Strange: Talent more than skin deep

When I graduated from a Kentucky high school in 1967, playing SEC basketball wasn't an option.

It was a problem I shared with many of the very best senior players around the Southeast that year.

My obstacle was mediocrity. Theirs was being black.

In 2009, about 80 percent of the scholarship men's basketball players on current SEC rosters are African-American. Nobody thinks twice about it any more.

Every February when Black History Month rolls around, I'm immersed in college basketball. For someone in or near my age bracket, it's a time to reflect on the changes that have transpired before our very eyes in the game we love.

This isn't ancient history, folks. We're not talking Abraham Lincoln, or even Jackie Robinson. I was a freshman in college when Perry Wallace of Vanderbilt made history by playing in an SEC basketball game on Dec. 4, 1967.

I had graduated from college before Larry Robinson broke the color barrier in a varsity game for Tennessee in December 1971.

The integration of SEC basketball was a gradual process. When Wallace, an outstanding player and student from Nashville, enrolled at Vandy in the fall of 1966, it was a sign that at least one SEC school was at last ready to address the issue of losing top Southern players to the other leagues.

The Big Ten Conference was nearly 20 years ahead of the SEC in breaking the color line. Jackie Robinson, celebrated as Major League Baseball's pioneer in 1947, had played basketball and football at UCLA in 1939.

In 1950, a City College of New York team with several black players won the NCAA tournament.

Even as the 1960s arrived, blacks from the South were still going north. Wade Houston left Alcoa High School to help integrate Louisville's program in 1962.

It was a time when black players from Tennessee figured in two schools winning national titles.

Paul Hogue of Knoxville was a standout for Cincinnati's 1961 and '62 championship teams.

The Bearcats were denied a three-peat in 1963 when Loyola of Chicago beat them in the title game. Two Loyola starters, Les Hunter and Vic Rouse, were from Nashville.

Loyola beat segregated teams from Tennessee Tech, Mississippi State and Duke on the way to the championship. This quote I found from Hunter in an old Sports Illustrated article gives insight into the mindset of a black player from the South in the early 1960s.

"We weren't just beating players,'' Hunter said. "We were beating a student body, a system, the Klan. We weren't just playing a team; we were playing an ideology.''

By the mid-'60s, mid-major Southern schools like Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State started signing black players. At long last, Vanderbilt accepted Wallace. He signed about two months after Texas-El Paso's five black starters had famously beaten all-white Kentucky in the NCAA championship game.

Wallace was the lone black in the league until his senior year, 1969-70, when Henry Harris debuted at Auburn.

For the 1970-71 season, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky each introduced a black player. Kentucky's Tom Payne was first-team All-SEC in his only season.

In 1971-72, Tennessee, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss broke the barrier. In 1972-73, Mississippi State was the last to come on board.

The distinction of being the first black player to suit up in a Tennessee basketball uniform actually goes not to Robinson but to the late Wilbert Cherry.

A walk-on from Karns High, Cherry played 18 games for the freshman team in 1970-71. He also appeared in four varsity games with Robinson the following year.

Coach Ray Mears had tried to integrate his program prior to Robinson, with no luck.

In the spring of 1967, UT signed Spencer Haywood from Detroit. A phenomenal talent and future NBA star, Haywood couldn't get admitted academically and went to a junior college. (Had he gotten in school, he would have been classmates with Lester McClain, who would become UT's first black football player in 1968.)

In 1970, Knoxvillian Rupert Breedlove had transferred back home from the University of Cincinnati. He's pictured in the preseason media guide but never played a game.

Robinson was a transfer from Ferrum Junior College in Virginia. A solid student and citizen, he had two good seasons at UT, averaging 10.9 points and 8.8 rebounds. He was a captain his senior year.

Mears signed two more black players for the 1973-74 season: Mike Jackson and David Moss. Jackson would become a star, while Moss's career was cut short by cancer.

When Bernard King arrived in 1974, freshmen had become eligible and he scored 42 points in his collegiate debut. Like King's impact at Tennessee, the contributions of the early black athletes around the SEC were immediate and profound.

By 1975-76 - a mere three years after the final SEC school integrated - eight of the 10 players on the Coaches' All-SEC team were African-American.

Alabama trailblazer Wendell Hudson shared SEC player of the year honors in 1973. When Tennessee's King was player of the year in 1976, it was a watershed event. Of the 35 players who have won or shared that title since, only five were white.

