A legendary coach, trained in the sciences, whose name is synonymous with the Catholic-school athletic program he strove hard to build – the name of Knute Rockne might readily come to mind elselwhere in America, but in New Orleans the man whose name veritably equates to athletics is that of Coach Alfred C. Priestley. Coach Priestley spent his entire professional career at the helm of athletic departments of Xavier Preparatory High School and later Xavier University.
Alfred C. Priestley, Jr. was born in New Orleans on 29 September 1900 to Alfred C. Priestley, Sr. and Desire M. Morse. His father, a native of Saint James Parish, was a graduate of Leland University and a longtime educator. He served for much of his career as principal of McDonogh No. 24 School in the Carrollton section of New Orleans. His mother was a native of New Orleans and the daughter of Amos Morse and Alice Thornton. Alfred, Jr. was one of six children born of his father’s two marriages, his first wife having been Mrs. Nellie Chapman, also a native of Saint James Parish.
Alfred was reared Uptown at 1403 Burdette Street near Willow and began his education at McDonogh No. 24, the school led by his father. He went on to study at the then newly-established Xavier Prep, where he graduated in the Class of 1917. There being yet no collegiate department at Xavier, he went to Howard University, the “mecca” of black education, where he studied architecture and pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He was an All-American at Howard where he played center. He graduated in 1924. Returning to New Orleans, he joined the faculty of his alma mater, Xavier Prep. Beginning late in 1925, by 1926 he assumed full charge of athletics and coached four sports over the next twenty years: football, basketball, baseball, and track. Under the leadership of “Zack” Priestley, as he was called, the Yellow Jackets were a dominant force in prep athletics across the region. Among his students at Xavier Prep was Hiram Workman, who would later join his program as assistant head coach at Xavier University.
Upon the resignation of Coach Ted Wright, who accepted an offer elsewhere, Coach Priestley was offered the position of head coach and athletic director at Xavier University. Once again, he made a distinguished record; with his Xavier Gold Rush, he proved a formidable rival to the coaches and teams from Southern University, Tuskegee Institute, and other black colleges throughout the South. During this period, the crowds regularly outnumbered the seats in the open-air Xavier Stadium. Among the fundraising innovations he introduced at Xavier was the famed ‘holiday invitational,’ which was always held in the period between Christmas and New Year’s. This sensational display of talent drew teams from around the South.
Coach Priestley was known as a real disciplinarian and a “fundamentalist” type of coach. He emphasized a ‘never-say-die’ attitude and was known to lead his teams to many a turnaround victory. The New York Amsterdam News once remarked that he was famous for developing “outstanding blockers, line-stars, and shifty, swivel-hipped backfield aces.” Among his players were Otis Washington and George ‘Nick’ Connor, who would both go on to have legendary careers as coaches.
He remained head coach at Xavier until 1959, when Xavier left intercollegiate athletics, primarily due to the cost. He remained a member of the faculty in the Health and Physical Education Department and served as director of intramurals sports until 1969.
His reputation was legendary and he earned the title of ‘Dean’ of coaches throughout the region. Upon his retirement in 1969, an athletic scholarship was named in his honor at Xavier. For many years, he had the distinction of being the oldest living alumnus of Xavier Prep and was able to join in the school’s Silver Anniversary celebrations. Coach Priestley died on 1997 at the age of ninety-seven years old.
He was survived by his wife of sixty-eight years, Dorothy Lisberg Priestley and his children Alfred Priestley, Peter Priestley, and Mrs. Desire Priestley Dupre.
Sources: Times-Picayune, 1 November 1998, page 56; The Sphinx (December 1948), page 36; New York Amsterdam News, 11 September 1948, page 8.