by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We often have to chuckle when the SEC is referred to merely as “that football conference.” Which is a rather recent development, forged by a microwave, yesterday’s-news-is-old-news sports media that has a hard time recollecting much beyond the past year. Granted, SEC football has outpaced SEC hoops in recent years, and it has not been a vintage last couple of seasons on the hardwood for Southeastern Conference teams. But it wasn’t long ago (try 2006 & 2007) that Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators were winning back-to-back NCAA titles, and the SEC was considered perhaps the top hoops league in the land. And much of college hoops lore is centered in the SEC, too. Kentucky’s storied program has won eight NCAA crowns in its illustrious history and is annually a top contender. Arkansas was champion in 1994. LSU and Mississippi State are also two of five SEC schools that have qualified for the Final Four in the past 16 years. And, in a moment, we’ll review what’s going on in the SEC West in the first of our two-part conference review as the current SEC campaign moves into late January.

There are some significant markers in college sports history that have also been placed by the SEC. It is well documented that conference rep Vanderbilt became the first major Southern school to break the color line in sports when hoopster Perry Wallace (now a professor at American U School of Law in Washington, D.C) suited up for the Commodore varsity in 1967. But there’s another important name associated with the conference who might have had more impact on social change than any other in the history of college sports, and deserves to be remembered by more than a few old timers who can recall what was happening in the early 1960s.

If the name Dean W. Colvard doesn’t mean much to you, we’ll tell you why it should.

The role of sport in the civil rights movement is an important one, as has been reiterated by ESPN in an ongoing series of special programming this week to mark the 25th anniversary of the holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. We have seen parts of the programs and, like most, have been moved by some of the presentations. We’re not sure, however, if Dean Colvard’s name has been mentioned in any of the programming to this point. Perhaps it has, and perhaps it will be in upcoming segments. We hope it will.

In researching one of our book projects, entitled Ramblers vs. Bearcats, the story of Loyola-Chicago and Cincinnati and the 1962-63 season, we became familiar with Dr. Colvard’s significance. Specifically, Colvard was the school president at Mississippi State in the spring of 1963 when the Maroon basketball team made its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, facing Loyola in the Sweet 16 at East Lansing, Michigan. But the significance of that game, and Colvard, should reverberate forever in the annals of not only the Big Dance, but also any serious students of the civil rights movement.

Colvard’s actions, which we will outline in a moment, have to be viewed not only in the context of the early ‘60s, but in the context of the state of Mississippi and the Deep South in general in those turbulent times. And whereas various instigators for social change (such as Dr. King) have been well-documented over the decades, Colvard’s contributions have been mostly overlooked by the mainstream media, and we believe most unfairly.

Not long ago, as part of our ongoing background work on Ramblers vs. Bearcats, we made a special visit to Mississippi to research this underappreciated chapter in sport and social change, spending a day in Starkville, hometown of Mississippi State, and a couple of days in the Eudora Welty Main Library in downtown Jackson, accessing various data, including every single Jackson Clarion-Ledger newspaper and other regional publications from the time period. As well as speaking to some of those who were on the scene in the early ‘60s. The info we uncovered was both sobering and startling, yet in the end, rather uplifting.

To set the proper context of that time period, we refer to a lecture we attended at the Carter Center in Atlanta in late September of 2008, when CBS journalist Bob Schieffer was the guest speaker. Schieffer was only three days removed from moderating the first presidential debate of 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain, which took place on the campus of Ole Miss in Oxford. Scheiffer admitted that he had not stepped foot on the Ole Miss campus since 1962, when as a young reporter he was sent to cover the controversy surrounding James Meredith, who was the first black student to enroll at the university. The courts had ordered Meredith to be admitted, but Governor Ross Barnett, a segregationist, had resisted, and on behalf of the state would defy any attempt to enroll Meredith. Oxford thus became the nation’s flashpoint as riots erupted on campus at the prospect of Meredith’s admission. President Kennedy had to order as many as 22,000 National Guard and Army troops to Oxford to quell the disturbance. And on that September 2008 night in Atlanta, almost 46 years to the day after covering those controversial events, Schieffer said it was quite remarkable that the next time he would return to Ole Miss would be as moderator of a presidential debate featuring an African-American candidate. Times, indeed, had changed.

