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
This is an article from the May 2, 2011 issue
I'd heard he wasn't doing well, so I got on the phone and called him and arranged to meet him at last. Beryl Shipley, former basketball coach at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, lived just down the road from where I grew up. The city of Lafayette has plenty of fancy neighborhoods crowded with people who made fortunes in the oil patch, but Shipley's wasn't one of them. He and his wife, Dolores, occupied a small brick house on a street lined with many a small brick house.
We sat in the living room and looked past a picture window to the backyard. He wore glasses with huge lenses, gray slacks, and a checkered shirt with long sleeves buttoned at the wrist. He looked less like an old coach than an old farmer who'd harvested his last crop a long time ago.
They'd found cancer in his lungs and soon they'd find more in his brain, and by mid-April, eight months from this day, he'd be dead at age 84, his legacy too confused for even those who admired him to figure out. I told him how much I'd enjoyed watching his teams play when I was a boy, and how he'd been one of my heroes and still was. "Why, thank you," he said.
Louisiana has always been football country, with LSU engendering the most devotion, but for a while Shipley definitely had our attention. In the 1960s and early '70s he assembled the most dominant basketball program in the state, and he ran it with equal parts guile and force of will, picking up as many enemies as fans along the way.
He twice led the Ragin' Cajuns to the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament and finished with top 10 rankings. He ruled first the Gulf States Conference and then the Southland Conference. One of his players, guard Dwight (Bo) Lamar, led the nation in scoring in 1972 with an average of 36.3 points per game and started a heated in-state debate over whether he was better than former LSU star Pete Maravich, who had been the nation's scoring champ two years earlier with a 44.5 average.
Today people tend to remember how Shipley's high-flying program was twice busted for cheating and received the NCAA's death penalty after he resigned in 1973. They're less inclined to acknowledge a far more important part of his story: Shipley, a natural-born redneck if ever there was one, in 1966 became the first coach to integrate a major sports team at a large public university in the Deep South.
For those who would dismiss him, Shipley will always be the rule-breaking renegade whose outsized ambition wrecked a university's basketball program. For the rest of us, he's the flawed, doomed disciple of change ruined by those who did not want to change. He might've done wrong, but the wrong, I've always argued, was at the service of a greater good. At some point Shipley stopped being simply a basketball coach and became a player in the story of who we are as Americans.
You have to remember what it was like back then," he told me. We were quiet for a while, and I remembered my hometown, Opelousas, only about 20 miles north of Lafayette. I remembered public water fountains and bathrooms for whites only and lunch counters and restaurants that didn't seat blacks until the mid-1960s, when I was in elementary school. I remembered how blacks had their own entrance at the Delta Theater—one that led them straight upstairs to the balcony, at a safe remove from the rest of us. I also remembered how the n-word was regularly used by people even in polite society, not so much as a noun but as an adjective to describe everything from dogs and cars to hair and lips and certain parts of town.
"I always tried to treat the blacks the same as the whites," said Shipley. "I'd get mad at the whites, cuss a few of them out. But I'd do the same to the blacks. It wasn't any different."
He and Dolores bought their house in 1960, his third year at Southwestern Louisiana, and raised three daughters there. They had black recruits and their families over for visits when that wasn't what you did in the Deep South during the era of George Wallace and white citizens' councils and laws banning miscegenation. Shipley forced us to confront the soul-killing stupidity of segregation back when the only time I remember seeing blacks competing with whites in sporting events was on TV programs broadcast from other parts of the country or when the Harlem Globetrotters visited our area and performed against a bunch of bumbling stooges at Lafayette's Blackham Coliseum.
We manage our memories the best way we can, and for me that has always been a process of careful editing in which the hard parts are weeded out like something unwanted in the garden. But sitting with Shipley was bringing things back, such as a particularly hot summer day some 45 years earlier when police were summoned to the public pool at the white park in Opelousas after three young black men walked up to the counter, plunked down 15 cents each and asked to be let in.
