In Play with Tom Markowski

Black History Month: Brenda Gatlin, a pioneer in Detroit, continues to help youth in Metro Detroit

Basketball   | Tom Markowski

State Champs! Sports Network

Detroit – There have been many firsts in Brenda Gatlin’s career as an educator and as a coach.

Gatlin became the girls varsity basketball coach at Detroit Northeastern in 1969 and four years later she was there when the sport made the big switch from six players, three on each side of the court, to the five-player, full court game.

In ’75 she coached the first Detroit Public School League team to a state championship?? Before leaving the Northeastern program after the ’78 season.

The school district moved Gatlin to the newly-opened Detroit Renaissance where she continued to teach but did not coach there because school had yet to sponsor any athletic programs. But that didn’t stop Gatlin from coaching.

For three seasons she was a women’s basketball coach at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Gatlin moved to Detroit Cass Tech in the fall on ’81 to become a teacher and she returned to the high school coaching fraternity as the girls varsity coach at Cass Tech. Her teams won three consecutive PSL titles (’82-’84). In ’84 Cass Tech reached the Class A semifinals.

To the surprise of most everyone in the Detroit area, and perhaps the state, Gatlin took over the boys program at Cass Tech for the ’85-’86 season. With some irony Steve Hall, a freshman on that team, is coaching the boys team. In just his second season back at his alma mater, Hall guided the Technicians to the school’s first boys PSL championship since ’98.

Gatlin lasted just one season as Cass Tech’s boys coach and, as it would turn out, Gatlin’s career as a coach was over.

In the fall of ’86 she became the first woman athletic director at Detroit Southwestern.

“I’m happy for Steve,” Gatlin said. “My claim to fame that season was that we beat Detroit Northern by one point when Derrick Coleman was a sophomore. I remind him of that when I see him.

“One thing about that (’86) team. They hustled. We had just finished our (girls) season, and we went right into the boys.”

Gatlin spent 13 years at Southwestern, including the glory years the basketball program enjoyed with Perry Watson as head coach.

In ’99 the school district had different plans for Gatlin. Gatlin was moved to Detroit Southeastern where for 10 years she served as principal working with people such as Henry Washington and later, Donshell English, a Cass Tech graduate who was Southeastern’s football coach.

Gatlin retired from DPS in 2009 and she will always be remembered as a pioneer within the Detroit Public Schools.

That’s 41 years she worked as a teacher, a coach and an administrator in Detroit. Certainly enough work for most yet Gatlin had more plans.

Before she had time to enjoy retirement Gatlin was back at work. Shortly after leaving Detroit Gatlin began working within the Upward Bound program at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood. Approximately 145 students are selected, mostly from Detroit, to participate in the four-year, high school program. It’s federally funded and the goal is to have all 145 go on to college.

“It’s the same thing I’ve done all along,” she said. “I’m just trying to give kids an opportunity.

“It’s most rewarding. I’m energized. It’s about helping kids.”