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 is in his 58th season 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

Following is a quick team-by-team update on what’s happening in the SEC West. We’ll be reviewing the East, along with the conclusion of our two-part feature story in our next issue, available online next Monday, January 24. Straight-up and pointspread records are thru games of Wednesday, January 19.

ALABAMA (SUR 11-7, PSR 6-8)...In what still appears to be a wide-open Western half of the loop, the Tide has emerged as a top contender, confirmed by its 68-66 Tuesday night upset over Kentucky at Coleman Coliseum. Keeping Bama in good stead is its conscientious defense, especially Gs Charvez Davis and Senario Hillman locking down on the perimeter. The offensive dimensions are a bit limited without much dynamism from the backcourt or beyond the 3-point line, where only Davis (hitting 38.6% of his triples) is connecting on better than 33% of his long-range heaves. Forwards JaMychal Green (15.5 ppg & 54% from floor) and Tony Mitchell (14.4 ppg & 54% FGs) do provide HC Anthony Grant a solid 1-2 interior punch, but many SEC insiders are keeping their eye on the PG position, where Grant is asking true frosh Trevor Releford to do almost all of the heavy lifting, without much help from the bench. Unlike some other conference foes, Bama was tested in its non-league slate, where most of the challenging assignments (such as Purdue and Oklahoma State) were on the road; Grant might now be experiencing some of the benefit from the tougher pre-league schedule. Now, if the Tide could just perform as well away from Tuscaloosa, where it has won all ten of its games this season!

ARKANSAS (SUR 12-5, PSR 4-7)...Could HC John Pelphrey be on the hot seat? Razorback fans definitely had some concerns entering the 2010-11 campaign off a pair of 14-win seasons, to which the Bud Walton Arena faithful are not accustomed. Evidence remains mixed, however, as Pelphrey’s team dropped all of the meaningful challenges on its pre-league schedule (UAB, Texas A&M & Texas, the latter a 79-46 embarrassment), and early conference road losses at beatable (make that very beatable) LSU and South Carolina could be red flags. Pelphrey, whose team has endured disciplinary problems along the way, is still looking for the right combination, but is hampered by the fact that only G Rotnei Clarke (13.7 ppg) can be considered a somewhat reliable offensive threat. Although 6-9 sr. Delvon Johnson leads the SEC’s best shot-blocking brigade (Hogs at 6.9 bpg, near the nation’s leader) with 3.7 swats pg, Arkansas still ranks last in conference rebounding margin. A key development to watch in the coming weeks is the possible emergence of soph F Marshawn Powell, who scored a season-high 21 points in the OT loss at South Carolina on Wednesday night. As for Pelphrey, most SEC observers believe he likely survives this season, thanks to a ballyhooed recruiting class set to enroll for next fall. A collapse down the stretch, however, might change the situation.

AUBURN (SUR 7-10, PSR 3-5)...It’s too bad the Tigers are struggling in what should be a celebratory time on campus. After all, the Auburn football team has just won the national championship, and the hoopsters have moved into an intimate new home den, 9,600-seat Auburn Arena, a more cozy venue than the harsh concrete of the cavernous Beard-Eaves Coliseum, complete with its dedication plaque from former governor Lurleen Wallace. First-year HC Tony Barbee (former John Calipari aide most recently at UTEP) has presided over a depleted roster whose shortcomings were somewhat camouflaged by a laughable non-conference slate that nonetheless got the best of the Tigers, who lost to the likes of UNC-Asheville, Samford, Campbell, and Presbyterian. Threatened with expulsion to the Big South, Auburn briefly rallied around New Year’s and even scored an upset over Florida State on January 3, but that was the last game for star G Frankie Sullivan, Auburn’s returning high scorer who had also missed early-season action due to recurring knee problems. Sullivan, slow to recover from ACL surgery, is now unlikely to return in SEC play or risk forfeiting a year of eligibility. Thus, it’s up to a roster that now boasts of a walk-on starting at PG (Josh Wallace) and only two DD scorers, Gs Earnest Ross (12.4 ppg) & Andre Malone (11.7 ppg). We’ll be surprised if Auburn wins more than a handful of conference games.

