Integrating Southwestern Louisiana basketball led to detractors as well as turning team around
Beryl Shipley knew that some decisions he made while basketball coach at Southwestern Louisiana were not going to be popular with those in power.
He fought to take his all-white 1965 team to the NAIA national tournament, violating an unwritten Gulf States Conference rule that forbade league schools from playing against integrated teams. A couple of years later, he recruited black players at a time when the Deep South was still starkly segregationist.
When those decisions paid off and his teams became successful, it drew the ire of university administrators and state athletic officials alike. Indirectly, those and other detractors brought an end to his coaching career just when it was reaching its prime.
But Shipley was not to be deterred in doing what he thought was right, when it came to the well-being of his student-athletes. The fact that he knocked down the walls, broke the color line and changed Louisiana basketball seemed monumentally more important than the 296-129 record he compiled while head coach of the team known then as the Bulldogs.
“My dad stood for what he believed in, and he never was intimidated,” Shipley said in an interview a few months before his death in 2011 from lung cancer. “And when my time came, I did just what he would have done.”
What he did, as a basketball coach and as frontman in bringing racial equality to state college athletics, ensured his legacy in Louisiana sports history. Now, he posthumously receives the state’s highest athletic honor with enshrinement into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
A large contingent of Shipley’s family, friends and former players and staff will be in Natchitoches on Saturday night, culminating the June 19-21 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Induction Celebration. A complete schedule and participation opportunities are at LaSportsHall.com or can be obtained by calling the Hall of Fame Foundation office at (318) 238-4255.
As for Shipley, his Hall of Fame selection didn’t come without controversy. His racially mixed teams ran contrary to the ideals of Louisiana higher education officials, conference commissioners and even USL’s own administration. Their attempts to limit Shipley’s use of black players, and his own dogged determination to make sure those and all of his players were successful by any means possible, led to deep rifts.
Eventually, an ugly NCAA investigation resulted in a two-year NCAA suspension of the USL basketball program.
The investigation uncovered 125 violations. Among the most serious accusations were that people close to Shipley doctored players’ transcripts and arranged for other people to take their entrance exam. Shipley denied knowing about any of it.
At the time, the two-year suspension was the harshest penalty ever handed down by the NCAA, and he felt much of the reason for the harshness came from the university’s refusal to put up a defense. At age 46, the native of Kingsport, Tennessee, was out of coaching for good, save for a brief stint in the fledgling American Basketball Association.
“Coach Shipley’s legacy is yet to be determined, but I know what he would want it to be,” former assistant coach Rocke Roy said in an interview just after Shipley died. “He’d want to be exonerated for the shame and the guilt that were put on him. Those things ate at him and attacked his gut every day of his life after he left coaching.”
Shipley told award-winning Louisiana author John Ed Bradley in his final year: “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.”
He was doing that long before the turmoil of the mid- to late ’60s, when his teams were perennial powers in the old Gulf States Conference. Shipley came to then-Southwestern Louisiana Institute in 1957 from Starkville (Mississippi) High, not long after a collegiate playing career at Delta State and a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, and his first team had a 16-11 record — the first winning season at the school in seven years. Two seasons later, his squad won 20 games, and the Bulldogs had a stretch of three GSC titles in four years in the early and mid-’60s.
But Shipley wanted to build a basketball power in what was traditionally a football state, and he also grew tired of refusing team slots to black players only to satisfy school and state officials who chose to ignore civil rights laws.
“I asked him what he wanted to do here,” said Tom Cox, a 1965 assistant coach hire who became Shipley’s right-hand man and lifelong friend. “He said he wanted to win it all, and not just the NAIA championship. He wanted to compete in the major college division of the NCAA and beat the country’s best programs.
“I told him we’ve got to do two things. ... We’ve got to upgrade our schedule, and we’ve got to recruit black players.”
They did both. In 1966, Shipley became the first coach to integrate a major sports team in a Deep South public university. Led by ground-breakers like Leslie Scott, Elvin Ivory and Marvin Winkler, the Bulldogs won GSC crowns in 1967-68 and 1968-69.
Two seasons later, that success increased exponentially. In the three-year period between 1970-73, USL had records of 25-4, 25-4 and 24-5. The 1970-71 season, the school’s last as a “college division” entry, a flashy point guard named Dwight “Bo” Lamar exploded on the scene and led the nation in scoring with a 36.0 average.
Lamar, a 1986 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame member, did the same thing the following two years when the Bulldogs moved to the “university” division. He, Roy Ebron and one of the most talented casts of players ever assembled at a Louisiana school took USL to two national top-10 rankings and as high as a No. 4 spot in the national polls, as well as advancing into the NCAA’s round of 16 twice.
In 1972-73, the Bulldogs beat Houston 102-89 before falling to Kansas State 66-63 in the NCAA regionals.
A loss to South Carolina the next night in a consolation game became Shipley’s final college game.
“When you’re winning with black ballplayers, and you’re the first one to win with black players, not everybody is going to take kindly to you,” said Ivory, an immensely talented player from Birmingham, Alabama, who was not recruited by Southern major college powers because of his race.
“Coach found himself dealing with something he had no control over, because it wasn’t just about basketball anymore.”
After his brief stint in the ABA, Shipley never coached again and never left his adopted home in Acadiana, working in the oil business until his retirement.
It was only in the final year of his life that the university, after ostracizing him for nearly four decades, began mending fences. The basketball program, spurred by Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin, held a reunion of “Shipley’s Boys” in 2011, and even though the ravages of cancer kept him from attending the public events, Shipley was able to be a part of the event through player visits to his home.
His name now waves on a banner high in the rafters of the Cajundome, and a bronze bust in the lobby honors his accomplishments as much more than wins and titles. To a man, his former players remain steadfast in their support, convinced that his only crime was fighting the segregation that existed at the time.
“Coach Shipley gave up his life for us,” Winkler said in Bradley’s piece, which ran in a Sports Illustrated 2011 edition a month after Shipley’s death. “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.’”