Category Archives: race

Embracing the Tangent

One of the things I’ve learned while teaching African American Studies the past year-and-a-half is to embrace the tangent. At a PWI (predominately white institution), my classroom is one of the only places that students have where they can ask questions and discuss issues of race (even if it isn’t related to sports). Most of my students are white, and they are curious and often eager to talk about race. It fascinates them, and they have questions and assumptions they want to talk about. But many are reluctant or scared to talk. They are worried they will say the wrong thing, or offend somebody. They don’t have the tools, information, or the places to do it in ways that do not seem offensive to some. They’re out of practice. Our culture often tries to minimize race, ignore it, sweep it under the rug; not talk about. This is unfortunate.

I tell my students to speak openly, to come with their questions, so that we can talk about what they’ve heard, common assumptions, and why they may be wrong or how it may seem offensive others. Some may describe my class as a “safe space” though I prefer to think of it as collaborative open learning environment, where students help drive the conversation. It is about letting students talk openly in a place that is largely non-judgmental, and seek answers. Otherwise, they won’t talk about it. They will continue to be curious but feel attacked every time they try to learn or engage with someone else.

Anyways, out of this philosophy, and my drive to create this type of classroom culture, I have learned to embrace the tangent. To let students ask things and drive the conversations to unexpected places because although it may not be in my lesson plan, that is the education they need. Those are the conversations they want to have, and they will likely get more out of them because they relate directly to their thoughts, concerns, and daily lives. This often leads us to talking about current events, things going on around campus (including yesterday’s fascists posters), and stuff that they see in popular culture (which is how it relates back to sports). I love having the freedom to do this, and I can tell my students enjoy it. Today at the end of class, which was my last “lecture” of the semester (they do presentations next week), many commented how much fun they’ve had and asked me what else I teach. I felt proud. I’m lucky to have such an awesome job, and really engaged and curious students. And I feel like I am really making a difference.

On Kaepernick

I’ve kept most of my commentary about Colin Kaepernick confined to Twitter, and “clicking like” on people’s posts on Facebook. As many of you know, I was an MA student at Nevada while he was the quarterback for the Wolf Pack. During that time I became a fan of his, and I have been following his career with interest ever since. What’s more, I teach an African American Studies course here at Purdue called “The Black Athlete.” So the story is relevant to me as both a fan and a scholar.

First, I think it is important to take note of the evolution of Kaepernick’s image. When I was a student at Nevada he was a community hero, a beloved figure to almost everyone. At Nevada he was a hero, but people also recognized he had a complex identity. They respected that and sought to understand him. The media did countless profiles on him and his background, revealing the nuance to his identity.

That treatment and that understanding did not follow him to the NFL. Once he went to the league, few people were aware of who he was, his complex identity, or personality. The national media did not dig up or rely on the Nevada narratives. Instead, while they liked his play, they also saw his tattoos and celebrations, making their own narratives. Quickly he became labeled a “thug,” immature, etc. He was caricatured along the lines of most black athletes, and became stripped of the complex nuances in his life; turned into a stereotype not a man. This representation held no matter his success. In fact, I witnessed many of my own colleagues openly rooting against him in Super Bowl XLVII because they didn’t like his image, attitude, etc., buying into the new and revised narratives.

Of course, the difference between local, college media and national media is important here. But what has struck me, and I have only been able to fully recognized what troubled me for so long in the last year after teaching my course, is that in watching the revision of the Kaepernick narrative from college to the NFL I have been watching how racism works in America. We are capable and even willing to understand and appreciate certain athletes, behaviors, images, in a local, friendly, (and perhaps possessive) setting, but when they become unfamiliar, when they are the enemy, have a larger stage, etc. we care less, take less time, to dig deeper. Nationally, we are OK and comfortable with the caricatures and stereotypes that we would never tolerate in other contexts.

Following Friday’s demonstrations, the stereotypes continue for most. Entitled, ungrateful, prima donna, anti-American, etc. Others yet seemed baffled that an alleged “thug” could also be an activist, retreating to the commonly held stereotype that athletic ability and intellectual depth are mutually exclusive. The perpetuation of these stereotypes are indicative of the exact culture and treatment that Kaepernick is speaking out against.

Second, the analysis of Kaepernick’s demonstration and activism that I have read, has largely ignored the connections to W.E.B. Du Bois. As I learned today, Friday, when he refused to stand for the national anthem, was also the anniversary of Du Bois’ death. Du Bois, of course, coined the term “double consciousness” referring to how African Americans are both black and Americans, a twin identity that is often hard to reconcile given the history of this country and its relationship to race. Indeed, this likely was not lost on Kaepernick. As my friends at Nevada know, each student is required to take “Core Humanities” courses, one of which covers the American Experience. These courses are about perspectives and include discussion sections. DuBois is almost certainly a topic covered.

