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Breaking barriers

How C.M. Newton changed the face of the SEC


C.M. Newton always tried to make it home in time for dinner with his wife, Evelyn, and their three children. Afterward, he might pull out a board game or head to the den, smoking his pipe as he watched The Ed Sullivan Show.

Newton worked hard not to let his professional life intrude on his family time. A visitor to the house might never guess he was the head basketball coach at the University of Alabama.

Until the time he recruited a black ballplayer. And a Klansman set a cross on fire in Newton’s front yard.

Today, nearly a half-century later, Newton, 86, is retired and back in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after stops in Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; and Lexington, Kentucky. Evelyn passed away in 2000, and Newton and his second wife, Nancy, banter like the old friends they are – they met more than 40 years ago at Alabama when she was the Crimson Tide basketball secretary. Newton’s home office is crowded with the mementos of a remarkable career. But except for basketball insiders, C.M. Newton is not a household name, not like Dean Smith and Bobby Knight, or even Dale Brown and Al McGuire.

And yet, study the man’s resume: He played for famed Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and worked for Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant. Helped select the legendary 1992 Olympic men’s basketball “Dream Team.” Won a national championship as a college basketball player and two more as an athletic director. Chaired the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee. Served as president of USA Basketball. Elected in 2000 to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

NIT Selection Committee Chairman C. M. Newton speaks during a news conference ahead of the 75th Anniversary NIT Championship at Madison Square Garden, Monday, March 26, 2012, in New York.

NIT Selection Committee Chairman C. M. Newton spoke during a news conference ahead of the 75th Anniversary NIT Championship at Madison Square Garden, Monday, March 26, 2012, in New York.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

But none of those accomplishments get to the real significance of Charles Martin Newton’s career. The Klansman with the burning cross saw something most of us have long forgotten or never knew: that no one provided athletic opportunities for African-Americans in the South like Newton. At every stop of his career, he made unprecedented and controversial moves related to race, recruiting the first black players at Alabama, fielding the Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) first all-black starting lineup, hiring the first black coach at Kentucky, and initiating the long-overdue reconciliation between a black athletic pioneer and the university community at Vanderbilt.

“When you think of vision, leadership and action,” on the issues of race and sports in the South, said Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC, “he really does stand above all the rest.”

Not mean enough

Newton grew up across the street from Fort Lauderdale High School in Florida in the 1930s and ’40s in the boardinghouse run by his parents and lettered in baseball, basketball and football all four years of high school. He was a good enough basketball player to earn a roster spot at the University of Kentucky, perennially one of the best teams in the country.

Newton said he “worshipped” Rupp, but he was also scared to death of the coach, called the Baron of the Bluegrass, a taciturn disciplinarian who belittled his players. Newton’s older brother Richard recalled a family visit to Lexington to see C.M. play. “Your son,” the coach told the proud parents, “isn’t mean enough to play college basketball.” It was the best compliment he could muster. Newton was a junior reserve on Kentucky’s 1951 national championship team, but that title game was his last as a Wildcat. A hard-throwing pitcher, he decided to forgo his senior year of eligibility to give professional baseball a shot.

Until this point, Newton had never interacted much with blacks. Rupp was still two decades from integrating his Kentucky teams and the schools in Fort Lauderdale were segregated. Race was not much discussed in the Newton home. He doesn’t recall his parents, R.Y. and Adelia, acting in any hostile ways toward blacks, but there was an acceptance of Jim Crow, the Southern way of life that kept whites on one side of town and blacks in “Coloredtown.” Still, Newton was taken aback by his father’s reaction when he decided to sign with the New York Yankees rather than other clubs that had worked him out, including the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates.

“He offered me congratulations and made me feel like I had really done the right thing,” Newton recalled. “He said he hadn’t wanted to influence my decision in any way, but that I had signed a contract with the team he would have picked, and the reason was because the Yankees had no black boys.”

