” Wright said after the game. “That’s the expectation, and so this is not our last deep run [in the NAIA tournament] here.”

Langston’s presence in the NAIA championship game was the second time in three years that an HBCU reached the national title game. The other program, Talladega College, was also under Wright’s coaching.

Before joining Langston, Wright had just completed three consecutive NAIA tournament appearances, including a runner-up finish in 2022. Langston had only one win in two seasons before his arrival, with a 1-37 record from 2020-21 to 2021-22.

Athletic Director Donnita Drain-Rogers interviewed several coaching candidates who proposed a multi-year process to revamp the Lions’ program. However, Wright’s steadfast commitment to immediate success and unwavering goal of winning convinced her.

“He’s got great players, but Coach Wright is just phenomenal with building a culture, and it has been amazing to sit there as athletic director and just see how he’s created this masterpiece in two years,” Drain-Rogers said.

“The support has grown for the men’s basketball [team], [and we’re] getting good [attendance] numbers for regular-season games. Our fans are traveling well. We have a lot of people that believed in them.”

Wright characterizes his coaching philosophy as emphasizing tough, consistent, and disciplined basketball with a focus on defense. His recruitment strategy targets players with experience at higher levels, emphasizing offensive skills and defensive training.

“We just feel like being at this level for a lot of years, we kind of have a blueprint that’s made [us] successful,” Wright said. “We knew that we could get talented guys in here and flip the program.”

Langston’s transformation from one win to 31 in a single season (from 2021-22 to 2022-23) ranks among the most significant turnarounds in collegiate basketball, aligning Langston with Gannon University, renowned for its 29-win season and inclusion in the NCAA record book for the largest one-year improvement.

Despite facing challenges such as injuries, personal losses, and family health issues over the past two seasons, Wright and his team have demonstrated resilience in response to adversity.

“Our program really is built on love. Sometimes it’s tough love,” Wright said. “As a coach, you get what you tolerate. But just demanding excellence out of everyone in our program every single day, it’s not always fun, but we are a tight-knit family. We do this together. And I think that’s been the difference for us.  

“Just how unselfish these guys are, how much they love each other, how much they care about each other. I think that stretches far beyond the basketball court.”

After the recent tournament defeat, Wright reminded his players of their ability to overcome challenges, reflecting on their journey.

With two NAIA tournament appearances, two conference tournament championships, and a national title runner-up finish under Wright’s leadership, Drain-Rogers believes he has realized his vision of leading a successful program.

“I feel like the sky’s the limit for Coach Wright. I hope that he will be coaching Langston basketball for years to come,” Drain-Rogers said. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I personally feel like he’s one of the best coaches in the nation. So, it may be very difficult to keep him, but I feel like he’s forever changed men’s basketball, and basketball period, at Langston University.”

Most of the players were a part of last year’s team that won 31 games, which was the highest program win total in 10 years. This season, Langston finished with 35 wins.

Several players from this year’s championship team will return next season, including conference player of the year Anthony Roy, and Wright believes there is more success in store for the program.

“That’s our goal every single season, to put ourselves in a position to compete for a national championship,” Wright said. “We know how hard that is to duplicate that, but I know that I’ve committed to doing everything in my power the next 364 days to try to put us in the best situation possible to get back here and to win it.”

Throughout Langston’s NAIA tournament run, the outpouring of support from HBCU coaches, alumni, and social media has been significant, boosting morale within the program.

“Our players take a lot of pride in being able to represent HBCUs across the country on the stage and this platform,” Wright said. “It’s extremely hard I think for anybody to get here, but when you’re at an HBCU, it really is an uphill battle…”It’s really cool to see the respect that we’ve gotten from so many people across the country.”

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