Additionally, Kaepernick joins a long tradition of black athletes engaging in activism. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famously refused to play in the 1968 Olympics, saying “It’s not my country” about being unpersuaded by a patriotic duty to compete. Ali, of course, refused induction in the Army. They too invoked Du Bois’ concept, explicating their black identity from larger American nationalist and imperialistic goals that they could not reconcile with their realities. There are several other examples that I wont list here.

I offer these two points to help us understand the historic context of Kaepernick’s actions. The present context is equally complex. A flawed criminal justice system has given rise to the Black Lives Matters moment, Donald Trump has incited a resurgence in white supremacist ideals, and the NFL continues to be the “no fun league” with a major image problem. All of these issues continue to unfold, while Kaepernick pledges to continue “demonstrating” until some sort of real, substantive change happens. Some will say that regardless of the outcome, Kaepernick has been successful redirecting our attention and starting conversations. This is true, but like our awareness of nuance and complexity at the personal level, it can too easily be ignored and written off from a distance. As the story continues, I hope that the narratives surrounding Kaepernick will help us rethink and reevaluate national stereotypes and policies, help us better empathize with pain of living with racism in America, and inspire us to work together to not nostalgically “make American great again” but instead progressively make America a great place for all of us.

John Carlos and My Charmed Academic Life

I’ve lived something of a charmed academic life. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and lucky in the opportunities I’ve had. My advisors at every level have been top-notch and selfless. Incredibly encouraging and passionate about their student’s success. The institutions have been equally giving, even if no one has heard of my undergraduate institution or I get funny looks when I say my master’s degree is from Nevada.

Tonight I was reminded of this charmed life when I met 1968 Olympic 200m bronze medalist, John Carlos. The Black Cultural Center here at Purdue sponsored the talk. Carlos chose to speak here, instead of attend the track and field hall of fame induction ceremony. His Grandson is a current Purdue student (and a fraternity brother of one of my students this semester). You could tell that this familial connection was important to Carlos. So was talking to a young crowd. He shared a lot of personal, family stories. He spoke little of his athletic career or Olympic moment, and instead encouraged us to stand up for what is right, to not be fooled by the distractions of mass media, and reminded us that we can’t go back in time to change our choices. This last point stems from his experience in 1968.

A major theme of his talk was sacrifice in the face of criticism. Any movement, any major achievement, requires sacrifice. And that sacrifice is not momentary. It’s often lifelong. Sometimes it is a stigma, sometimes it’s mistreatment, other times it’s delayed gratification. Carlos experienced bits and pieces of all of theses. Yet, he’s extremely proud of his actions and statements. He knew he was right — and firmly believes that what’s right never changes. His actions were misunderstood — and continue to be — and opposed by many then, though now they’re largely celebrated. People thought he was advocating Black Power, but according to Carlos, “the only black power was my black ass running down that track.”

Narratives, however, painted him as radical and anti-American. This confusion has often overshadowed the Olympic Project for Human Rights and his own commitment to the larger civil rights movement. He laughs when people trying to re-write that history, but kindly explains what he was and continues to be about, encouraging them to join his cause.

Encouraging people to join his cause — the cause for civil and human rights — is important, increasingly so, he argues. This is our life, our history, and our time to deal with what’s right and wrong, he said. We can’t keep waiting for “more time” because it will never come. We’ve got to wake up and look beyond the media narratives that discounted him for so long, and continue to ignore or move past serious social ills, and act. Indeed, he is particularly worried and concerned about the future given the rise of police violence and continued systemic inequality.

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John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic salute on the 200m medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics

The talk was humorous, heartfelt, and inspiring. It was clear that it came from his soul. Carlos wants young people to continue the fight, think critically about the world they live in, and work to make a difference. One line from early in his talk to this effect particularly struck me. We have such a “fear of offending our oppressors” he said, but we must not let it limit our right to express ourselves and stand up for what is right. In the end, that is his message to all of us and the way he has tried to live his life.

Hearing those words from Carlos meant so much to me. I’ve long looked up to him and Tommie Smith. I had the iconic poster of the two of them on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics on the wall of my dorm room my freshman year. I was a track athlete and loved their bravery, but back then I don’t think I ever fully understood what it really meant. That image, however, was one of my first introductions into the connections of history and sport.

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John Carlos and I at Purdue University, October 2015.

Now, here I am tonight, sharing the story that I heard firsthand from a man I looked up for most of my adolescent life. I even had my photo taken with him on stage after the event. I live a charmed life.