Hall of Fame coach C.M. Newton explains that while integration is important to him, he keeps it in a context of what it may mean for others.

At the time, all the Yankees’ black players were “hidden away in the minor leagues,” Newton said, including the player whose locker was adjacent to Newton’s in the minor league outpost of Muskegon, Michigan, a black Puerto Rican named Nino Escalera. Seven years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line, Escalera would become the first black player for the Cincinnati Reds in 1954. So, here on the ball fields of the Central League was Newton’s first experience with blacks and his first realization that if you wanted to win ballgames, color shouldn’t matter: Escalera was hitting .374.

Retired now in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the 86-year old Escalera said he doesn’t remember Newton. But he acknowledges that over the span of a 13-year professional baseball career, he was the “first black teammate” for many. Newton lights up at the mention of Escalera’s name, delighted to hear that the man who played a pivotal role in shattering the prejudices in which he had grown up, is still alive. “He was my first black friend,” Newton recalled. “He was a very smart and fun guy and just made such an impact on me and other people.”

Newton spent three undistinguished seasons in the minors. Then, with Rupp’s encouragement, he returned to Kentucky to become the basketball coach at Transylvania University in Lexington, a small college with a sterling academic reputation and a middling basketball tradition. It was at Transylvania that Newton began putting into practice two habits that would endear him to friends and colleagues for decades to come: a deep interest in helping others get started in life, and an understated determination to provide access to African-Americans, even in the face of intense criticism.

Lee Rose was an example of the first trait and a participant in the second. Over the course of four decades, Rose’s career in basketball would include trips to the Final Four as head coach at Purdue and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and stints as a coach and executive in the NBA. But after playing for Newton at Transylvania and graduating with a physical education degree, Rose, who is white, could not find a job.

“I went to Coach Newton and said, ‘I’m having a struggle and need help,’ ” Rose recalled. “He immediately called a superintendent in a small community 15 miles from Lexington and I got a job there as assistant football coach, assistant basketball coach, and head baseball coach. I also taught six classes a day in social studies for sixth- and seventh-graders, and drove the bus on nights we had athletic events. It was a lot of work and it didn’t pay much, but the point is I got a job. And you can never forget the people who put you on the stump, wherever it might be.”

It was Rose who first put Newton in the position to integrate his teams. By the late 1960s, Rose was serving as an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati. A talented walk-on was disappointed he would not be given a varsity scholarship, and he asked Rose to help him transfer. Rose called Newton to see if he had an interest in the player. His name was Jim Hurley, and he was black.

Newton invited Hurley to visit him, and the two hit it off.

“C.M. was much more interested in me as a person than as a basketball player, and I found that rather refreshing,” said Hurley, who is now retired in Arizona after a career as an executive with Procter & Gamble. “I also got a feeling he had a deep interest in people and understood very much what the feelings of African-American students and athletes might be at that time in the 1960s.”

When Newton signed Hurley, Rupp told his former player that he was “ruining basketball in Kentucky.” But Newton said his commitment to stay the course on integration came from a lesson he learned from Rupp himself. “The best thing [Rupp] ever taught me was probably just stick-to-it-ness. Don’t give up your way of thinking because of what somebody else says,” Newton recalled.

Newton focused on making sure the pioneering experience didn’t ruin Hurley. Throughout the 1968 season, which turned out to be Newton’s last at Transylvania, he would invite Hurley to his office to discuss current events and conditions on campus. Newton set Hurley up with an academic adviser who had experience working with black students. He told his white players that with Hurley on the squad, “we’ll get into some challenging situations” on the road, but “remember, it’s all of us or none of us.”

Newton reflects on what signing Leon Douglas meant for Alabama basketball.

Simply acknowledging Hurley’s unique circumstances was unusual at the time. When Vanderbilt basketball coach Roy Skinner recruited Perry Wallace, he took the approach that he’d treat Wallace no different from any other player. Which meant he never talked to the Commodores about the need to have Wallace’s back at road games where fans threatened to lynch him, never sat down with Wallace and asked how he was coping with the hatred he encountered on and off campus.

