Monday, January 20, 2014

For Longhorns, a lifetime of change now complete

What would Bubba say if he were around to see this?

The news that Charlie Strong, an African American, has been hired to be the next head football coach at the University of Texas . . .

The photo of UT president Bill Powers seated beside Strong at the press conference, shaking hands and introducing him as only sixth head coach of the Longhorns in more than a half-century . . .

And comments such as, “It really is a wonderful day for the University of Texas,” from Powers himself  . . .

All are milestones Bubba Smith likely wondered if he’d ever see, and which he would have appreciated more than most of us can.

To fully grasp the significance of Charlie Strong’s ascension to the pinnacle of college football, consider the story of how Bubba Smith of Charlton-Pollard High School in Beaumont, Texas became one of the most famous Michigan State Spartans of all-time – instead of one in the long line of renowned Texas Longhorns.

Bubba graduated from high school in 1963, the year Charlie Strong turned three.

It was a monumental year in the civil rights movement: blistering fire hoses and snarling police dogs in Birmingham; the sniper murder of NAACP official Medgar Evers in the front yard of his home in Jackson, Mississippi; Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington; and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, just as he prepared to achieve Congressional passage of what, in the aftermath of his death, became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The University of Texas had desegregated in 1956, but still resisted integrating its athletic teams, especially football.  Darrell Royal, who became head coach in 1957, nevertheless met with the big lineman from Beaumont.

In a TV documentary 45 years later, Bubba recalled telling Royal it was his dream to play for the Longhorns, and the Texas coach’s response. “He said, ‘Bubba, I can probably get you a scholarship, but I don’t know when the football program is going to integrate.’”

Bubba Smith became a two-time consensus all-American at Michigan State, and played in one of the most famous college football games of all time, the 10-10 tie with Notre Dame in 1966. He was the first pick in the 1967 National Football League draft, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

Texas finally enrolled its first African American football player – Julius Whittier – in 1969. As a freshman when first-year student-athletes still were not eligible to play on the varsity, Whittier watched Texas defeat Arkansas 15-14 to win the 1969 national championship.

Those Longhorns would be the last all-white team to win the college football national championship. Whittier would letter each of the next two years.

In the four-plus decades that followed, Texas rode many outstanding black athletes to heights on the gridiron – Earl Campbell, Vince Young, Kenneth Sims, and Ricky Williams, to mention only a few.

One might commend Texas for integrating its football program so extensively. Yet it’s one thing to recognize that African American athletes can help elevate a football program to championship caliber. It’s quite another to extend that diversity to the head man on the sidelines.

And that’s what makes Charlie Strong’s selection as the 29th Texas head football coach in 120 years so important.  Call it the end of hypocrisy where football is religion.

The major football powers of the Deep South – Louisiana State, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and Georgia – have all benefitted from opening their programs to black talent. But they all are yet to hire their first black head coach.

None of this, of course, is to say that Charlie Strong – even with a 12-1 season in 2013 and overall 37-16 record in four seasons at Louisville – is universally accepted or supported just because he’s been hired.

Red McCombs, the 86-year-old Texas billionaire who has owned two professional basketball franchises and, briefly, the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, doesn’t speak for everyone in Texas. But he is an influential booster, and what he had to say after Strong was introduced at a press conference in Austin no doubt reflects the old-line feelings of one segment of the alumni-fan base that Strong will have to ignore, prove wrong and win over.

“It’s a kick in the face,” he said “I think he would make a great position coach, maybe coordinator,” McCombs also said. “But I don’t believe (he belongs at) what should be one of the three most powerful university programs in the world right now at UT-Austin.”

So what WOULD Bubba say about Charlie Strong? We can only guess since he died in 2011 at the age of 66.

But he’d probably agree with the former Texas staffer who said: “All he has to do is win football games. Nothing else matters.”


Denny Dressman wrote the biography of iconic Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson that is now the basis for an award-winning screenplay titled “Coach Rob.”