published Sunday, February 26th, 2012

SEC now leader in diversity

It isn't easy being the first. Especially when you're the first black scholarship athlete at the University of Alabama, which basketball player Wendell Hudson was in the autumn of 1969.

The first day he walked into Bryant Hall for a meal during the football team's two-a-day practices, silence swept over a dining hall that had been filled with noisy conversation seconds earlier.

"I'll never forget how quiet it got," Hudson recalled Saturday. "There was no sound."

Yet it was also somewhat understandable.

"These were rural Southern kids, most of whom had never gone to school with blacks," said then-Bama basketball coach C.M. Newton. "They weren't sure how to act."

And the early questions directed Hudson's way could be clumsy.

"The typical stereotyping," he said. "How fast can you run? How high can you jump? I had to tell them I wasn't that fast, I was just a basketball player."

But thanks to the man the Bryant Hall dormitory was named for -- legendary football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant -- that dynamic changed quickly.

"We had to go to the dining hall every night at 10 for a light snack," said Hudson, who'd grown up 60 miles away in Birmingham. "Usually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some fruit, a glass of milk. Coach Bryant always came by to eat something, too."

Having found himself at the front of the line one night, Hudson was sitting all alone at a table when the most unmistakable voice in the Heart of Dixie asked him, "Can I sit with you?"

"I can't even tell you what Coach Bryant and I talked about," Hudson said. "Just small talk. I was no nervous I was just trying to choke down that peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get out of there."

But Bear's gesture served its purpose.

Or as Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart -- a junior member of the Bama basketball team that season -- noted: "I never saw black and white with Wendell, and I don't think our teammates did, either. We accepted him from the beginning, just like we would have anyone else."

But that didn't mean his life was uniformly comfortable. There were professors who didn't want him in their classes. There were students who shunned him. Even some of Tide's boosters were upset, despite the fact that Hudson would eventually become the SEC player of the year.

"Some of our fans were ready [for integration]; some weren't," said Newton, who had previously integrated the basketball program at Transylvania in Lexington, Ky. "It was terribly difficult."

But the most difficult single night is still nearly as vivid to Hudson today as it was 42 years ago when the Tide traveled to Oxford, Miss., to face the Ole Miss Rebels.

"They didn't use league officials for freshman games," he said. "They used local refs to save money. I fouled out in five minutes. And there was a reason for that. It forced me to sit on the bench and listen to horrible stuff from the crowd. Awful racial slurs. Ugly, ugly things. It was the worst verbal abuse of my whole life."

But a lot can change in 42 years. Hudson will coach the Crimson Tide women today when they visit Vanderbilt in their final regular-season game before the Southeastern Conference tournament. And he worked at Ole Miss in the mid-1980s, exactly 10 years after his playing career ended.

"Things change; people change," he said. "I'm not going to say everything's perfect. But things are a lot better for blacks in the South today than they were when I was growing up."

As the final days of Black History Month tick away, things have become so much better for black football and men's basketball coaches in the SEC that the league is now SECond to none when it comes to black head coaches in those sports among the six power conferences.

Think about that: The league that once saw Lester Maddux run the state of Georgia and Alabama governor George Wallace briefly block the entrance to Foster Auditorium in a failed attempt to keep Vivian Malone and James Hood from registering for UA classes in 1963 now leads the nation in diversity in its two biggest money-generating sports.

In fact, Hudson now coaches some games inside a renovated Foster.

"Progress has been made," he said.

The SEC currently has two black head football coaches -- Kentucky's Joker Phillips and Vanderbilt's James Franklin -- and five men's head basketball bosses: Anthony Grant at Alabama, Mike Anderson at Arkansas, Tony Barbee at Auburn, Trent Johnson at LSU and Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee.

In the current school year that's at least two more than in any of the other five BCS leagues, the Big East and Pac-12 each totaling five over the two sports, the ACC and Big 12 two each and the Big Ten but one -- Minnesota basketball coach Tubby Smith.

What's more, the Big 12's two black coaches -- Missouri basketball coach Frank Haith and new Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin -- will both become SEC coaches next season.

And to think the SEC didn't hire its first black head basketball coach until Wade Houston came to Tennessee in 1989 and didn't have a black head football coach until Sylvester Croom went to Mississippi State in 2004.

Yet in the years since, every school in the league except South Carolina and Florida has had at least one black coach in either football or men's basketball.

"I am pleased we have made significant improvements in the hiring and promoting of minority coaches," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who made minority employment a priority when he took over the league in 2002.

"Diversity makes us stronger and we will continue to focus on fostering an environment that creates opportunities for all, including student-athletes, coaches and administrators."

Yet even now some coaches and former coaches wonder if there's not a different standard for black coaches -- a higher standard, a less forgiving standard.

Much last year's ESPN documentary "The Color Orange" about former Tennessee quarterback Condredge Holloway's struggles as the SEC's first black signal caller caused us to revisit a difficult time, this year's ESPN production "Forty Minutes of Hell" has focused on he rocky road former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson traveled on his way to the 1994 NCAA title.

"My biggest problem is that I feel like we're [blacks] judged as a group while Caucasian coaches are judged as individuals," said Richardson, who remains one of just three black coaches to have won an NCAA title -- the other two being former Georgetown coach John Thompson and Minnesota's Smith during his time at Kentucky.

"If I had failed, a lot of people behind me might not have gotten a chance. For years and years, if we were fired, we never resurfaced as a head coach."

Added current Razorbacks coach Anderson, who was Richardson's top assistant on the NCAA title team: "It's up for debate, I guess, but I don't think there's any question that the SEC has the number of black coaches it has today because of what Nolan accomplished."

Hudson somewhat disputes this, siding with Newton in the belief that the growth of black coaches in the SEC has been a "natural progression."

Hudson does believe blacks still lag behind when it comes to athletic administration, where "there's still much work to do," he says.

Yet Newton also once said of Hudson's presence on the Tide campus: "Who's probably had the most influence on my career? Wendell. If he hadn't succeeded, I'm back at Transylvania. There's no question about that."

Without Hudson, even Coach Bryant's legacy might have been different. After all, the first black football players didn't arrive until a year or two after Hudson, and many of those players paved the way for Bear's glorious run through the 1970s and his back-to-back national championships in 1978 and 1979.

Or as Hart noted, "Wendell didn't just help recruit basketball players by telling them what a good place Alabama was; he told a lot of football recruits the same thing. He was one of the best recruiters they had."

Which just goes to show you should never underestimate the power of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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