2013 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"I knocked on that door of opportunity until it finally opened."
Richard C. Slocum, known as R.C., was born in Oakdale, Louisiana, in 1944. At the time, his father was in the Philippines serving in World War II. Soon after the war was over, R.C.’s parents divorced. His mother moved with R.C. to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to live with her sister. Within a year, R.C.’s mother remarried. His step-father adopted him and changed his name to Richard Copeland Slocum.
The Slocums settled in Orange, Texas, where R.C.’s father first worked in the shipyard and later as an auto mechanic. They lived in a duplex in a low-rent housing project that had served as military housing during the war. “Some of the sorriest people in the world lived in that neighborhood,” says R.C., “but at the same time, there were some wonderful, caring, hard-working people living there. I learned some great life lessons there.”
R.C.’s parents fell into the category of hard working. “My dad was uneducated, but he knew the importance of education,” says R.C. “When I was in the first grade, he took night courses after work until he earned his Graduation Equivalency Diploma (GED). To me, that was a signal; not only about the importance of education, but also that you do what you have to do to improve your circumstances. By the time I was in the sixth grade, our financial situation had improved to the point where we could move out of the housing project and buy our own house. That was a proud moment for all of us, and I realized that my father’s hard work was paying off for our family’s well-being.”
R.C. is quick to point out that he had a happy childhood. “My mother was a wonderful woman with a very positive attitude,” he says. “Although we didn’t have much in the way of material things, she taught me not to spend my time worrying about what I didn’t have and to start each day being thankful for what I did have. It was a great formula for happiness. I have tried to live my life with this philosophy and tried to pass it on to my children and to the players I coached.”
When he was in the second grade, R.C. went to the local barber shop and asked if he could shine shoes. The barber allowed him to have his little business, but required him to sweep floors and empty ashtrays as well. R.C. was happy to perform the extra chores. He enjoyed the work, which gave him a feeling of accomplishment. He says, “To this day, I still have that shoeshine box I used as a youngster. You can see on the side of the box where I raised my price from 15 cents to 25 cents. I never made a lot of money, but going home with a pocket full of quarters made me feel like I was doing something for myself.”
Once he started fourth grade, R.C. gave up his shoeshine business for a paper route. He held this job until the eighth grade. His next job was bagging groceries at the local store. His diligence quickly got him promoted to stock boy, which raised his pay to $1 an hour. He worked after school each day until 10 and then worked 16 hours on Saturdays. The work allowed R.C. to have some spending money and later to buy a used car. “I was taught early that learning to work hard and do a good job was important to success,” he says.
In the seventh grade, a coach in his physical education class suggested that R.C. go out for football. “I played organized football for the first time then and my life’s direction was changed,” says R.C. “I loved the game and played through junior high and high school. I played well enough that I was given a full scholarship to play in college and become the first in my family to attend college. This changed not only my life, but my entire family’s direction as my two younger brothers followed my lead and attended college. Now, all of our children are college graduates.”
R.C. attended McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on an athletic scholarship. Each summer he worked at hard, dirty jobs in the local shipyard and refineries. These jobs provided his spending money and money for clothes, but also served as motivation to work hard in school. He was on the President’s Honor Roll several times and was selected to Blue Key National Honor Fraternity. At the same time, he was having success on the playing field. Following his senior season, he was selected as the team’s most valuable lineman and held several school records for pass receiving.
From R.C.’s first encouragement to go out for football to his being a record-setting college player, his coaches had played a major role in his life. They not only taught him the game of football, they helped shape him as a person. He began to think that if he could have this impact on other young men’s lives, it would be a meaningful way to earn a living. He chose to become a football coach.
R.C. started his coaching career at Lake Charles High School. He coached football and also taught civics and world history. At the same time, he went to graduate school two nights a week, and for two summers, to get his master’s degree in educational administration and supervision. After two years at the high school level, R.C. had a desire to move into college coaching. In 1970, he quit his job and accepted a graduate assistantship coaching position at Kansas State University. While this job was a big step back in pay, it offered the opportunity to get into college coaching. After one semester, R.C.’s ambition paid off, and he was given a full-time position as head freshman coach.