Predictably, the demographics of the work force have not been reflected in management.

UT made Houston the first black head coach in the league in 1989. Twenty years later, he's one of only nine. And that's counting Tubby Smith twice, at Georgia and Kentucky.

This season, 19 of 36 SEC assistant coaches are black.

Georgia and Alabama are in the market for a new coach. If one or both hire black candidates it won't be a big deal any more. After all, the President of the United States is African-American.

More importantly, the days are long over when a worthy recruit from Knoxville or Birmingham has to go play at Loyola of Chicago.

If I were a high school senior today, my dream would still be thwarted by mediocrity. Fortunately, being black is no longer an obstacle.

Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or strangem@knoxnews.com.

Get Copyright Permissions © 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!

© 2009 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 32

JohnsonCity_George writes:

Nice read. I was clueless about most of this. I also had no clue you were that much older then me.

volbald writes:

What Strange hasn't told you is that when AD Doug Dickey took Wade Houston to eat at the Cherokee Country Club, where UT paid for or encouraged several executive memeberships, the private country club refused to admit him because he was black. There was a brief public uproar over UT's paying for memberships or encouraging membership in a white's only country club - but I never heard the final outcome. Cherokee still advertizes itself as a "private" club - whatever that means. So much for racial enlightenment in UT-Knoxville.

beachvol1 writes:

Why even bring this up...doesn't matter what color you might be, if you can coach, you can coach.....simple as that...

Couchdummy writes:

Good article Mike!!

MrBamSeydu writes:

It's just funny to me that everyone complains about the lack of black head coaches in sports.

Why isn't there an argue for Asian head coaches? Pacific Islander head coaches? Hispanic head coaches?

Like this article says, in general, most athletes are black. So could someone argue that Asian or Hispanic players just aren't getting the same opportunities?

For God's sake, we have a black president now. So in my opinion, in this day and age there really almost can't be a cry about unfair hiring practices. The day the United States had a majority vote of an African American as president, all those cries should fall on deaf ears.

(note: In no way am I racist. I just hate hearing people complain about racism in sports when all they really mean is black people. If they want to argue the head coaching point, include all races)

volaholic45 writes:

in response to RobtheVol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Take your meds, go to bed, and try reading the article again in the morning.

teampenny#658108 writes:

Good read. Learned some stuff. However, I feel no guilt nor am I responsible for what my fore fathers have done. Education and/or money is the great equalizer without one or the other no matter what your skin color may be you will not be treated equal. Just my observation watching the world go by during my sixty years.

volaholic45 writes:

in response to teampenny#658108:

Good read. Learned some stuff. However, I feel no guilt nor am I responsible for what my fore fathers have done. Education and/or money is the great equalizer without one or the other no matter what your skin color may be you will not be treated equal. Just my observation watching the world go by during my sixty years.

You are right, although money sure evens things up better than education does. And money does it pretty well without education.

However, I have always taken heart in life's other equalizers. The love of a good woman, the satisfaction of a job well done, even simple joys like a good meal or laying your head down at the end of the day are experienced the same whether you are rich or poor.

VolJunkie writes:

Nice article Mike ... also good to know that there is at least one person on here that is a bit older than me!

slsmithsr#269458 writes:

Thanks for the history lesson Mike.
I lived through all of this, and it shaped my pattern of thought in my formative years.
Not forgetting "where we all came from" ensures that the negative will not repeated.
Digest the meat of this rewind and adjust your mental focus on the advantages of knowledge. We move forward, but it's always wise to keep an protective eye on redundancy.

Things have changed, it's evident. It's also evident that retention of "heritage" is very important in many southern households.... The War Against Northern Aggression will never be forgotten....hint! Why,? Because people deem it important. What some consider trival, others don't.

teampenny#658108 laid it out correctly:
"Education and/or money is the great equalizer without one or the other no matter what your skin color may be you will not be treated equal." Amen!! I add to that what Solomom said: "Wisdom give life to them that find it."

Most of this article deals with student/athletes receiving a college education and it's effect on their/our lives. Do you think any of these people have forgotten what they experienced? Do you think, that they think, it is NOT important to tell their story...or have someone to tell it for them?
What these pioneers did during the era has had a positive effect on many of us in our everyday lives.
We always point to something someone "has done in the past" to inspire us toward "doing something beneficial today."
I just hope what we "DO" today is benefical to someone tomorrow!
Lord, help us!

JayTee writes:

Didn't Georgia just fire a black head coach that wasn't doing so well. This is just another bull sh** article to give someone something to try to make yourself feel good.

NO_DIGGITY writes:

Ruppert Breedlove could have been a force, he scored over 20 points and had double digit rebounds in the Orange and White B-ball game against Len Kolsmoski. Of course Kos was a freshman at the time and was not eligible to play that year and Ruppert already had a year of College Ball at Cincinnati. He got kicked of the team shortly after the Orange and White game. He also took a beating from Steve Kiner according to Marvin West's book. Maybe he left the team becasue of this.

http://books.google.com/books?id=Ict_...

CoverOrange writes:

in response to MrBamSeydu:

It's just funny to me that everyone complains about the lack of black head coaches in sports.

Why isn't there an argue for Asian head coaches? Pacific Islander head coaches? Hispanic head coaches?

Like this article says, in general, most athletes are black. So could someone argue that Asian or Hispanic players just aren't getting the same opportunities?

For God's sake, we have a black president now. So in my opinion, in this day and age there really almost can't be a cry about unfair hiring practices. The day the United States had a majority vote of an African American as president, all those cries should fall on deaf ears.

(note: In no way am I racist. I just hate hearing people complain about racism in sports when all they really mean is black people. If they want to argue the head coaching point, include all races)

Back before Texas Western took on Kentucky in that famous championship there was the popular notion that you had to have a white player on the court at all times to run the team. Texas Western trashed that idea. Now, with 80% of all teams black, don't you find it odd that many more of those players don't turn in to coaches once their playing days are done?

Are there any college coaches that weren't college players at one time? In football there are only 4, out of 120 programs. There are over 300 D-1 basketball programs.

If there were a more significant percentage of pacific islanders and hispanics playing in college you would have an arguement. There aren't, and not because they are discriminated against.

I understand where you are coming from, but in this case there seems to be a bias.

johnlg00 writes:

The fact that the mention of race in any conceivable context still causes heads to explode undermines the idea that none of this history matters anymore.

richvol writes:

Does anyone know if Tom Payne is still in prison and if not what is he doing?

I also wonder what happened to Lee Otis Burton,the gifted athlete that had to quit football after his freshman season due to what UT said was a "blood disease".

GoVol writes:

"In 2009, about 80 percent of the scholarship men's basketball players on current SEC rosters are African-American. Nobody thinks twice about it any more."

Why is that? Racism?

If 80% of the scholarships today went to white players there would be a riot. So, since 80% of the players are now black it is believed by some that their coaches should also be black.

The best players should play and the best coaches should coach. Color should not be a factor, but it really irks me when some folks say there should more of this color or more of that color in certain positions.....justify this please?

Volunatic writes:

in response to Plasticman:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

No, Wade Houston never was admitted as a member of Cherokee. The first black member was Dr. Barbara Hatton, president of Knoxville College, admitted into the club in 2002.
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-86047...

newtonrail writes:

in response to RobtheVol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Naffy, how can you in good conscience call anyone a racist? I know you hate the Mannings, Shuler, Bradshaw, and any other Caucasian ball player, but what's the deal with Packer? I don't live in KTown so I only see the 2 or 3 articles he writes for KNS. Of course since nothing you say in your rants makes sense, I'm sure that doesn't either.

Volunatic writes:

"Are there any college coaches that weren't college players at one time?"

Coach Pearl is one.

utvol2485 writes:

in response to Volunatic:

"Are there any college coaches that weren't college players at one time?"

Coach Pearl is one.

Unless I'm mistaken, Charlie Wise, Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Paul Johnson, David Cutcliffe, and George O'leary never played ball in college.

jimr07 writes:

in response to RobtheVol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

you are the biggest bigot i know of.

jimr07 writes:

in response to utvol2485:

Unless I'm mistaken, Charlie Wise, Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Paul Johnson, David Cutcliffe, and George O'leary never played ball in college.

cutcliff played at alabama.

utvol2485 writes:

in response to jimr07:

cutcliff played at alabama.

I'll take your word for it because I really don't know. The only source I could find was wikipedia and, as we all know, I'm not so sure how accurate the information on there really is. It said he went to Bama and worked under Bryant as an assistant, but never mentioned him playing.