Newton decided to leave Transylvania after getting a call from Alabama’s Bear Bryant in the spring of 1968. The coaches knew each other from their days at Kentucky, when Newton was playing ball and the young Bryant was coaching the football team.

Newton had just a few questions before accepting a low-ball offer that paid $3,000 less than he was making at Transylvania. The most important: Would there be any restrictions on recruiting?

“He said if I wanted to recruit black players, that was my decision,” Newton recalled, “but that he wasn’t going to recruit any. He would not have done it [integrating his football team in 1971] if he had been able to win. People think he integrated the athletic program at Alabama, but we did first.”

Today, Newton says his willingness to break the color line at Alabama represented nothing more than a desire to build a winning basketball program. He believed he needed to recruit the best in-state players to do that, and if the best players in Alabama were black, so be it. “I get too much credit,” Newton said. “I was just very pragmatic.” Common sense? Maybe so, but who else could claim to have it? In the entire SEC, only Vanderbilt had a black player on its roster.

Newton arrived in Tuscaloosa late in the recruiting period before the 1968-69 season, so it was not until the next year (after an inauspicious 4-20 debut) that he convinced Wendell Hudson of Birmingham’s Parker High to become Alabama’s pioneer. The fact that Bryant made it known he supported the decision tempered some of the backlash, but not all of it. Besides to the cross-burning in Newton’s yard, hateful letters came threatening his children.

As a varsity coach in an era when freshmen were ineligible, Newton didn’t have to pay close attention to his freshman team’s ballgames, but he wanted to see how Hudson would be treated by opposing fans. He was disgusted by what he witnessed at LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss – students, primarily football players clad in their letterman jackets, sat behind the Crimson Tide bench, verbally harassing Hudson with every epithet in the book.

“I remember Wendell taking so much abuse as a freshman, and I just couldn’t understand it,” Newton recalled. “I ended up going to the athletic directors and coaches at these schools and asked them, ‘Please, in deference to Wendell and the two schools, move the lettermen away from our bench.’ I said, ‘Hell, rather than put those crazy football players behind our bench, put our people there.’ So we would put our [traveling party] behind our bench.”

Later that spring, when he learned of an interview Wallace had given to a Nashville newspaper describing the isolation he felt at Vanderbilt, Newton sat down with Hudson, determined that they not let the same thing happen in Tuscaloosa. And while Vanderbilt had been the first to integrate, Skinner did not capitalize on the new recruiting pool he had unlocked; Wallace never had another black teammate. Newton however, followed his plan, stocking his roster with the best black players in Alabama and flouting conventional basketball wisdom in the South: You can’t start a black at point guard, that’s the face of your team. Start no more than two blacks at home games, maybe three on the road.

People took note. Bill Ligon, an African-American player at Vanderbilt in the early ’70s, remembers a visit to a black pool hall on a road trip to Tuscaloosa. “This one guy pulls out a Street & Smith’s [basketball magazine]. And he says, ‘All you all in here, Alabama’s going to tear you up.’ And Alabama had four or five black guys by that point. So these are black guys at a black pool hall rooting for the University of Alabama, and I’m sitting there going, ‘Whoa, times have really changed around here.’ ”

Newton explains why he thinks coach salaries and buyouts are an issue in the NCAA today.

