Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Accidental Hero

I felt compelled to write after reading John Ed Bradley's piece in the latest volume of Sports Illustrated (CP3 Cover). Bradley wrote about Beryl Shipley the former men's basketball coach at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as The University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Shipley coached at the University for 12 years. He took over a program that in his first year only had 12 games scheduled and some of those against the likes of Houma Air Station and Evangeline Motors. Shipley turned the program around during his tenure; securing multiple top ten finishes, twice guiding the Ragin' Cajuns to the Sweet Sixteen and recruiting players such as Dwight (Bo) Lamar who would lead the country in scoring in 1972 with an average of 36.6 points per game.

Shipley left the program amidst a contract dispute with university officials and under intense scrutiny from the NCAA for a litany of violations. Shipley was accused of paying players, conducting illegal practices and overseeing a program that turned a blind eye to academic concessions made for basketball players. After he resigned, the basketball program received the "Death Penalty" from the NCAA. Shipley succumb to cancer on April 15th at the age of 84. Till the day he died, Shipley defended himself against the NCAA and fought to contradict the portrayl of himself as a rule-breaking coach.

Above all, Shipley should be remembered as the first coach to integrate a major sports team at a large public university in the Deep South. As far as college basketball is concerned and for that matter any historical study of sports in this country, attention is directed towards the 1966 national basketball championship played at Cole Field House on the University of Maryland campus. Don Haskins led his all-black Texas Western starting five to beat the legendary Adolph Rupp and his all white starting five. Haskins has been viewed as a civil rights hero and the game has come to mark a change in collegiate athletics. As Bradley points out, El Paso, the home of Texas Western, was a long way from the Deep South. In a region governed by the likes of George Wallace, Shipley invited black recruits over to his house and openly defied the Louisiana State Board of Regents by not cutting black players.

Shipley was not attempting to make a statement, but rather wanted to win games. Shipley and his assistants realized that widening their recruiting base to connect with black athletes was a necessity. However, his willingness to recruit black athletes would mean much more than just winning games. Shipley's players saw him as a hero who believed he was unfairly punished for going against segregationists policies. Marvin Winkler, among the first of Shipley's black recruits, was quoted in the article as saying, "coach Shipley gave his life for us... they went after him because he was the forefather- the first to walk through the door."

Before reading the article I was not familiar with Beryl Shipley. I had read articles and books about the 1966 national championship and other transcending moments in sports such as the "Turning of the Tide" when an integrated University of Southern California football team demolished Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide. However, I think these lesser known more personal stories are a better way to build an understanding of history. While unintentional, Shipley demonstrated the courage to take a stand and do what was just.

Shipley's story also presents an intriguing case for students to study. His admitted to committing NCAA rules violations. The Ragin' Cajuns endured severe sanctions after his resignation. How do we view Shipley? Bradley wrote the following in his article:

For those who dismiss him, Shipley will always be the rule-breaking renegade whose outsized ambition wrecked a university's basketball program. For the rest of us, he's the flawed, doomed disciple of change ruined by those who did not want to change. He might have done wrong, but the wrong, I've always argued, was at the service of a greater good.

Is Shipley a hero? Where his actions justified considering the times? It would be interesting to engage students in a discussion about Shipley's tenure as basketball coach and how to view his legacy.