"I've always believed that the only thing he had going for him was that he was white. It's the only reason somebody didn't shoot him."
We lived in Acadiana, also known as Cajun country, that region of the state situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the red clay hills of the north Louisiana Bible Belt. Shipley first arrived at the university in 1957. The team had only 12 games on its schedule, not all of them with college programs. For years USL had played teams such as Houma Air Station and Evangeline Motors, a loose confederation of former high school and college players whose uniforms and postgame beer money came courtesy of a Lafayette car dealership.
The region's residents were predominantly of French descent and thus tended to be smaller of stature, so Shipley searched elsewhere for talent. Operating on a minuscule recruiting budget, he eschewed hotel rooms for the back of his family station wagon, which he pulled over on the side of the road when he needed to sleep. He scoured towns and cities in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, selling his school to players who had never heard of it and needed a map to understand where Acadiana was.
In many cases it wasn't the promise of a national title that prompted them to sign with Shipley but rather the promise of a regular diet of the local cuisine. "Cajun food," says Rocke Roy, one of Shipley's former assistants. When kids committed to USL, Roy says, "they'd give you three reasons, and invariably one of them was the food."
Closer to home, Shipley had trouble signing blue-chip white players, but not so top-tier black athletes, once he determined to go after them. No major Southern school even considered recruits who weren't of the right skin color, so Shipley's only competition came from programs out of the region and nearby historically black colleges such as Grambling and Southern. Shipley himself admits that he was less a civil rights trailblazer than an opportunist who recognized the value of black talent and stormed into history because of his desire to get places. "An accidental hero" is how one of his longtime friends describes him.
"Coach had an agenda," says Ivory. "He wanted to win. He didn't care if we were purple. He was going for the best athletes. I mean, I don't think it's all that heavy. He was dealing with a wrong, anyway. 'Why don't you have black athletes on your team?' 'Well, because they're black.' That argument can't hold water. So he finally decides he's going to get them. What are the circumstances? 'Well, Coach, we're going to ruin you.' 'You're going to ruin me? How long will it take for you to do that?' 'Oh, not long. About 10 years.'"
Jimmy Dykes, another of Shipley's former assistants, told me about the time he took Winkler and Ivory to lunch at a cafeteria in Lafayette during their recruiting visit. "Noon Sunday, place is packed, all white faces," says Dykes. "We're in line headed to get our trays, and suddenly everything goes dead silent. They've spotted the blacks. And then we hear murmuring, and now people are beginning to leave.
"There's a family a few tables away from ours, a big family, and they get up, slamming their chairs. The father comes over to where we're sitting. He shakes a finger in my face and screams at the top of his lungs, 'Trash! That's all you are, is white trash!' And then the whole place applauds."
After the dining room quieted down, one of the players said, "If Martin Luther King can walk into Selma, Alabama, we might as well be walking into here."
"They'll be cheering for you before this is over with," Dykes told them.