I must've been six or seven years old when it happened. I was swimming in the shallow end of the pool, and suddenly the old lady who ran the place started blowing her whistle and yelling for everybody to get out of the water. We were hysterical, slipping and falling on top of each other as we scrambled for the safety of the dressing rooms. The way we carried on, you'd have thought the head of Godzilla had appeared in the sky above the trees. The girls went to one side of the building, the boys to the other. I heard the police sirens. Then I heard the screams of the troublemakers when the police subdued them with clubs and handcuffs and dragged them away.
Like everybody else, I whistled and applauded when we were allowed to go back in the water. What is wrong with those people? I wondered then. They have their own pool in their own park on the north side of town. How come they need to swim in our pool?
I'm all carved to pieces," Shipley was saying to me. He'd suffered two heart attacks 25 years before, and in the last year he'd had surgery for an aortic aneurysm that put him in the hospital for seven weeks. His fingers moved up to the buttons of his shirt, as if he meant to open it and show me his scars, but finally he thought better of it.
"You don't dye your hair, do you?" I said.
"I've been accused of that," he replied. "I still got a little red in it."
"You'd wear plaid sport coats and Sansabelt slacks to the games."
"That's right," he said. "I did all my own shopping. And I liked a white shirt and a necktie. You wouldn't catch me wearing the same shirt two nights in a row, like some coaches were known to do."
Shipley's former players still argue that his demise as a coach was punishment for standing up to segregationists and defying an unwritten law keeping blacks and whites from playing together. "Coach Shipley gave up his life for us," says Marvin Winkler, one of the first three black players at USL. "They went after him because he was the forefather—the first to walk through the door. He did it even though they kept telling him, 'No, we're not going to integrate yet,' and he said, 'Yes, we are. I don't care what you say. I'm going to get them, I'm going to sign them, and I'm going to see to it that they come to school here.'"
LSU, the state's flagship university, wouldn't sign its first black player until 1971, five years after Shipley broke the color barrier at USL. "You have to understand, when you're winning with black ballplayers, and you're the first one to win with black ballplayers, not everybody is going to take kindly to you," says Elvin Ivory, another in the first group of African-Americans to play at USL. "Coach Shipley wasn't just going against the smaller colleges in the state, he was going against LSU too. He suddenly found himself dealing with something he had no control over, because it wasn't just about basketball anymore.
"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.
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.
Galloway had created his own legend in the state as a football coach at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he'd won or shared six Gulf States Conference titles between 1951 and '64. His will was as implacable as Shipley's, and his stance wasn't up for debate. According to Shipley, Galloway instructed him to conduct a practice on Oct. 7, in violation of an NCAA rule that set the first day of organized practice a week later, and cut the black players for the simple reason that they weren't good enough. (Galloway later denied to the NCAA that he had ordered the early practice, but the instruction was reported by the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.) "It all started there," says Cox, the former assistant. "They forced Beryl to do what they wanted and to break the rules. And then it just ballooned."
As ordered, Shipley held the practice early, but he didn't cut the three. How could he convince anybody who saw them play that they didn't deserve spots on the team? "You know how the incoming freshmen play the varsity?" says Ivory. "We beat the varsity, the freshmen did. They couldn't touch us. I couldn't tell you who the two white guys on our team were, but I can tell you we didn't need them."
When Galloway learned that Shipley intended to keep the players, he made it clear that state money to finance their scholarships would not be made available, according to Shipley. Without the funding, Shipley knew, the players would have no choice but to transfer. But the coach had already figured out a way to circumvent this problem. He solicited financial help from black leaders in Lafayette and funneled their donations to the university. The three players could then receive the same benefits that were given to white scholarship players. "I didn't have any other choice if I was going to protect those three guys," said Shipley. "I couldn't go to the boys and say, 'I don't have scholarships for you.' It was ridiculous—it would be in today's time—but back then it was pretty tense.
"I'll be honest. I didn't care about any damn rule book. I just tried to do what was right for the boys, what I knew I had to do."