But the world in which Colvard made his mark was Mississippi of the early ‘60s, not a more progressive South of the new millennium. And it was an early ‘60s Mississippi that was taking its sweet time adhering to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which ended legal segregation in public schools. The state’s major universities, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, were segregated until Meredith’s enrollment. And Colvard, though spared the agony of his Ole Miss counterpart, John D. Williams, who had to watch his campus turn into a battlefield at the mere prospect of Meredith’s enrollment, was so torn by the developments that he considered quitting his post at MSU.
Where, then, do sports fit into this picture?

There was also an unwritten rule in the 1950s and ‘60s that no Mississippi school was to compete on the athletic fields or arenas with integrated teams. This didn’t prove an issue for Ole Miss and MSU when playing in the SEC, which had yet to break the color barrier in 1962-63, but it did prevent them from playing integrated teams in non-conference play. Which, in Mississippi State’s case would include the NCAA Tournament. Between the 1958-59 and 1961-62 seasons, Babe McCarthy’s Bulldog basketball teams, featuring future Boston Celtic Bailey Howell, won three SEC championships...but never competed in the NCAA Tournament. Why? It was the “unwritten rule” that prevented MSU from competing against integrated teams.

MSU administrators would go to extremes to make sure there were no exceptions to the rule. When meeting up with longtime Bulldog play-by-play man Jack Cristil (who passed in 2014 after 58 seasons as the voice of MSU) in his hometown of Tupelo, we heard first-hand accounts of what transpired in a 1956 holiday basketball tournament at Evansville. “Dudy Noble (then Mississippi State’s AD) heard that we had played against a team with black players in the first round,” said Cristil, “and he told Babe, ‘You’re coming home, right now.’”

The SEC was finding it hard to get its championship hoop sides into the Big Dance in those days. Auburn’s conference champion also missed the 1960 NCAA Tournament, although it was for sanctions resulting from penalties against the school’s football program. (Sound familiar?) Interestingly, Kentucky, even with an overtly racist Adolph Rupp as its head coach, did play integrated opposition during the era. Indeed, three of Rupp’s NCAA Wildcat qualifiers (1959, ‘61, and ‘62) reached the Big Dance only because Mississippi State refused the invitation, which the Selection Committee then offered to conference runner-up Kentucky in those years. As for 1960, it Georgia Tech taking the place of Auburn in the Big Dance that would eventually be won by Fred Taylor’s Ohio State team featuring sophomore stars Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek...and a hard-nosed reserve named Bobby Knight.

McCarthy had another powerhouse team and SEC frontrunner in 1962-63 led by F Leland Mitchell and Gs Red Stroud and Joe Dan Gold. Sentiment, however, had been growing, especially on the MSU campus, for the “unwritten rule” to be broken. Coach McCarthy, who had badly wanted to play in the Big Dance with his previous conference winners, was even becoming more vocal in his hope for change. After a late February win at Tulane, McCarthy made one of many pleas on the post-game radio show, hosted by Cristil. “It makes me heartsick that these players...will have to put away their uniform and not compete in the NCAA Tournament,” said Babe. “This is all I can say, but I think everyone knows how I feel.” MSU’s players would support their coach, although to most it seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream to be allowed to compete in the NCAA Tourney.

There was also considerable speculation that McCarthy, though a loyal employee, would resign and seek employment elsewhere if his Bulldogs were again denied an NCAA berth for in-state political reasons. Clarion-Ledger columnist Robert Fulton speculated as much in his February 28 “High ‘N Inside” feature when suggesting that unless the policy changed, McCarthy would be likely to bolt Starkville.

Still, most expected the Bulldogs to turn down another NCAA invitation. As late as late February of ‘63, it was assumed that Auburn or Georgia Tech would represent the SEC in the Big Dance. A UPI story dated February 21, 1963 made note of the policy. “Mississippi’s racial policies prevent state schools from participating in the NCAA playoffs.”