What’s insane about all of this is, this isn’t the first time I have met one of my heroes. In the summer of 2010 I met 1964 Olympic 10,000m Gold Medalist Billy Mills for the first time. Mills was the main subject of my master’s thesis. That summer, I was in Lawrence doing research on him at KU and Haskell that summer, when I serendipitously learned he was in town and giving a free public talk. I already had a mutual friend with Mills — a fellow Baker University track alum, Mark Misch — who promised to introduce us, but providence intervened.

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Billy Mills and I at the Haskell Cultural Center, June 2010.

Meeting him meant the world to me. I grew up in Kansas, running cross country and track. The state cross country meet for class 5A and 6A schools is annually held at the University of Kansas’ Rim Rock Farm. The course is decorated with silhouettes of Kansas’ most famous runners and many of its features — such as hills, curves, and bridges — are named for them. The final hill of the course bares his name. It’s called the Billy Mills Ascent. It was hell. A near 400m hill that separated you from the sprint. Your legs burned and ached as you pushed yourself to the summit, where you could see the finish line 400m away. The hill tested your resolve and endurance, and only the best prepared dared to attempt a final kick after it. In high school we trained all year with that hill in mind. Every Wednesday my team did hill repeats until our cool down was nothing more than a walk/job. That hill was on our minds. We knew it by name. We knew what it meant — perseverance, toughness, and survival. What today, in the traditional of Gerald Vizenor, you might call survivance. It was an ode to both Billy Mills’ championship and his struggle.

Mills and I met again 6 months later, this time at his house in Sacramento. He generously invited me to spent a cold January day with him and his wife, Patricia. I came away with over 6-hours of recording as we chatted about his life, pre-and-post ’64. It was a remarkably engaging and intimate conversation. He was so open and giving, willing to move beyond his usual rote and rehearsed talk. Without the generosity, my master’s thesis — and probably my academic career — would not have been possible.

My thesis was the first major study of Billy Mills. I connected his life to Jim Thorpe and evolving federal Indian policy to describe and interpret the conditions that framed his life and connect his impact to that larger history.  When I finished my thesis that summer, I shipped him a bound copy. Both he and Pat read it. They loved it and asked about getting more copies, prompting discussions about the future of the project.

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Billy Mills, Purdue Native American Students, and I at Purdue University, October 2014.

Since then we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Facebook, and become friends. They visited Purdue last fall and requested that I be invited to have lunch with them.  They wanted to catch up, and continue our conversation from years ago. It was another charmed connection. Another surreal moment with one of my heroes.

In addition to meeting these sporting heroes, I’ve also had the chance to meet a variety of inspiring academics. Last year I had tea with Michale Oriard — the eminent scholar of football. We sat and talked for nearly two hours about his books (which are required reading for any football scholar), my research, our thoughts on higher education, and more. Oriard played football at Notre Dame and later for the Kansas City Chiefs — my hometown NFL team. So, of course, Kansas City and barbecue was yet another topic. A similar moment occurred last week, when I was invited to have lunch with Bruce Schulman, a leading political historian from Boston University. Bruce was friendly and encouraging. He enjoyed hearing about my dissertation and, though it was a brief conversation, offered some constructive thoughts on the topic.

Perhaps I’m making too much of these moments. Maybe I need to let go of my inner fanboy. But whenever I think of them — and my insane ESPN appearance in August — I can’t but help wonder if I am living a dream. Meeting my heroes, hearing them share their stories, becoming friends with them, and then sharing those stories in my own classroom and publications is more than I ever imagined. I knew at an early age I wanted to study history. I stumbled into the history of sports in undergrad, but never knew any of this was possible.

These stories mean so much to me, not only because they’re dreams come true, but also because this journey has and continues to be incredibly hard. Writing is tough work. Teaching is at times exhausting. Together, they sometimes seem impossible. I have a lot of moments of self-doubt. There are days where it is damn hard to keep going. It is during these times, when I’m struggling to push through the distractions, that I reflect on all of these personal moments. They remind me that I can keep going. That I’ve been successful. That I’ve been put in this place for a reason.  One of the freakiest reminders is the progression of area codes from institution to institution. I completed my BA and MLA in 785, my MA in 775, and am doing my doctoral work in 765. It’s silly, I know. It’s probably meaningless, but it sure feels like I sign. It helps me know that I am where I supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It hints that maybe this plan isn’t all mine. After all, I’m living a charmed life. I have already been given a lifetime of unreal opportunities. With a little more hard work, who knows what else will come my way.

