WALTERBORO — The youngest college basketball coach in America coaches one of his former high school teammates, is known to his players by the rap name “C-Henny,” and still looks a bit like that little boy dressing up for church when he puts on a suit and tie for a game.
Meet USC Salkehatchie coach Corey Hendren, who at 22 years old is believed to be the youngest college coach in the country. The former Lexington High School standout is fresh out of Milligan College in Tennessee, where he earned a degree in business. At an age where most coaching hopefuls are making coffee runs as graduate assistants, Hendren is running his own program at USC Salkehatchie, a two-year college of about 1,100 students with campuses in Walterboro and Allendale.
And by all accounts, he’s doing a first-rate job. The Indians are 15-10 overall and in first place in Region X of the National Junior College Athletic Association with a 4-1 mark in league play.
“He really relates to us, because he’s pretty much our age,” said sophomore forward Nygel Gates, who was with the Lexington varsity when Hendren was a senior on that team. “But when we’re not focused coming into a game or in practice, he’ll get on us. He knows how to keep us focused.”
During a hard-fought 76-71 win over Clinton College of Rock Hill on Thursday night, Hendren didn’t raise his voice once. His suit jacket remained on throughout, and a shake of the head was the only outward sign of frustration. He’s always shown a maturity beyond his years, say those who know him best.
“The way he carries himself, he was able to get the players’ respect right off the bat,” said Rob Brendle, who was an assistant coach at Milligan during Hendren’s career and is now USC Salkehatchie’s director of student activities. “The way he runs things, his attention to detail and discipline, he got their respect in the first couple of weeks. But because of his age, he is able to immediately relate to the guys. His own playing days just got over, so he knows the academic struggles and the time management issues they have.”
Hendren says he’s known he wanted to coach since he was a boy. His mom, Jeanette Farr of Lexington, recalls a 3-year-old Corey reading issues of Sports Illustrated.
“I knew then that we might have a coach on our hands,” Farr said.
Hendren, who is 6-foot-5, was a good player at Lexington High, where he played for respected coach Bailey Harris and graduated in 2010. Hendren played with former South Carolina receiver Shaq Roland at Lexington, and his team lost to Gaffney in the state final his senior year. At Milligan, he was a three-time member of the conference’s all-academic team. Brendle and Milligan head coach Bill Robinson had Hendren pegged as a future coach.
“We were trying to get him a graduate assistant job at Liberty, and then a couple of other assistant jobs,” said Brendle. “And then this job at USC Salkehatchie opened up.”
USC Salkehatchie athletic director Jane Brewer is the one who went out on a limb by hiring an unproven 22-year-old with no previous coaching experience other than coaching the Milligan junior varsity as part of an internship.
“Someone recommended Corey to me and said you’ve got to at least talk to this kid,” Brewer said. “They said, he’s young but he’s really good and he’ll do a good job for you. So as a favor to that person, I said, OK, I’ll talk to him. And when I met him, I thought, ‘He looks so young.’ I was kind of astonished.”
But after a two-hour meeting and solid references from Harris and Robinson, Brewer decided that Hendren was a good fit for a job like the one at USC Salkehatchie, where the coach has to do everything from laundry and floor-buffing to recruiting and fund-raising.
“I was looking for somebody who thought it’d be a great adventure,” Brewer said. “Most people, when you tell them they have to do the laundry and clean the floor, you don’t have any assistants, they’d be like, ‘Who wants to do that?’ Corey thought it was cool and that it’d be fun.
“I tell my coaches all the time, it’s your program, you have to do everything. But the plus is, it’s your program and you get to do everything.”
Hendren does have a couple of unofficial assistants in Brendle and former USC Salkehatchie player Brian Johnson. Occasionally, a referee or opposing coach will mistake one of the older men as the head coach. But more and more, people are getting used to the idea that the young man in the suit is the guy in charge.
“When I came in, I told the guys that we were trying to create a culture here,” Hendren said. “That starts from the ground up, and so I respect those guys by demanding that they respect me as well. The only way we reach our goals is for all of us to believe in one another. That’s how a team works.
“They know I’m going to work hard, and that I expect them to work hard. I’m working to get them better, and one thing I’ve learned already — a coach is only as good as his players.”
Hired in August, Hendren had little time to put together his first team. Three of his six freshmen are from the Charleston area, including John Jenkins and Christian Kalacnic of Summerville High and Vernon Lowndes from Stratford. Sophomores Terrance Jenkins (Wando), Lee Vanderhorst (Wando) and Scott Hollins (Military Magnet) are all starters. Carlos Rankins, a 6-2 sophomore guard from Greensboro, scored 21 points in Thursday’s win, while the 6-4 Gates scored 20.
The Indians are aiming to make the NJCAA national tournament. If that happens, Brewer may be faced with hiring a new coach a bit sooner than she hoped.
“We want Corey as long as he’ll stay,” Brewer said. “But at whatever point he gets a better opportunity, we’ll be so happy for him, because he deserves it.”