LSU (SUR 10-8, PSR 8-5)...First, the good news: LSU isn’t as bad as it was last season. Now, the bad news: LSU still isn’t that good. HC Trent Johnson, who made the Big Dance field with his first LSU team in 2008-09, has been in rebuild mode since, and most regional observers were not fooled by a promising W-L mark in pre-conference play, mostly accomplished vs. lightweight opposition. The Tigers remain young, relying upon Johnson’s true frosh G combo of Ralston Turner (13.7 ppg) & Andre Stringer (13.0 ppg) as the linchpins of the attack, although Turner has been sidelined the past two weeks with a stress reaction in his right foot, and the timetable for his return is still up in the air. That has further limited Johnson’s attack-end options, which were exposed in last Saturday’s 82-44 wipeout loss at Kentucky. Johnson is hoping that jr. F Storm Warren can work his way back into the rotation after suffering an Achilles tendon injury, and that frosh F Jalen Courtney will begin to blossom now that Johnson will be using him in his more comfy back-to-the-basket role. But the Tigers are young and have a thin bench, and Johnson has been forced to rely heavily on a 2-3 zone defense on many occasions because of depth issues and stop-end shortcomings. We wouldn’t be holding our breath for this LSU edition to make a belated run at a postseason berth.

OLE MISS (SUR 12-7, PSR 8-7)...Time to ring the alarm bells in Oxford, as the Rebs have started a slow 0-4 in SEC play, which could spell big trouble for HC Andy Kennedy. Although the Rebs put up a better fight on Wednesday night at Vandy (hanging close for much of the game before finally losing by 10) than they did in a 22-point home loss to Georgia the previous Saturday when the defense took the afternoon off (Dawgs 63.5% from floor!), there is concern about the season slipping away from a senior-laden roster. Ole Miss still relies almost completely upon its backcourt, led by sr. G Chris Warren (18.3 ppg), for offensive production; no frontliner scorers more than F Terrance Henry’s 8.7 ppg, and that sort of imbalance is proving hard to overcome. On the plus side, Kennedy has inked the school’s first McDonald’s All-American (Jelan Kendrick) for next season, but the natives are restless with the Rebs yet to make an NCAA appearance under Kennedy. As for Kennedy’s contract, it was extended thru the 2013-14 season a year ago at a reported $1.3 million per year, but there are already whispers around Oxford about the buyout provisions if the current Rebs go into free-fall mode.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (SUR 10-7, PSR 3-10)...By far the most-intriguing of this year’s SEC West entries, the Dawgs have endured an awkward first half of the season to emerge as a legit contender. With star G Dee Bost on academic suspension until early January, and touted 6’10 recruit Renardo Sidney not gaining eligibility until mid-December, then disciplined by HC Rick Stansbury for a few more games after a much-publicized incident in the stands with teammate Elgin Bailey during the Hawaii holiday tournament, the Maroon was a mess for most of the first two months of the campaign. But MSU finally seems to have its act somewhat together, even if Elgin Bailey left the program in the wake of the rumble with Sidney. Big Renardo is now making significant contributions, scoring 24 in a recent win over Ole Miss and adding 15 the next game vs. Auburn, while Bost is scoring 16 ppg in his 3 games since regaining eligibility. Along with G Ravern Johnson (16 ppg) & F Kodi Augustus (12.5 ppg), Stansbury now looks to have by far the most-potent lineup in the West. And, at the least, that should mean the end of the Bulldogs’ pointspread struggles after they dropped their first 7 decisions against the number into late December. They’ll take a 2-game SU win and cover streak into Saturday’s interesting showdown vs. Georgia.

Next issue: SEC East update...

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