Reflections on my “Teaching The Black Athlete” series

The Paseo YMCA, KCMO where the Negro League was formed in 1920.

The Paseo YMCA, KCMO where the Negro League was formed in 1920.

The final part of my summer series of designing my African-American Studies course “The Black Athlete” for this fall is up at the Sports in American History blog. The post talks mostly about my philosophy and strategy in creating assignments. They’re not necessarily unique to a sports history course. I don’t include the syllabus in this series, though I plan on sharing it on “Teaching” section of this blog once it’s finalized. If you’re curious about how things go, this winter I’ll probably write some sort of postmortem (also on this blog) to see how well things worked in the course.

The teaching series didn’t quite turn out as I hoped. While it definitely helped me with my course prep, I felt like I was either too vague or too specific when writing about it. Being a relatively inexperienced teacher, I felt kind of reluctant, under-qualified, and vulnerable putting ideas out there that haven’t all been tested. It’s really hard to write about your choices and goals without being too specific or knowing if they’re truly the best approach. In the end, I wanted to share my process and approach to start a conversation and get people thinking. Perhaps it is all that time I spent in the Ed. School as an undergrad, but I believe that reflecting on our choices is important. So as the series ends, I hope everyone who’s read the posts has at least found it thought-provoking and maybe a tiny bit useful. Thank you to everyone who has commented and shared their advice. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations; hopefully they continue.


Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part I Choosing Course Materials

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 2 Organizing the Course

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments

AAS 371 The Black Athlete Syllabus

Race & Protest: The Cultural Significance of Football at Oklahoma

This week I’ve been Tweeting and sharing stories and links about the events at the University of Oklahoma. The video showing racist behavior by Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity members is disturbing. I’ve tried to add some context by sharing my research into the history of Oklahoma and the university. During these discussions, I’ve payed particularly close attention to OU Football Coach Bob Stoops. He’s done a tremendous job of coming out against the actions and taking a firm stand against racism. President Boren has also done an admirable job providing quick, decisive leadership. The fraternity has already been shut down. Two of its member have also been expelled for their behavior.

Today news came out that Coach Bob Stoops, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, and the University of Oklahoma football did not practice yesterday (which was supposed to be their first spring practice). Instead, they met at the football complex, prayed together, and then marched through campus arm-in-arm demonstrating against racism. The Oklahoma Football Twitter account Tweeted pictures using #notonOUrcampus and #Sooners Stand United.

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Also on Monday, top-recruit Jean Delance announced he would not attend OU and decommitted. These actions illustrate the importance of football as a symbol of the university. I’ve focused predominately on the actions of the football team at OU because it’s my area of research. My dissertation explores the OU football dynasty during the 1950s, and how it came to represent the state and create pride for its citizens. Football became a symbol of not just the university, but also the state. Bud Wilkinson, the football coach during that era, became one of the most important people in the state (this later led him to run for political office). The central role of football in the state is significant, and thus the leadership of its coach is crucial for gaining the attention of Sooners. After all, as my study shows, football played a key role in shaping the state’s culture. I believe Stoops and the OU football team continue to do so today.

Race and football has a long history together. The University of Oklahoma was the second to last football program to integrate its team in the old Big 8 (Missouri was the last). Though they were 14 years ahead of their biggest rival, the University of Texas, who integrated in 1970, it was a slow process. OU faced two Supreme Court cases during the late-1940s that would eventually force integration of the university. It took nearly four years from the first lawsuit until African-Americans were finally admitted. Once admitted, the University dragged its feet. Using railings and ropes, it tried to keep black students separate in classrooms. University President George Cross received hundreds of letters. Many of them from local residents deploring the idea, while out-of-state writers shamed Oklahoma for treating African-American students like animals, caging them off with ropes and railings. Soon, there were similar concerns about the integration of the student union and the football stadium. Could black students attend games? Would the intensity of sports cause problems? Administrators debated the pros and cons. Though George McLaurin and Ada Lois Sipuel sought educational equality, not athletic integration, they clearly got the ball rolling.

Indeed, in 1950 coach Bud Wilkinson announced that he would welcome any black player who was willing to try out for the team. A few tried out, but no one made the team until 1956. Prentice Gautt, a fullback from Oklahoma City became the first black player on the University of Oklahoma football team. He was a standout athlete at all-black Douglas High School. During his high school career, Gautt played in the first-ever integrated game in the state of Oklahoma. He was also the first African-American to play in the state all-star game, though he was a late addition and it required special permission.

