John Clay

C.M. Newton's courage and class went beyond wins and losses

A great storyteller, Jock Sutherland tells the story of the turning point that was 1969.

The former Lafayette High School basketball coach was C.M. Newton's assistant at the University of Alabama when he went to see a young prep star play in Birmingham. Upon his return, Sutherland's scouting report was to the point: Alabama had to sign Wendell Hudson.

After all, the Tide had finished 4-20 in Newton's first season after leaving Transylvania University for Tuscaloosa. And Hudson was a talented player of tremendous athletic ability who could help transform the Crimson Tide.

There was only one problem. Wendell Hudson was black. And in 1969, six years after Alabama governor George Wallace had stood in a university doorway in an attempt to block two black students from enrolling, the school had still not had a black scholarship athlete.

Undeterred, Newton told Sutherland they were going to see Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach who also served as athletic director and had hired Newton the year before. While Sutherland sat in the waiting room — "Coach Bryant always called me 'Jack,'" Sutherland joked — Newton made his case.

"When they came out, Coach Bryant had his arm around C.M.," Sutherland recalled. "I knew right then we were getting Wendell Hudson."

C.M. Newton integrated Alabama's basketball program by recruiting Wendell Hudson Associated Press

Three years later, Newton was starting five black players. And from 1973-74 through 1975-76, the Tide won three consecutive Southeastern Conference basketball titles.

When words like courageous and honorable are rightfully used to describe Newton, who passed away Monday at age 88, much of his reputation goes back to the color barriers he helped break first at Transylvania and then Alabama.

He was the right man courageous enough to do the right thing at the right time.

Just as he was the right man at the right time for the University of Kentucky in 1989 when the school was mired in an NCAA basketball investigation, its national reputation encapsulated by the Sports Illustrated cover with the headline "Kentucky's Shame."

By convincing Newton to leave his coaching post at Vanderbilt and return to his alma mater as athletics director, then-president David Roselle sent a clear message UK was newly committed to running a program that conducted itself the right way.

C.M. Newton introduced Tubby Smith as Kentucky's men's basketball coach during a press conference in 1997. Janet Worne Herald-Leader File Photo

Newton proved you could do that and win, as well. Underrated is the fact he didn't just convince Rick Pitino to become head basketball coach, he also mentored the young New Yorker on the ways the South and the SEC. And it was Newton who hired Pitino's successor, Tubby Smith, the school's first black basketball coach, during a span in which UK reached four Final Fours and won two national titles.

Newton wasn't perfect, as he would be first to admit. His biggest regret as AD was failing to build a sustained winner in football, though the first two years of the Hal Mumme/Tim Couch era provided a much-needed jolt of excitement and identity.

newton and mumme.jpg
C.M. Newton congratulated head football coach Hal Mumme as they walked off the field after UK defeated EKU in Lexington in 1998. David Stephenson Herald-Leader File Photo

Overall, however, Newton did more for UK athletics than wins and losses. His presence and demeanor exuded honesty and principle in line with his stated goal of "recognizable class." Newton was the rare soul who could be liked and respected by both Bob Knight, who chose him as an assistant coach on his Olympic team, and those who couldn't stand Bob Knight.

Maybe that's because he treated others with respect, even the media. Often when I called C.M. for a story, he spent the first part of our conversation telling me why I was wrong about a particular opinion I had written, only then to invariably ask, "OK, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

Since we started this remembrance with a story, let's end it with this one: In 2000, at the end of his time as UK's AD and as chairman of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, Newton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

On a questionnaire sent by the Hall, each inductee was to list the name of the spouse who would be accompanying him or her to Springfield, Mass., for the induction ceremony. Newton's wife, Evelyn, had passed away the year before, however. So for his date, as he called it, Newton made what was an inspired and totally fitting choice.

He brought Wendell Hudson.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader