C.M. Newton, whose basketball legacy includes playing for a University of Kentucky national championship team, later rescuing UK’s program from national embarrassment and repeatedly opening doors for historically marginalized black athletes and coaches, died Monday from natural causes. He was 88.
Charles Martin Newton filled many roles in more than a half-century in basketball. Among them were UK player, coach at Transylvania, Alabama and Vanderbilt, associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, UK director of athletics, chair of the NCAA Rules Committee, chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, president of USA Basketball, NIT Committee chair, USA Basketball representative at FIBA and inductee in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“In anything to do with basketball, he was an ambassador,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said in February. “He is a basketball icon.”
Friends and associates described Newton as something of a paradox: an imposing presence because of a résumé bursting with achievements, yet, as former UK president David Roselle said, “kind of an aw-shucks kind of guy.”
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Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, a friend for more than 30 years, said Newton was a professional mentor who also had a personal touch. For instance, Newton visited Delany’s wife in the hospital after she gave birth to her first child.
“C.M. never had a real heavy footprint,” Delany said. “He wasn’t over the top. He was always an understanding, empathetic person, who was tough. But your first impression was ‘Let’s talk. Let’s resolve the problem if we can.’”
Newton brought credibility to each of his basketball roles.
“I don’t know anyone more highly respected than C.M. of all the people I worked with in my 38 years at the NCAA,” said Tom Jernstedt, the organization’s longtime executive vice president.
Jernstedt recalled Newton once being in Indianapolis for an NCAA meeting at the same time as “Grandfather’s Day” at the elementary school attended by Jernstedt’s youngest son.
Cole Jernstedt’s grandfathers lived out of state and could not participate. Newton volunteered to go to Cole’s school in their place.
“He pretended to be grandfather to my son Cole for a half day at school,” Jernstedt said in February. “And Cole still talks about that. That’s an example of his versatility. He’s a man for all seasons.”
Bill Hancock served as an NCAA liaison to the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee for 16 years, six of which coincided with Newton’s time on what’s commonly referred to as the Selection Committee for the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t remember anyone walking into the room and having the respect of everyone in the room immediately to the extent that C.M. did,” Hancock said.
Former NCAA president Dick Schultz said Newton was honest. “There was no shortcut,” Schultz said. “There was no cheating. And you did it right, and you did it honestly. That was his trademark.”
In 1989, Kentucky had a dire need for the respect that Newton personified. The UK basketball program had been found in violation of NCAA rules. Sports Illustrated ran a cover depicting a UK player with his head bowed and a headline reading “Kentucky’s shame.”
After forcing the resignation of the basketball coaches and the athletic director, Roselle convinced Newton to leave a successful coaching career and lead UK athletics.
“Dr. Roselle convinced me that not only was I wanted as the athletic director, but that I was needed,” Newton told The Sporting News. “It was the ‘needed’ part that really got to me because UK had been so good to me over the years.”
In his Kentucky Basketball Encyclopedia, author Tom Wallace put Newton on the same level as UK basketball founding father Adolph Rupp.
“If Rupp is the man who built UK’s basketball program, then Newton is the man who saved it.” Wallace wrote.
Newton hired Rick Pitino as the new coach. Three years later, in its first season off NCAA probation, Kentucky advanced to the East Region finals, which Duke won on Christian Laettner’s famous buzzer-beating shot.
More importantly, Kentucky was Kentucky again.
Roselle cited the credibility Newton brought to UK basketball as a key to the resurrection.
“Oh, yeah,” Roselle said. “That appointment was pretty doggone crucial to what we were trying to do.
“I think to this day it’s one of the best hires I ever made. And I have hired a lot of guys.”
Delany saw Newton as singularly qualified to lead Kentucky’s athletic department at the time.
“There probably was not another person in the country that could have put a period on the end of that sentence,” Delany said. “Coaches, players, administrators and media people realized who he was and that as a very good man, in times of difficulty that’s what you want leading your program.”
Last May, Newton was named to the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame.
Last August, Pitino recalled how Newton would observe UK practices.
“The next day, I’d stick my head in and say, ‘What’d you think?’” Pitino said. “And it was nice because he’d never cross the line of second guessing. He’d always give me honest feedback. It was always stimulating for me because it was always very positive feedback. He’d tell me who he liked, who he thought needed to do certain things better. And I always enjoyed that.”
When asked for an example of the feedback Newton provided, Pitino chuckled and said, “He’d say, ‘Man, I need to give you a raise with the shots Antoine Walker takes.’ We always got a big laugh out of it.”
Newton especially enjoyed the early seasons of Kentucky’s resurrection, the years that came before championship-or-bust expectations returned.
“He loved (Jamal) Mashburn,” Pitino said. “He loved the early years, the way the guys played. And he was fascinated by those early teams.”
On several occasions in his career, Newton broke down racial barriers.
He integrated the basketball programs at Transylvania and Alabama. Each decision was made in the face of resistance.
According to author Andrew Maraniss, when Newton recruited Transy’s first black player, Jim Hurley, in 1965, Rupp told Newton he was “ruining basketball in Kentucky.”
When Newton recruited Alabama’s first black player, Wendell Hudson, in 1969, someone set a cross on fire in Newton’s front yard, Maraniss wrote. It was only six years after the Alabama governor at the time, George Wallace, had famously stood in the schoolhouse door and vowed to prevent blacks from attending the University of Alabama.
On Dec. 28, 1973, Alabama had the SEC’s first all-black starting lineup: Ray Odums, T.R. Dunn, Charles Cleveland, Charles “Boonie” Russell and Leon Douglas.
“When you think about it, who would have the courage to do that?” Calipari said of Newton integrating basketball programs in the South. “… You always wonder, if I were in a position like that, would I have the courage? People say to me, ‘Yeah, you’re progressive that way.’
“But it was a different time. It’s a lot easier to be progressive today.”
Later, as Vanderbilt coach, Newton orchestrated the school’s long-overdue reconciliation with Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in the SEC.
Of course, Newton also hired the first black coaches at Kentucky in men’s and women’s basketball: Tubby Smith and Bernadette Locke-Mattox.
Newton declined to take bows for bringing change.
“I get too much credit,” he told Maraniss in 2016. “I was just very pragmatic.”
In an email message, noted civil rights advocate Richard Lapchick wrote, “C.M. was a pioneer for using sport for racial equality in America. My own dad was given a lot of credit for helping to integrate the NBA. It was well deserved, but he did that in New York City.”
Of Newton’s actions, Lapchick wrote, “He performed courageous acts when other white sports leaders stood on the sidelines. America is in C.M.’s debt.”
Newton was born in Rockwood, Tenn., on Feb. 2, 1930. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was self-deprecating about playing for UK in 1949-50 and 1950-51. UK won the national championship in 1951.
Newton liked to tell the story about Rupp taking him out of a preseason scrimmage and telling him, “You know what you remind me of? A Shetland pony in a stud-horse parade.”
Roselle recalled Newton downplaying his UK basketball career.
“He said he was a role player,” Roselle said. “And I said, ‘What do you mean by role player, C.M.?’
“And he said, ‘Well, on days of practice, I rolled the balls out for the other players.’”
That sense of humor helped lighten the mood surrounding Kentucky basketball when Newton became athletic director in the dark days of 1989.
When asked if a bit of light-heartedness was therapeutic at the time, Roselle said, “Yeah, boy. It was.”
Newton’s Alabama teams won Southeastern Conference championships three straight seasons beginning in 1974.
“C.M. was a terrific coach . . . ,” Pitino said, “an outstanding teacher of the game.”
As president of USA Basketball from 1992 to 1996, Newton had major influence in the selection of the “Dream Team” that won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics.
According to current Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart, Newton set in motion the process that led to Kentucky hiring Calipari as coach in 2009. Newton’s recommendation led Barnhart to seriously consider hiring Calipari.
“I really trusted C.M.’s opinion …,” Barnhart told the Dothan (Ala.) Eagle last year. “He’s lived it. He’s been in my shoes … and had to understand the traditions that we have to keep.”
During Newton’s 2000 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Dave Gavitt told him, “Your entire life has been one of contribution to the game of basketball. … Few have ever done it with more class.”
Newton is survived by his second wife, Nancy, three children, Martin Newton of Birmingham, Ala.; Deborah Newton of Tucson, Ariz.; and Tracy Newton Chappelle of Tulsa, Okla.; six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.