Gautt’s success at OU was due, in part, to the support he received from the African-American community in Oklahoma City. According to Sooner Magazine, “A group of black doctors and pharmacists in Oklahoma City had funded a four-year scholarship for a scholar-athlete who could make the grade at OU.” This would save Wilkinson, and presumably other OU coaches, from having to use an athletic scholarship on a black player, which undoubtedly would have created a quite a controversy among fans and boosters. Because of Gautt’s athletic prowess, he easily could have chosen to attend another school who had offered him a real scholarship (a year later Gautt was given an athletic scholarship), but OU’s football clout meant more to him. They were the best team not just in Oklahoma, but the entire country. Playing at OU allowed him to fulfill one of his childhood dreams.

The Sooners were in the middle of a 47-consecutive game winning streak when Gautt joined the team. The 1956 team was named national champions for the second year in a row, but because of eligibility rules Gautt was relegated to the freshman team. Oddly, I’ve found relatively little coverage of Gautt and the integration of football at OU in the mainstream white press. Because of the earlier Supreme Court cases, the papers seemed to believe that Oklahoma was progressive and had moved beyond race. This, of course, was not true. The newspapers do reveal some of the difficulties Gautt faced. A few of his fellow freshman refused to play along side an African-American. Because of this, one of these teammates decided to leave OU. Most, however, supported him. When the freshman team was denied integrated dining following a game in Tulsa, they chose to walk out in solidarity.

According to Sooner Magazine, Gautt was sure to go out of his way to appease Southern customs, such as avoiding being seen with a female classmates. “When class was over, she would go back to the Quad, and I’d go the same way to practice,” he told the magazine. “I can remember slowly putting up my brushes one at a time, washing them and washing them and thinking `Holy cow, we have to do all of this…” Indeed, he struggled to have much of a social life in Norman and instead often drove to back home to Oklahoma City.

He earned a spot on the varsity team his sophomore year (just as the winning-streak ended). On the varsity team he continued to face racism. In Texas, state laws prohibited housing Gautt with the team in their Worth Hotel in Fort Worth before the big OU-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl, so other arrangements had to be made. Like earlier, the team showed solidarity and changed venues with him. Despite these set backs, Gautt stuck with it. During his junior year, he finally came into his own on the field. He was named MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. Success helped Gautt become more accepted on campus and in Oklahoma.

Following his playing day at OU, Gautt was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He stayed in Cleveland for a year before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. After seven years with the Cardinals, Gautt retired and became an assistant for Dan Devine at Missouri in 1968. While coaching, he earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology focusing on minority athletes. Eventually he joined the Big 8 (and later Big 12) as an assistant commissioner.

Gautt’s experience at Oklahoma shaped his later career and how he viewed race and athletics. In a TV interview during Bud Wilkinson’s 1964 U.S. Senate campaign, Gautt outlined some of his experience at OU and his views on Civil Rights and racial issues in sport.

Well you know this problem of integration, the Civil Rights bill, the Public Accommodations bill, they are, to me, when I hear people talk about it, it’s a big farce. Because it is easy for a person to get up and say I’m for civil rights, I’m for equal opportunity and I’m for this and I’m for that. But I believe until you make the first move in acting, or acting out what you’re saying, it’s no good.

Gautt believed in action, and he thought words were meaningless unless the were backed up. Bud Wilkinson backed up his word and Gautt supported him for Senate because “I have experienced it [Wilkinson’s actions].” During the interview, Gautt explained one example where Wilkinson stood up for Gautt and cut through racist views on the football team.

In 1959, uh we had a problem. We had, I was up for all-American, we had several fellas on the team that resented this. They didn’t think that I should have been up. They began to talk about me behind my back. We played Northwestern, we lost a very crucial game, our first game of the season. We came back we beat a team just barely, then we went to Texas, we played, we lost the game. We came back for practice that Tuesday. Tuesday we had a lousy practice. And he called us up in a huddle, and he said everybody in. We were really amazed because practice wasn’t over. He came into the dressing room we were in there milling around, talking with each other, and everybody sat down as he came in, and he said I want to talk to you for a moment. He said the fellow you’ve been talking about, he didn’t do, he didn’t ask for this all-American publicity. He didn’t ask for anything, the sportswriters selected him. He had the publicity from the paper. And I think it’s unjust that you talk about him behind his back. And until all of you decide that you want to play ball, you want to play together, that you’re men enough, and then stand up and tell him the things that you’ve said about him behind his back, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. And he walked out and slammed the door. Well, immediately fellas began to stand up and apologize to me for what they’d said. We band together, got together and we played wonderful football, at least up until the Nebraska game, which we lost. I think that was one of the first time Oklahoma had lost to the Big 8, one of the Big 8 foes, in pretty good a while.

(The quotes above are from this video interview).

