SEC turns page on a dark past

Jul 20, 2004 4:26 AM

There are mileposts in everyone’s life, signs along the way letting you know how far you — or your country — have traveled, and how far you still have to go.

For me one of them came last November, and will be taking effect this fall, when Sylvester Croom was passed up as head football coach at his alma mater, the University of Alabama, and hired by Mississippi State. His first teams take to the field in little more than two months.

Croom is black, the first black head coach ever in the powerful Southeastern Conference.

I traveled in Alabama and Mississippi 60 years ago, as the announcer for the most famous black basketball team in history, the Harlem Globetrotters. I spent five years with them, announcing their games in every state in the union.

We traveled with a companion white team, the Washington Generals, who played the Globetrotters night after night. The Generals never won, but they were not simply pawns. They were good ex-college basketball players who enjoyed the sport and the chance to play it regularly, for a little money.

The National Basketball Association, when I started with the Globetrotters in 1948, did not have one black player. That is hard to believe today, and it tells part of the story I’m relating, how far things have come in one man’s lifetime.

I already told the story here of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I had to go into a restaurant and carry out 22 sandwiches to feed the best team then in basketball because no restaurant in the town would serve them, although 5,000 showed up that night at New Mexico State’s new field house to see them play. It is interesting, as part of the evolution I’m recounting, that New Mexico State’s football team today is coached by Tony Samuel, one of only four black head coaches in division 1-A football in the nation, other than Sylvester Croom.

When the Globetrotters played in Alabama and Mississippi in those days, they had to leave the Washington Generals behind and arrange for a black pickup team to play. It was more than Alabamans or Mississippians of those years could stand to have a black team humiliate a white team, and even when the Globetrotters played a black team in Birmingham the audience was segregated, all black for an afternoon performance, all white for the night game.

I was stopped, entering the Birmingham auditorium for a Sunday afternoon doubleheader, by the original sheriff of Cool Hand Luke. "Where you goin’?" he asked, and when I told him inside to announce the game he said firmly, "No you’re not. This performance is for blacks only." I finally got in through help from the inside, but almost got tossed back out at halftime when, noting drinking fountains segregated for colored and white, I asked the sheriff where the white telephone might be.

Hotels in Alabama and Birmingham were strictly segregated in those days, so I had to stay in one location while the team stayed in the black section of town.

I thought about all this when Sylvester Croom was passed over at Alabama last year for Don Shula’s son Mike. Both had played at Alabama for Bear Bryant, and if Bryant were alive last year and leaving his coaching post, Sylvester Croom would have succeeded him, because he had been Bryant’s favorite assistant. After Croom left Alabama, he made the rounds of the National Football League as an assistant coach, working at Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, San Diego, Detroit and Green Bay. Shula, son of a famous father, has had little experience and less success in the pros, but Alabama could not bring itself to hire a black coach. We’re still not there yet.

Mississippi State did, and Croom will inherit a losing program there, one with dismal results in recent years.

I do not know how many games his team will win his first season, but if they beat Alabama in November I will be leading the cheers. I know how far the South and the nation have come. Syl Croom is one of those mileposts of life who mark the way.