But McCarthy was getting more support, especially from some MSU fans who wanted to see their Bulldogs get a chance to play the best in the nation. Residents from the town of Leland, MS circulated a petition supporting violation of the “unwritten law” and urging that the MSU Bulldogs be allowed to compete in the NCAA Basketball Tournament as long as the coaches and players desired so. A group of prominent Yazoo City businessmen headed by industrialist Owen Cooper also urged MSU to relax its policy. Georgia Tech coach Whack Hyder, whose second-place Engineers would get the NCAA bid from the SEC if the Maroon again refused, even stated publicly that he hoped the MSU policy would change to allow McCarthy’s team into the tournament.

Still, by Friday, March 1, the chance of a policy change seemed remote. Legendary Clarion-Ledger sports columnist Carl Walters, while championing an opportunity for the Bulldogs (“This writer most definitely favors the Bulldogs...carrying the banner of their conference and the state of Mississippi into battle for national laurels that will be up for grabs in the NCAA Tournament”), still considered a policy change unlikely. “This is an election year,” wrote Walters. “Politics is heavily involved in anything that is done, or not done, in connection to the Bulldogs going to the national tournament or not going. And we doubt that those who could ‘unlock the door,’ so to speak, have the intestinal fortitude required for a favorable verdict.”

It was going to take someone with a lot of the “intestinal fortitude” to which Walters referred for any policy change to have a chance.

And that person was Dean Colvard.

Although there were increasing calls for the “unwritten rule” policy to be relaxed, there were still significant segments of Mississippi that had no taste for change, including Governor Barnett. And as the Bulldog basketball chatter increased, so did the voices who opposed violating the “unwritten rule.” Although sports columnist Carl Walters was pro-change, by and large the Clarion-Ledger wasn’t, with its political editorialists hardly supportive, as the following March 8, 1963 passage indicates. “Fighting the Meredith enrollment with all their heart, mind, and political alternatives one day, and then before the smoke has cleared, those same citizens want to send a team to play Negroes; one day fortifying for combat against our own National Guardsmen, and the next day saying, ‘A little ball game can make no difference.’ This is the height of hypocrisy.”

In such a heated climate, and with a long history of segregation, Dean Colvard decided enough was enough. And after MSU clinched the SEC title with a win over rival Ole Miss, Colvard let it fly.

His MSU hoopsters were going to participate in the NCAA Tournament!

Colvard had picked the right time to make his move, for Barnett and the state had come under enormous national criticism in the wake of the Meredith fiasco at Ole Miss. Colvard, who realized his job had become even more difficult at MSU with highly-qualified professors being unlikely to move to Mississippi in the wake of the unrest at Oxford, not to mention realizing it was the right thing to do with his hoops team, effectively dared Barnett and state’s politicos to stop the move.

Governor Barnett, however, was digging in, and after keeping quiet on the matter for a few days, finally went public with his misgiving about Colvard’s decision. “The people of Mississippi know that I am a strong believer in and advocate of segregation in every phase of activity in all our schools,” said Barnett. “Personally, I feel it is not in the best interests of MSU, or the state of Mississippi, or either of the races.” However, only the state’s college board, of which Barnett believed he had influence, could stand in the way of Colvard’s decision.

Not long ago, we tracked down Colvard’s widow, Martha, still, living in Charlotte, where she and her husband had moved in 1966 when Dr. Colvard was named as the first president of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She recalled some of the pressures during those days that were building within and around her husband, who became something of a tortured soul during that period of time.

“Dean of course wanted them to play, and was feeling some pressure to let them (the MSU team) play,” said Mrs. Colvard. “But a legislator also used to call him at midnight, and would tell him that he was ruining the state if he went ahead. Even the governor (Barnett) was forcefully opposing my husband.”

And what if the political machinery of the state rescinded Colvard’s decision to play in the NCAA Tournament? “He had put his job on the line,” said Mrs. Colvard. “He was going to quit if the college board didn’t allow the team to play.”

The adventure for Colvard and the MSU basketball team, however, was only beginning. Next issue: Part II

Return To Home Page