Wilkinson was able to provide this leadership because, according to Gautt, he was “a secure person who felt pretty good about who and what he was.” He had the respect and the authority because of his success and his position within the state to say “You can he a part of my program. Regardless of what other people think or feel or do, I want you to be a part of my program.” This, in turn, put Gautt at ease and allowed him to trust his coach.

The response at OU follows this tradition. President Boren’s strong words have been followed by swift action and expulsions. Coach Stoops, like Wilkinson, has displayed remarkable leadership as well. Monday’s protest demonstrates to Oklahoma football players, and fans of the program, that its leader will not tolerate racism.

Gautt’s words, his example, and his determination still loom larger for the Sooners. The Prentice Gautt Academic Center connected to Memorial Stadium supports Oklahoma athletes academically. Likewise, until his death in 2005, Gautt frequently returned to OU to offer his wisdom. In 1987 he told Sooner Magazine, “Regardless of how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go in terms of people relating to people. We’re not talking about just black to white and white to black: we’re talking about people relating, families, husbands and wives, kids and other kids. Underlying that is a message of love–what it really means to care for somebody.” As Oklahoma moves forward, I hope these words from one of the school’s most important racial pioneers guide it. It’s heartening to see Stoops and the football team lead the way. Like Wilkinson and Gautt breaking barriers in the 1950s, the cultural importance of football remains important and will go a long way in starting the healing process.

Kansas, College Basketball History, and Dean Smith

If you grew up in Kansas in the 1940s, you thought it was the center of the United States, and geographically it was quite literally was. It also seemed that anybody of real importance came from there, Amelia Earhart was from there, and Walter Chrysler, and of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower… — Dean Smith, A Coach’s Life

Kansas was also at the center of the basketball world. The sport’s inventor, James Naismith, took the game to the University of Kansas, where he was the school’s first coach. Forrest “Phog” Allen learned the game while playing for Naismith. Allen became known as the “Father of Basketball Coaching” tutoring noted future coaches, Adolph Rupp, Ralph Miller, and Dean Smith.

The state’s basketball pedigree extended beyond Mount Oread, however. Fred “Tex” Winter invented the triangle offense while coaching at Kansas State. Lon Kruger and Gene Keady — both K-State alums — went on to remarkable coaching careers. Likewise, Eddie Sutton was born in the state.

537px-MichaelJordanDeanSmithDean Smith, died last night in Chapel Hill, NC at age 83. He was a legendary figure, and, at the time of his retirement, he was the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 basketball. Through most of his fame is connected to North Carolina, you could consider Smith Kansas’ John Wooden. Deep down, he was just an educator from Emporia, who found himself in a good situation. Like Wooden, Smith won a national championship in college and exported the values he learned to a new state.

Smith’s parents were both educators. A young Dean grew up with an excellent example at home. His mother was highly intelligent, meticulous, frugal, and well-organized. Important qualities for any coach’s wife. Indeed, his father coached high school football and basketball. During the 1930s, his father’s teams were already integrated. The 1934 Emporia High basketball team was the first integrated team to win a Kansas state championship. He tried to create a supportive, family atmosphere surrounding his teams, inviting their mothers over for a team dinner at least once per season. Smith’s parents also set a good example by abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and profanity.

His father was friends with Emporia’s most famous resident, William Allen White, and later served as pallbearer at his funeral. This was likely because of his deep interest in politics and in making a difference in the world around him. Smith recalled his parents incessant chatter over the 1940 Presidential election. Like most Kansans, they were supporters of the Republican candidate, Wendall Wilkie.

Dean Smith spent most of his formative years in Emporia, but graduated from Topeka High School in 1949. Five-years later, the Topeka schools were integrated by Brown v. Board, but Smith advocated for the integration of his high school basketball team much earlier. Among his classmates was future U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, who dated on of his best friends. From there, Smith matriculated at the University of Kansas (KU) on an academic scholarship. He walked on to the football and basketball teams as a freshman. Basketball, of course, was where Smith stood out. The Jayhawks were NCAA Champions his junior year (1952) and runners-up his senior season (1953). His teammate on those squads was LaVannes Squires, KU’s first black player, who was also a reserve guard. Squires played for the varsity Jayhawks from 1951 to 1954. While mostly a reserve player too, Smith soaked up the wisdom of KU coaches, “Phog” Allen and Dick Harp. After graduating, he briefly served as assistant to Allen and Harp. This experience was integral to Smith’s future success.