NO_DIGGITY writes:

in response to utvol2485:

I'll take your word for it because I really don't know. The only source I could find was wikipedia and, as we all know, I'm not so sure how accurate the information on there really is. It said he went to Bama and worked under Bryant as an assistant, but never mentioned him playing.

Cutcliffe was signed to play at Alabama, but suffered a career ending injury before he got to play in a game.

MidTennVol writes:

When is Green History Month? I forget...

friendut writes:

in response to MrBamSeydu:

It's just funny to me that everyone complains about the lack of black head coaches in sports.

Why isn't there an argue for Asian head coaches? Pacific Islander head coaches? Hispanic head coaches?

Like this article says, in general, most athletes are black. So could someone argue that Asian or Hispanic players just aren't getting the same opportunities?

For God's sake, we have a black president now. So in my opinion, in this day and age there really almost can't be a cry about unfair hiring practices. The day the United States had a majority vote of an African American as president, all those cries should fall on deaf ears.

(note: In no way am I racist. I just hate hearing people complain about racism in sports when all they really mean is black people. If they want to argue the head coaching point, include all races)

I couldn't agree more. Just shut up with all of the race cards. My ancestors are scottish and were slaves to Britian for over 800 years, so don't talk to me about 400 years. I'm not a racist (of course that will be the outcry); I'm just tired.

friendut writes:

in response to General_Watermelon:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Who really is the racist here?

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

Thanks for reminding us that us American whitey's aren't of much use in any sport requiring quickness, running, or jumping.

I remember all those old vols, and they did a great job of creating acceptance. In football, Condredge did more for race relations than MLK or the NAACP. Same goes for Bernard and for Mike Jackson.

It has taken a while, but as Mike says, you don't think twice about all-black teams. White players are pretty much far and few. Some of it is physical ability, some of it is work ethic, and some of it is culture. Europeans do just fine in the NBA; they are trained better, and work harder, and their development system is better.

Black Americans are some of the best athletes in the world. Think about it: many, many where hand-picked in Africa for being strong. They survived a nightmare voyage, one that killed off the weak. Many THEN had work, um, like SLaVES, again kiling off the weak. Many of the black men and women who built this country where TOUGH. When you add that heredity to the work ethic many black players have, and the cultural pride they take in playing well, you have a potent mix of positive factors.

Now, 300 years later, the slave offspring are pretty much dominate in sports. These old guys Mike mentions, they dsserve as MUCH RESPECT as anyone in this land for helping race relations, and for pushing the envelope with their talent.

Great jobs, men.

friendut writes:

in response to Timed_vol:

Thanks for reminding us that us American whitey's aren't of much use in any sport requiring quickness, running, or jumping.

I remember all those old vols, and they did a great job of creating acceptance. In football, Condredge did more for race relations than MLK or the NAACP. Same goes for Bernard and for Mike Jackson.

It has taken a while, but as Mike says, you don't think twice about all-black teams. White players are pretty much far and few. Some of it is physical ability, some of it is work ethic, and some of it is culture. Europeans do just fine in the NBA; they are trained better, and work harder, and their development system is better.

Black Americans are some of the best athletes in the world. Think about it: many, many where hand-picked in Africa for being strong. They survived a nightmare voyage, one that killed off the weak. Many THEN had work, um, like SLaVES, again kiling off the weak. Many of the black men and women who built this country where TOUGH. When you add that heredity to the work ethic many black players have, and the cultural pride they take in playing well, you have a potent mix of positive factors.

Now, 300 years later, the slave offspring are pretty much dominate in sports. These old guys Mike mentions, they dsserve as MUCH RESPECT as anyone in this land for helping race relations, and for pushing the envelope with their talent.

Great jobs, men.

Blacks say they can't be racist? Just look at this derogatory post. Must be Louis Farakan or one of his other "kill White people" brethern. If you're so pissed off, freakin' leave. I know I'm going to, right after I retire from the white-hating public school system where the inmates run the asylum.

pventimi#592480 writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

What the heck is the deal with all of these third-person, false-persona posters that have sprung up lately? First witchdoctor, then caveman, now okemo... WTF?!

mtnbikrtn writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Are you from Okemah, OK? How 'bout them Sooners!

CarlChilders writes:

Larry Robinson. I had almost completely forgotten him. Best I remember, he was a money player in the clutch.

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features