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AN ACCIDENTAL HERO BERYL SHIPLEY, 1926--2011
John Ed Bradley
May 02, 2011
The onetime coach at Southwestern Louisiana was vilified for violating NCAA rules, but the author, who grew up in Cajun country, remembers him for doing something courageous: helping to integrate college basketball in the Deep South
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May 02, 2011

An Accidental Hero Beryl Shipley, 1926--2011

The onetime coach at Southwestern Louisiana was vilified for violating NCAA rules, but the author, who grew up in Cajun country, remembers him for doing something courageous: helping to integrate college basketball in the Deep South

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Shipley and his assistant Tom Cox had picked up Winkler and Ivory at the Lafayette airport and driven them to campus on that visit. USL was competing with Indiana for Winkler, a 6-foot guard from Indianapolis who'd broken Oscar Robertson's single-season city scoring record. Ivory was a 6'8" forward from Birmingham whose mother worked at night cleaning schools for white kids. Even though Ivory was an All-America and coveted by major programs in other parts of the country, Auburn and Alabama didn't want him because he was black. And neither did any other white program in the South except for Shipley's.

As the car arrived on campus, Winkler saw students standing in front of dormitories waving at the car. He couldn't make sense of what he was seeing. "After we'd signed and it was over," he says, "some of the black people in town told us that Coach Shipley had gone to them and said, 'Hey, we want to try to get black athletes to play at our school. Can y'all help us? Let's make them feel good, like people want them.'"

The school had integrated 12 years before, in 1954, but it had obeyed the Gulf States Conference's unwritten law prohibiting blacks from playing on its members' sports teams. The edict also forbade league schools to play nonconference teams with blacks on them, but Shipley had violated that order in 1965 when his squad faced an integrated team in a postseason NAIA tournament. The specter of white athletes competing with African-Americans apparently was too grotesque for some Southerners to countenance. In 1956, Georgia Tech football coach Bobby Dodd had sparked a controversy when he allowed his team to play in the Sugar Bowl against a Pittsburgh squad with a black player.

Shipley had heard the fearmongering ever since he was a boy in Kingsport, Tenn. His hometown was about 5% African-American, and many of the black people lived on Walnut Street, which was only two blocks from the Shipleys' home in the Little White City neighborhood. On Saturdays, Shipley played pickup football with his black neighbors, and he went to their Thursday-night high school games and watched from the bleachers, sometimes the only white in the crowd. When Beryl's father, Tom, was lucky enough to have work, it was at the Kingsport Press, the massive bookbinding operation in town. He helped organize the union for the plant's employees. Opponents of Tom's union positions once tossed rocks through the windows of the Shipleys' home. The violence only strengthened Tom's resolve. "My dad stood for what he believed in, and he wasn't going to be intimidated," said Shipley. "And when my time came, I did just what he would've done."

Shipley's upbringing came back to him every time a black student asked for a chance to play at USL. "How can you look a boy in the eye and say, 'You can't come out'?" he said. "I did that for eight years, and it was hard to do. You didn't want to take the time to go out there and see if they could play, because it didn't matter if they could or not—there was that damn rule keeping them off the team. So you had to say, 'Hey, I'm sorry. I don't have anything to do with the rules, but we can't do it.'"

After Shipley hired him in 1965, Cox asked his new boss a routine question: "What do you want to do here, Coach?" Shipley replied that he wanted to win it all, and not just the NAIA championship for small colleges. Shipley wanted to compete in the major college division of the NCAA and beat the country's best programs.

"Then we're going to need to do two things," Cox told him. "We're going to have to strengthen our schedule, and we're going to have to recruit black players."

The following spring, Shipley traveled with Cox to Maryland's Cole Field House and watched Don Haskins's all-black Texas Western starters beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky squad to claim the NCAA championship. Haskins, a close friend of Shipley's, would become a civil rights hero for what he did that day, but El Paso, home of Texas Western, was a long way from the Deep South. "It's a lot closer to California than it was to us," said Shipley. "We had a different deal altogether. The governor of Alabama is stopping [black] kids from going to school. There'd been a black student once, Autherine Lucy, whom the whites kept out. There was a chant at games: 'Hey hey, ho ho, where'd Autherine Lucy go?' You'd hear that the whole ball game, and you understood where things stood."

Tired of turning black students away, Shipley approached then USL president Clyde Rougeou and told him he wasn't going to do it anymore. In the future, Shipley said, he was going to send every black kid who wanted to try out to Rougeou's office, a proposition that no administrator could've welcomed. To deny a black student amounted to breaking the law—not the law as it was practiced in Louisiana and the Gulf States Conference, but the law as administered by the federal government. Rougeou gave Shipley a slap on the knee. "Go get 'em, Hoss," he said.

Shipley succeeded in enrolling Winkler, Ivory and Leslie Scott, a 6'2" guard transferring from Loyola Chicago, but the Louisiana State Board of Education, led by its athletic commissioner, Stanley Galloway, called Shipley and Rougeou to an emergency meeting at a Lafayette hotel to dissuade the coach from integrating. The politically elected board presided over most of the colleges in the state. Hoping to deflect blame from Rougeou, Shipley said the three players were ringers from the NAACP, sent to test the coach. Galloway suggested dismissing the players on grounds that they had not met entrance requirements, but Rougeou countered that the university required students only to have high school diplomas to gain admittance, and the three players had them.

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