These formative years, foreshadow much of Smith’s future. On the court, he passed his mentor, Allen, and fellow KU alum, Rupp, in total wins. Like Rupp, he exported Kansas basketball to a new state and established what would become one of the preeminent basketball programs. Unlike Rupp, and to a lesser extent Allen, he was more determined on the issue of integration. Following the lessons of his father, he pushed for the integration of North Carolina basketball in the 1960s. Likewise, he valued education and teamwork. Smith’s Tar Heel teams graduated 97% of their players.

Winning, of course, is what made Smith most famous. His North Carolina teams played in 11 Final Fours and won 2 NCAA champions (and 1 NIT Championship). He also coached Team USA to the 1976 Olympic Gold Medal.

* * * *

Smith’s life and legacy have always been interesting to me. He was born just 4 years before my Grandfather, who also grew up near Emporia, KS. My Grandfather also went on to enjoy a long career as an educator, though he was never a coach. The similar timeline and locations make Smith easy for me to relate to. When I think of him, I think of these early moments, the influence of his childhood and adolescence in Kansas, more than his Carolina heydays.

While it may not seem like Kansas is the center of the United States today, there is still an immense pride among its residents and it’s still not hard to find Kansans in influential positions. Former Secretary of State Robert Gates was born in Wichita. Former Chairmans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers was born in Kansas City and grew up in the Kansas suburbs before graduating from Kansas State. Baseball statistician and sabermetrics inventor, Bill James hails from Lawrence (where he continues to live) and is a KU alum. And, it’s impossible to forget, the Koch Brothers are from Wichita.

Of course, this is largely nostalgic and biased, but to me, Smith reflects the important values Kansans taken pride in, and the sport that many of us consider to be our religion. The religious nature of college basketball to Kansans is reflected in the remarkable success of their native sons in the coaching world. And Smith was the best. Here is an overview of the success of Kansas-born Division I basketball head coaches:

  1. Dean Smith —  born Emporia, KS — college KU — coached Air Force, North Carolina — 879 wins — 11 Final Fours — 2 national titles
  2. Adolph Rupp — born Halstead, KS — college KU — coached Kentucky — 876 wins — 6 Final Fours — 4 national titles
  3. Eddie Sutton — born Bucklin, KS — college OK-State — coached Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, San Francisco — 804 wins — 3 Final Fours — 0 national titles
  4. Ralph Miller — born Chanute, KS –college KU — coached Wichita State, Iowa, Oregon State — 657 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles
  5. Gene Keady — born Larned, KS — college K-State – coached Western Kentucky, Purdue – 550 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles
  6. Lon Kruger — born Silver Lake, KS — college K-State — coached Texas, Pan Am, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma — 545 wins — 1 Final Four — 0 national titles (ACTIVE)
  7. Johnny Orr — born in Yale, KS — college Illinois, Beloit — coached Massachusetts, Michigan, Iowa State — 466 wins — 1 Final Four — 0 national titles
  8. Mark Turgeon — born in Topeka, KS — college KU — coached Jacksonville State, Wichita State, Texas A&M, Maryland – 326 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles (ACTIVE)
  9. Mark Fox — born in Garden City, KS — college Eastern New Mexico — coached Nevada, Georgia — 221 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles (ACTIVE)
  10. Bill Guthridge — Born in Parsons, KS — college K-State — coached North Carolina — 80 wins — 2 Final Fours — 0 national titles

Totals: 5,404 wins — 23 Final Fours — 6 national titles

In addition to the totals, there are two basketball arenas and three courts named after these Kansans: Rupp Arena (Kentucky), Dean Smith Center (North Carolina), Keady Court (Purdue),  Eddie Sutton Court (Oklahoma State), and Ralph Miller Court (Oregon State).

* * * *

Several years ago, I told one of my advisors I was interested in learning more about Naismith and “Phog” Allen. Being a native of Kansas, I was interested in Allen especially, but the history of basketball more generally. I also liked studying coaches. They really interest me and I think there are lessons to be learned from their lives. Biographies of famous coaches was part of what got me into doing sports history.

Anyhow, while my advisor conceded that “Phog” Allen was well-known and important to some, he thought Allen lacked an interesting story. Furthermore, he wondered what his influence he had beyond coaching, and if he was really worth studying from a historical perspective. He told someone like Adolph Rupp might be a little bit better because of the racial dynamics in his tenure at Kentucky, but even then there probably wasn’t much more to his life beside the fact he won a bunch of games. I understood where he is coming from — both as a scholar and someone who tries to reach a popular audience; perhaps there isn’t much else to say about these figures. But I’ve never been fully convinced. The giants of college basketball history deserve and need another look.