The gambit succeeded in getting the three players on the team, and they eventually received regular scholarships. But Shipley's maneuver would lead to the school's first NCAA investigation and probation, in 1968, and it made Shipley a marked man. The coach had created a perception that he was buying players. Once, during a game at Louisiana Tech, fans rained coins on the floor. "Quarters, dimes, nickels," says Payton Townsend, a 6'7" center who played for Shipley from 1969 to '72. "I could never decide whether they were saying we were getting paid or whether they wanted us to slip and get hurt." And in 1973, when Shipley and his squad played Houston in the NCAA tournament, the Houston band uncorked a brassy rendition of Big Spender.
The team needed a police escort every time it traveled by bus to north Louisiana for a game. Still more police stood at arena exits and monitored the crowds. The black players learned to tune out racist taunts, but Shipley never let one pass without using it to motivate them. "This is an opportunity for you to help your race," Shipley exhorted his black players.
"North Louisiana is full of Baptists," says Ivory, "and I used to call them the KKK because of how some of them treated us. They're the ones who called us names. But it only made me play harder. I must've had 20 dunks one day in a game with Louisiana College in Pineville. I wanted to make sure they never forgot me."
To my mind Shipley's run always had an ephemeral quality. It was too rare and precious a thing to last long. Seven years after recruiting his first black players, the coach resigned in May 1973, after 16 years at USL, a 296--129 record and only one losing season. Ostensibly he quit over a salary dispute with the university. Only a few months later the NCAA revealed that an investigation into the program had uncovered some 125 violations. The most serious of them, which Shipley denied knowing about, accused people close to him of doctoring players' transcripts, changing grades on academic records and arranging for surrogates to take the ACT exam for incoming freshmen. But many of the infractions involved small cash payments to recruits and players in the amount of $10 to $30. Shipley and boosters let players borrow their own cars, and the coaches arranged for them to fill up and pay with university credit cards at a gas station near campus. Another violation had Cox buying clothes for a player at a Lafayette store. The NCAA shut down USL's basketball program for two years and placed every other athletic team at the school on probation.
Shipley was 46 years old. Even though boosters and staff members were responsible for most of the infractions, Shipley as head coach was ascribed the blame. "If he didn't know what was going on, he should have known," says Ray Authement, who was acting president of the university when Shipley quit.
In his own defense, the coach said he broke rules only for "humanitarian reasons," such as when a freshman player from a poor background reported to school without "a change of clothes or sheets for his bed." His dealings with sportswriters had always been testy, and now many of them seemed to enjoy vilifying him. "They felt like if the NCAA came in and found those violations, then we must be guilty," said Shipley. "But the NCAA doesn't operate that way. If somebody tells [an investigator] that I did this or I did that, [the investigator] treats the allegation as fact, and it goes down on the record that you did this and did that when you didn't do what they said at all." (The NCAA did not respond to SI's requests for an official comment.)
Shipley's protestations were ignored, and even his family and friends found his complaints wearisome. After spending half a season as head coach of the San Diego Conquistadors in the old American Basketball Association, Shipley returned to Lafayette and left coaching for good, taking a job as a salesman with an oil-services company called Drilling Measurements Inc. "I didn't know anything about what I was trying to sell," he said, "but they let me in anyway. Everywhere I went, people called me Coach." In his first year alone Shipley more than tripled the $15,800 he earned during his last year at USL, but the money didn't comfort him any. At home at the end of the day, he reclined in his favorite chair and contemplated what he had lost until, he said, he "began to fume."
"Coach Shipley's legacy is yet to be determined, but I know what he would want it to be," says Rocke Roy, his onetime assistant. "He'd want to be exonerated for the shame and the guilt that were put on him. These things ate at him and attacked his gut every day of his life after he left coaching."
Shipley on occasion was invited to speak at public events, and he routinely broke from his prepared remarks and unburdened himself on the audience with attacks against the NCAA and those whom he believed betrayed him. His screeds brought crowds to their feet, even when people weren't entirely sure what he was saying. At a reunion of former players in 2001, "Beryl started talking in code," says Ron Gomez, a former radio announcer who did the play-by-play for Shipley's games. "He's up there saying, 'There was one individual that you all would know who I'm talking about. He was out to get this team. I can't say who he was, but anyway. . . .' And people just sat there scratching their heads and muttering, 'What the hell's he talking about?'"
