“Never, never be afraid to do the right thing…society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict in our soul when we look the other way.” Martin Luther King, Jr
1987 – Rockdale County High School – Conyers, Georgia: It has been 35 years, but people in Rockdale County still talk about Coach Cleveland Stroud and the 1987 state championship. The mementos are still there: the framed front page of The Rockdale Citizen with the headline, “Bulldogs King of AAA,” the pictures of team members and the autographed team basketball displayed in the trophy case.
Cleveland Stroud grew up in Rockdale County. He attended Morehouse College on a basketball scholarship, but when his wife, Helen, became pregnant, he dropped out of school and took a job as a custodian in the Rockdale County school system to support his family. Stroud worked as a janitor for 11 years, until age 31, when he enrolled again at Morehouse. At age 34, he graduated and became a teacher and basketball coach in the Rockdale County school system.
In 1987, Coach Stroud, the school’s first Black head coach, began his 11th season as basketball coach of Rockdale County High School. The Bulldogs began the season with 15 players, but Stroud cut five players who failed to make the previous semester’s grades. Despite having to move five players up from the junior varsity team, Rockdale finished the season at 21-5 and made the state tournament. The Bulldogs surprised the number one team, Bainbridge High, in the semifinals and then had a dramatic 62-60 come-from-behind-win over Fulton in the championship game, to claim the school’s first basketball title.
A month after the state championship, Coach Stroud was reviewing grades on a Friday afternoon prior to spring football practice when he discovered that one of his sophomore players who moved up from the JV had been academically ineligible. The player had played for 45 seconds in the first state tournament game when the team was leading by 23 points.
Stroud had a dilemma. If he revealed the minor infraction, his team would likely be deprived of their state championship. If he kept quiet, it was unlikely that anymore would ever discover the offense. But he knew. And if he kept quiet, his state championship would always be tainted with an ugly little secret. Stroud thought about it all weekend. He knew what he had to do. On Monday morning he was waiting in Principal Henry Gibb’s office when he arrived.
“My heart hit the floor when Coach Stroud told me,” Gibbs said. “But there was never any question about what we had to do. We were wrong, and we had to turn ourselves in.” They reported the infraction later that day to the Georgia High School Association.
After informing the school board and the team, Gibbs and Stroud went on the school’s public address system and informed the students that they were probably going to lose their state championship. Then they left campus because they didn’t want the students to see them crying.
A month later, the state association stripped Rockdale County High of their championship and asked for the trophy to be returned. Many Bulldog fans were angry about the turn of events. The kid only played for 45 seconds. He didn’t even score. How could the Georgia Association strip the Bulldogs of their title?
Later that year, Cleveland Stroud’s decision to do the right thing was recognized with numerous awards, including Conyers Citizen of the Year and Georgia High School Coach of the Year. The International Olympic Organization’s Fair Play Committee awarded Stroud and the school the prestigious Youth Fair Play Award.
“I called a team meeting and shared with them what had happened,” 84-year-old Cleveland Stroud reminisces. “They can take away our trophy, and they can take away our title, but they can’t take away the fact that we won. In a few years people will forget the score, and even who won, but they won’t ever forget what you’re made of.”
In Rockdale County, Georgia, people have long since forgotten the Bulldog’s state championship details, but they have never forgotten Cleveland Stroud’s integrity. Giving up the state title brought more recognition than winning the championship.