In 1972, R.C. went home to Texas for Christmas. Soon after his return, he learned that a new head coach had been named at Texas A&M University. Earlier in the season, R.C. had heard this coach might get a head coaching job so he had written him a letter expressing his interest in getting back to Texas. When R.C. heard that the next day would be the new coach’s first on the job, he thought about calling him, but rejected that idea when he realized he would probably never be put through. Instead, he got up at 3:00 a.m. and made the three-hour drive to sit on the front steps of the coach’s office at Texas A&M. After telling the coach’s secretary he wanted an appointment with the coach, she told him that it was not a good time. The new coach would be busy with press interviews, meeting the current assistants, and conducting interviews he had already scheduled with prospective coaches. R.C. said he understood the situation but wanted to stay in case there would be just a minute where he could say hello to the new coach. The secretary shrugged and reluctantly offered him a seat. R.C. sat there all morning, through lunch and early afternoon. Finally, around two, the secretary appeared and told R.C. that there was a short opening at four and the new head coach would see him briefly at that time. “At four, I went in and told him all the reasons why I wanted to work for him and how hard I would work,” says R.C. “He told me that he would let me know something later in the week. Three days later, he called and offered me a job. I have often thought, if I had not been there, waited, and knocked on the door of opportunity until it finally opened, my whole career would have been different.”
R.C. started at Texas A&M in 1972 as an offensive assistant to new head coach Emory Bellard. In 1973, he moved over to the defensive side of the ball as defensive ends coach. After a few seasons, he became linebacker coach and defensive coordinator. After the 1980 season, he moved to the University of Southern California, where he was the linebacker coach and defensive coordinator for head coach John Robinson. In 1982, he returned to A&M as defensive coordinator and in 1985 was elevated to assistant head coach. He served in this capacity until being named football coach in 1989.
After his last season at Texas A&M in 2002, R.C. had compiled a career record of 123-47-2, making him the winningest coach in A&M history. In 14 years, he never had a losing season while winning six championships, including three SWC titles, two Big 12 South titles, and the 1998 Big 12 Championship. He was league coach of the year four times and was runner up for National Coach of the Year in 1994. His teams went to 11 bowl games with five of those being New Year’s Day bowls. The Aggies went four straight seasons without a conference loss and R.C’s 44-6-2 SWC record gave him the highest winning percentage in league history, besting the previous record set by the legendary Darrel Royal of the University of Texas (and a Horatio Alger Member from the class of 1996).
A member of the McNeese State Athletic Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, R.C. Slocum’s successful career as a college football coach was fully recognized in 2012, when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame by the National Football Foundation. “The wins and losses tend to run together after a while,” says R.C., “the true measure of a coach and his success is what the young men that were entrusted to him become. I was given 125 young men every year and I tried my best to teach them teamwork, respect, and to be their best. Not to get carried away when things are going well and not to despair when hard times came their way. I had a saying that I taught every player: It is not the bad things that happen to you that are important, but it is how you react to them.”
Looking back on his modest upbringing, R.C. relates, “One of the real blessings of my childhood was that no one around me told me our circumstances were someone else’s fault. I was taught that America is a land of opportunity and that if I worked hard and got an education, I could be whatever I wanted to be. When I got to high school, I started hearing about college. No one in my family had ever gone, and it was not talked about much in my neighborhood. I can identify with young people today that might come from a similar background. I would be lying if I said I had a bunch of lofty goals when I was 18. As I moved into college and my eventual career, I was taking one little baby step after another. With each step, I became more encouraged and moved the goal higher. Later, in my coaching career, I often saw young people struggling with some of the same issues that I had encountered. There is some insecurity when moving out of one’s comfort zone. I often told my young players who came from backgrounds similar to mine that if they wanted to walk, talk, dress, and act like the guys back home, then they should just stay home. However, if they want to grow and be all they can be, there are people who will help them. Where you start is not nearly as important as where you finish.”