And finally, it happened: On Dec. 28, 1973, T.R. Dunn, Charles Cleveland, Leon Douglas, Charles Russell and Ray Odums took the court for the Crimson Tide at a holiday tournament in Louisville, becoming the first all-black starting lineup in SEC history. It was neither a gimmick nor an attempt to make a statement, though if one were looking for an example of how diversity can improve an institution, Alabama basketball could be a case study. For 40 years with only white players, Alabama won just one SEC championship and never qualified for the NCAA tournament. Once Newton started recruiting the best players, regardless of race, the results were stunning and immediate:

  • 1973-74: 22-4, tied for SEC title
  • 1974-75: 22-5, won SEC title, first NCAA tournament invitation in school history
  • 1975-76: 23-5, won SEC title, advanced to NCAA second round

Perhaps the most startling evidence of the change in Alabama arrived in Leon Douglas’ mailbox during the 1970-71 season. He was a standout junior at Colbert County High School in Alabama and deciding where he would play college ball. It was a letter from Gov. George Wallace, who in 1963 had defiantly stood in front of Foster Auditorium (the old home of the Alabama basketball team) in defense of segregation. Less than a decade later, Wallace was urging Douglas to sign with an in-state school, either Alabama or Auburn. Douglas had no use for advice from Wallace, but he did admire Hudson and Newton. He signed with Alabama and became a four-time All-SEC selection.

The honeymoon ends

“My parents had a saying,” Newton’s daughter Tracy recalled. “Leave while you’re still in love.”

By the spring of 1980, Newton and Alabama may have still been in love, but the honeymoon was over. He had nine consecutive winning seasons, but fans who were ambivalent about SEC championships (after all, the football team was winning national titles) were completely uninspired by third- and fourth-place finishes in the conference. And Newton could no longer ignore the truth that Alabama would always be a football school.

When he accepted a position as assistant commissioner of the SEC in Birmingham, Newton believed he had coached his last game. But after a year behind a desk, he was back on the sidelines as head coach at Vanderbilt. Newton said he respected Vanderbilt’s commitment to academics and its basketball tradition, and he enjoyed coaching in quirky Memorial Gymnasium. But there was one thing he couldn’t understand: why was there no relationship between Vanderbilt and its former players, most notably Wallace?

Newton recalls his relationship with former player Wendell Hudson, whom he signed to play at Alabama.

At Alabama and Transylvania, Newton had taken pride in building a culture of family, making former players feel part of the program forever. He thought this was especially important for the black players who had taken such risks to join him. But at Vanderbilt, the program was in bad shape on the court (66-69 over the previous five seasons) and former players were all but forgotten. One of the first things Newton told his longtime assistant John Bostick was that they needed to initiate a relationship with Perry Wallace.

“What Perry went through at Vanderbilt, no youngster should ever have to go through that,” Newton said. “I always thought Perry showed exceptional guts and courage to put on the Vanderbilt uniform. And I could not believe that he had never been honored by Vanderbilt.”

Bostick said one practical reason to revive Wallace’s connection to the program was the hope that it could help with recruiting. Ironically, Newton had inherited the whitest team in the SEC, a situation he found difficult to turn around.

Still, despite both practical and philosophical reasons to welcome Wallace back into the fold, there was resistance on campus. Hard feelings remained from Wallace’s 1970 interview. It wasn’t until 1989 that Newton was able to arrange for Wallace to be honored, the first time he’d been invited back to campus since he graduated. Since then, the athletic department has created an annual “courage award” in his honor, and classmates raised enough money to endow an engineering scholarship in his name.

Change comes to Kentucky

Adolph Rupp’s record on race is mixed at best. At the very least, Kentucky played against teams with black players when others in the SEC would not. Still, the other side of the ledger is long. Rupp complained in ugly terms to his assistant coaches that the university president was pressuring him to recruit blacks. Louisville, Western Kentucky and even Transylvania signed black players before he did, the reason many blacks in Kentucky still feel ill will toward the program. All of which is why Newton’s most significant move on race may have been at his final professional stop.

When Newton retired from coaching in 1989 to become the athletic director at Kentucky, his mission was to clean up a program on NCAA probation and return the basketball program to its earlier glory. On the ethics side, he chose Bostick to be Kentucky’s first NCAA compliance director. To win, he hired Rick Pitino, who led the Wildcats to their sixth national championship in 1996. When Pitino left for the Boston Celtics, Newton knew he wanted African-American Tubby Smith to be the next coach.

