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The Xs and O's of social change

January 22, 2006|Dave Zirin | Dave Zirin is the author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States" and a columnist for Slam magazine.

THE NEW Disney film "Glory Road" tells the story of a basketball game that put sports in the middle of the civil rights movement. But it also recalls a time when the ordinary actions of coaches could unwittingly transcend sports and make a mark on history.

Key to the legacies of the two Hall of Fame coaches at the heart of "Glory Road" is how each dealt with the system of Jim Crow. Texas Western Coach Don Haskins didn't show up on the El Paso campus with dreams of becoming a white Martin Luther King Jr. To field a competitive team, he committed the revolutionary -- some said suicidal -- act of recruiting seven African American players. "I am not interested in color," he often said. "I'm interested in winning."

But Haskins' attitude changed as his team traveled the country and faced Confederate flags, racist graffiti and hostile, violent crowds of mostly white men. By the time the 1966 NCAA championship game with Kentucky came around, Haskins had told his team of seven blacks and five whites that he would play only blacks. Not only because this gave his team the best chance of winning, but because it was time to make a stand against Jim Crow.

In "Glory Road," Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp is portrayed less as racist than as befuddled. The truth is far less Disney. Unlike such other legendary Southern coaches as Alabama's Bear Bryant, Rupp was unrepentant for any role he may have played in entrenching Jim Crow. He didn't recruit an African American player until 1970.

Rupp never overcame his loss to Texas Western, especially after he had vowed that "five Negroes" would never beat his team. Some have disputed the contention that Rupp was a racist, calling him a product of his time. But what is not moot, as "Glory Road" author Dan Wetzel wrote, is that Rupp eventually referred to the Miners as "a bunch of crooks." In a Louisville newspaper interview, he said Miners star David Lattin was a criminal recruited out of Tennessee State Prison. In fact, Lattin had transferred from Tennessee State University.

Although Haskins and Rupp defined the intersection of college basketball and civil rights, other coaches made social marks that became part of their legacy. Clarence "Big House" Gaines coached Winston-Salem State University from 1946-1993. His 1967 squad, led by future Hall of Famer Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, compiled a 31-1 record and became the first predominantly black school to win an NCAA basketball title -- the Division II crown. Named that year's NCAA college division basketball coach of the year, he showed such people as John Thompson and Nolan Richardson that coaching basketball was not a white-only profession.

Legendary coach Dean Smith played a large part in desegregating not only athletics at the University of North Carolina but also the city of Chapel Hill, the site of the campus, when he recruited Charlie Scott and integrated the Tar Heels basketball team. Smith was derided and even lynched in effigy for his efforts, but his move later became another item on his resume of greatness.

Today it's difficult to imagine a coach in any college sport playing such a historic social role. NCAA basketball is a multibillion-dollar business, and coaches are as disposable as Kleenex, spending as little time on campus as some of their players.

It's not that there are no issues of historic importance. There is the question of whether college players should be paid for the revenue they produce, or of defending Title IX and women's sports in general. An ordinary coach who took a stand on these issues might find himself without a job.

But there is a select class of coaches so secure in their jobs that they are practically basketball pontiffs. North Carolina's Roy Williams, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Maryland's Gary Williams are among them. These guys could take a stand and walk in the footprints of Haskins. By doing so, they could create a legacy that extends beyond the court.

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