"It's become so ingrained in Beryl's psyche: He's innocent and other people did this to him, but if you read the NCAA findings, it's hard to conclude that he was not involved," says former president Authement, a frequent target of Shipley's rage.
By the early 2000s, Dolores was so troubled by her husband's fixation that she arranged for a minister from their church to come and talk to him. The minister's counsel seemed to resonate, but Shipley soon went back to his old ways. "We really did have times over the years when he was happy and seemed to be enjoying himself," says Dolores, "but he always got back to basketball and what happened to him."
"We know what you did," a man told Shipley once. This was a black man, a coach at one of the local high schools. Shipley looked at him for an explanation. Was he talking about the scandal? Or was he talking about how Shipley had sacrificed everything to open doors for people? "You made things happen," the man said.
In 2007, Shipley and Gomez self-published Slam Dunked: The NCAA's Shameful Reaction to Athletic Integration in the Deep South, a book about Beryl's case based on research by his older brother, Tom Jr. The Barnes & Noble in Lafayette sold about 800 copies, but when Shipley and Lopez secured an invitation to a signing at the chain's store in Baton Rouge, they sat at a table for two hours and signed one book. "Beryl didn't take it well," says Gomez. "And you know what really got to him? He couldn't sell the book to blacks. We'd have black people walking by and he'd say, 'Hey, buddy, come here. Come here. This is your history, baby. Look at this.' And the guy would say, 'Yeah? No kidding? O.K. . . .' And then he'd just walk on."
Shipley had thought his story would put him on Oprah, and he had hoped it would prompt some of his old enemies to sue him and give him the chance to face them in court. He hoped to prove once and for all that he'd been destroyed for doing what no one else had been brave enough to do, but the book came and went without anybody seeming to notice. Not only was Shipley an accidental hero, he was also a forgotten one.
The university, only two miles from Shipley's home, did not honor him for his championship career until a reunion ceremony in January, when he was too sick to attend. There has never been a school-sponsored celebration of his role in the integration of team sports in the Deep South, no plaque with fancy script etched into the metal. Until the school hired Bob Marlin in March 2010 to coach the team, Shipley was persona non grata to many of the people associated with the program. Marlin changed that by showing up at Shipley's home at odd hours to talk X's and O's with him and by calling him from road trips to let the old coach know how much he meant to him.
Then late last fall, Shipley, faced with a medical prognosis that would have him in the grave by spring, finally understood that he could do better with the time he had left. "He'd had his heart cut out of him, and he never really got over it until he was finally able to forgive," says Dykes. "So he forgave everyone. One of his old adversaries came to visit, and they sat together for an hour and a half and talked, and the past between them never came up. Not a word.
"Coach had forgiven him."
My dad's good friend Ulysse Joubert knew somebody who worked in the USL athletic department's ticket office. This is how we got tickets to Shipley's games. Blackham Coliseum was an imposing name for an arena that doubled as a setting for rodeos, camellia pageants, dog shows and globe-trotting evangelists looking for Cajun souls to save.
When Shipley and his team showed up to play, the 5,500-seat venue sold out, some nights attracting as many as 8,000. "Let me tell you, you'd go there on a game night and see anyone in Acadiana you wanted to see," says Roy. "It became the vogue thing to do. Blacks sitting next to whites, poor sitting next to the affluent, and all as one enjoying what Coach Shipley was doing and how he was doing it."
I saw Marvin Winkler play. I saw Payton Townsend and Bo Lamar. When my brother Bobby and I got home after games, we turned on the porch light and shot baskets on the goal next to the driveway. Bobby imitated Lamar's jump shot, and I battled for rebounds against invisible opponents. We played until my dad came outside and told us to shut it down, we'd wake up the neighborhood.
What is wrong with those people? I'd asked myself not long before. Why don't they swim in their own pool?
By the time I was a teenager I was asking different questions: What is wrong with us? Why can't we swim with black people?