Newton explains why he didn’t hesitate to recruit black players at a time when many other coaches in the SEC were reluctant to do so.

Smith’s hiring “was big in symbol and substance,” Wallace said. “Whether or not one believes that Adolph Rupp deserves the negative reputation he had on matters of race, the fact was that he was exceedingly controversial and people tended to think he ran a very prejudiced shop. So to hire Tubby Smith as coach was really kind of the epitome of breaking down barriers. When you hire a black man to coach in effect the same position as Adolph Rupp, to coach the Kentucky team in Rupp Arena, it was an outstanding statement and extremely significant.”

Smith said that in his discussions before accepting the job, Newton did not talk much about the historic aspect of the hiring. Which is not to say color never came up. “He said, I’m not hiring you because you’re black, I’m hiring you because you can coach,’ ” Smith recalled. “ ‘The only color we see around here is green.’ What he was saying was, ‘You’ve got to win.’ But I still thought he made a courageous decision. I’m sure there were people who frowned on it. But that’s who C.M. Newton is: a gentleman, courageous, caring, a man of vision.”

Looking forward and back

Newton’s desk in Tuscaloosa is littered with phone messages, mostly from former players calling to check in on their old coach. Newton was diagnosed with cancer and opted to undergo surgery in 2014 to remove his bladder rather than undergo chemotherapy. Among the many basketballs that adorn his shelves is one signed by Smith, commemorating Kentucky’s national championship in 1998.

Ask these former players and coaches about the next frontiers in race and sports, and their answers hint at what Newton did for them decades ago.

Hurley says anyone in a leadership position in college athletics should understand the experiences that black players bring with them to largely white colleges. Smith says more needs to be done to propel African-Americans into coaching and administrative positions. Wallace says what’s old is new again, with too many athletes in today’s one-and-done environment emerging from their college experience, whether one or four years, effectively uneducated.

Press Newton to reflect on his trailblazing ways and he’ll allow that he’s proud of his legacy on race, that it could not have been just a coincidence that he advanced the cause at every stop of his career, that he didn’t adopt the stifling bigotry in which he grew up.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith holds up the NCAA Div. I Championship trophy after the Wildcats 78-69 beat Utah in the NCAA Men's Final Four Championship game, Monday, March 30, 1998, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. At right is C.M. Newton, Kentucky atheletic director.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith holds up the NCAA Div. I Championship trophy after the Wildcats 78-69 beat Utah in the NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship game, Monday, March 30, 1998, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. At right is C.M. Newton, Kentucky atheletic director.

AP Photo/L.M. Otero

That burning cross wasn’t his first exposure to the danger of hatred, after all. Indeed, there might be clues to the roots of Newton’s journey in the events of July 19, 1935. R.Y. Newton walked into his Fort Lauderdale home that day and told 7-year-old Richard and 5-year-old C.M. that he had “seen a terrible thing.” Rubin Stacy, an itinerant black farm hand, was hanging from a tree, shot 17 times by a mob of whites. More than 80 years later, Newton recalled how traumatic it was to hear his father talk about the lynching.

Anti-lynching advocates in the 1930s focused on precisely that emotional reaction. Believing they would find little sympathy in appealing to whites to spare black lives, the authors of an NAACP anti-lynching pamphlet produced in the aftermath of Stacy’s murder instead focused on the impact on white children. Photographs of the Stacy lynching scene all showed young white kids standing next to their parents, looking up at the lifeless black body, some smiling. Some of the children were no more than 5 years old and would have been contemporaries of the Newton boys.

“What psychological havoc is being wrought in the minds of the white children?” the pamphlet asked. “Into what kinds of citizens will they grow up? What kind of America will they help to make?”

Andrew Maraniss is a New York Times bestselling author of sports nonfiction for teens and adults. He is also director of special projects at the Vanderbilt University Athletic Department. Online at www.andrewmaraniss.com and on Twitter @trublu24.