There is no doubt that my obsession with college basketball, and my home state, taint this outlook. But as I’ve read more and written more sports history, I really think it can be done. As I’ve tried to show above, Dean Smith is one figure with a compelling and significant story. I’ve read his co-written autobiography, A Coach’s Life, and a few other journalist biographies of him. There’s a lot to his story — he was a tremendously successful coach, an advocate for integration, and more. Interrogating his career at North Carolina and charting how his teams came to symbolize the region and the sport, particularly during the 1980s and 90s, would also be fascinating. John Matthew Smith wrote an excellent book on John Wooden and his UCLA dynasties that could serve as a template.

Reflecting on Dean Smith’s life and my knowledge of the college basketball’s history, it seems clear that his career and influence builds off of Wooden’s. Indeed, they even intersect. Wooden’s UCLA teams defeated Smith’s Tar Heels in the 1968 championship game in the middle of its string of 10 NCAA championships. Though it was Smith’s second Final Four, he was still a relatively young coach (it was his 7th season) refining his craft. After Wooden retired, Smith replaced him as one of the most venerated college basketball coaches in America. Smith continued on into the modern era of the NCAA tournament (it’s post-1980 boom) and the corporatization of college sports, symbolized by North Carolina’ signing its first contract with Nike in 1993. While the sport has undoubtedly continued to evolve since Smith’s retirement in 1997, his career offers a window into basketball’s development since Wooden’s retirement.

* * * *

Smith’s passing is a time to honor his incredible legacy as well as contextualize him as a product of an era, and a place, where both Kansas and college basketball were at the center of the United States. I hope his legacy lives as an inspiration to Kansans, like it did for me, and as a symbol of the state’s hard-working values. Smith grew into an iconic coach. But, just like John Wooden was shaped by his early Indiana life and Purdue career, Dean Smith would not have been who he was without the lessons he learned from his parents in Emporia and his coaches at KU. And, without Dean Smith, North Carolina would not be what it is today. Rest In Peace, Coach Smith.

OU Football and the “new Oklahoma”

Since I returned home from Oklahoma I’ve been working on organizing my research and sketching out how to organize my dissertation. I have a lot of little stories and anecdotes, but I’m not sure where to place them within the larger story. I’m still unsure how to construct and layout that story.

In a lot of ways the story is tailor-made. The University of Oklahoma won 47-consecutive games from 1953-1957. They also won 31-straight from 1949-1950. These two streaks serve as the driving narratives. Football and unprecedented success are the story. Yet, in other ways, they’re not the story at all. The immediate questions of “why football” and “what impact did the team and winning have on the university and state” are integral to doing good history. Those questions help separate my project from the other books written about the streak. After my research trip and doing quite a bit of reading I have answers to those questions and others.

The struggle is about organization and arrangement. What’s most logical, what supports my argument best, etc. I want to develop and foreshadow events with context and connections but I don’t want to detour too much from the “main” football story. Maybe this shouldn’t be a concern, because I feel like a lot of my little arguments and assertions take place along these side roads while football itself only loosely connects some of them.  Football is the big image people notice, but the detours are what show the real, new Oklahoma in the postwar era.

The story that I think is at the heart of my dissertation is that of football as a symbol of the new Oklahoma building its image, industry, racial equality, etc. in the postwar Sunbelt. Football and winning are what people notice. It’s what makes Oklahoma and OU so unique and interesting, but along the way, parallel to the streaks, are some really compelling stories about racial integration (both of OU and the team as well as events in Oklahoma City), boosterism (Oklahoma City striving to become the “Detroit of the aviation industry”), the university’s vast expansion (with assistance from the Navy), loyalty oaths, and the state’s political influence.

Image is perhaps the overarching story, of which football is the biggest attention grabber. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets it all in motion. Oklahoma desperately wants to counter the “Okie” image and rebrand the state. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! helps. So too does a variety of ad campaigns and whistle stop tours by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce (and others). Football success, however, has the largest impact. This is undoubtedly why Oklahoma is one of the major instigators in questioning the NCAAs broadcasting policies during the 1950s. It also affects similar debates as they consider different conference memberships (with the president informing some alumni that while the Southwest Conference has less stringent recruiting rules, OU’s academic reputation would suffer).

Image really is at the fore in both narratives, it’s at the heart of what I mean when I say  the “new Oklahoma” (or “Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma” in my working dissertation title). The “new Oklahoma” is complex. It relies on football, the politics of pork, boosterism, mass media, and more, to reshape not just the state’s image but also its racial and economic landscape. There are hints of change in the political climate as well (though they’re not completely achieved until later). I want my dissertation to be about the construction of this “new Oklahoma” while keeping football as the central narrative trunk of which everything else branches off.  It’s hard to strike that balance but I’m excited about where I’m going and I think I’ll be able to get there.