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Monday, February 24
Updated: February 25, 7:03 PM ET
Coaches proving a black man can succeed in SEC

By Pat Forde
Special to

Tubby Smith and Rod Barnes grew up helping their fathers work the land -- land that did not belong to them.

Tubby helped Guffrie Smith farm tobacco, beans, potatoes, onions and tomatoes in Scotland, Md., the last dot on the map before Maryland falls off into Chesapeake Bay. Rod helped Charles Barnes raise soybeans, cotton, corn and milo in Satartia, Miss., population 100.

They were sharecroppers. Black men toiling on white men's property, an unsettling dynamic left over from the 19th century.

"There weren't any blacks who owned land back then," Tubby Smith said, laughing at the very thought.

Tubby Smith
As a child, Tubby Smith rooted against UK in the 1966 title game, only to coach the 'Cats to the '98 national title.

Today, in a different time, Tubby Smith and Rod Barnes could buy vast acres of prime real estate. But even more valuable than the spectacular salaries they are paid to coach basketball (and coach it well) in the South, both have fame, prestige and respect that would have been all but unattainable for sharecroppers' sons just a generation ago.

"In my wildest dreams," said Barnes, "I never would have imagined this."

Change gradually continues in the South. Unevenly sometimes, and with lamentable intransigence at others.

There is Trent Lott's benighted Strom Thurmond nostalgia. There is the Southeastern Conference's continued resistance to hiring its first African-American head coach in King Football. And there was the firing of Arkansas' Nolan Richardson, the finest (and angriest) black basketball coach the SEC has known, who went out under a mushroom cloud of racial acrimony.

But the nation's most racially scarred region and its most beloved sporting entity are slowly remaking themselves.

In today's SEC, Adolph Rupp's old program at the University of Kentucky is headed by a black man whose top eight players are black -- and there are longtime observers who insist they've rarely, if ever, heard Rupp Arena louder than it's been this year in support of Smith and his team. A 21-3 record, 16-game winning streak and No. 2 national ranking can do that for a coach who has stoically endured harsh treatment in the past.

In today's SEC, the state that fought to keep James Meredith from breaking the color barrier at the University of Mississippi is now on its second black basketball coach in succession, Barnes following Rob Evans. Though the Rebels have had an uneven 12-11 season, they've reached three of the last four NCAA Tournaments under Barnes, who was named the Naismith national Coach of the Year in 2001.

In today's SEC, the man who might be the most successful recruiter of African Americans is caucasian John Brady, whose father was a prominent segregationist in McComb, Miss. LSU coach Brady, who grew up playing alongside blacks and remains very close to some of his black high school teammates, has signed what recruiting analyst Clark Francis of the Hoop Scoop rates the nation's No. 1 class for 2003-04.

To further appreciate where the league is today, consider an upcoming anniversary.

Forty years ago this March, Mississippi State's SEC champion basketball team had to literally sneak out of the state to play in the NCAA Tournament, flouting the state's strident segregationist athletic policies that prohibited competing against blacks. State won league titles in 1959, '61 and '62 as well under coach Babe McCarthy, but each year Kentucky was the SEC representative in the tournament.

In '63, the Bulldogs vowed to play, and surreptitiously traveled to Evanston, Ill., to face Loyola of Chicago. They lost 61-51 to the Racers, who went on to become the first national champion with four blacks in the starting five.

People see wins and losses more than they see color. There's really no gray areas to it. All you can do is keep doing what we do with class, and maybe people will accept that.
Tubby Smith, Kentucky head coach

Loyola's championship was overshadowed by all-black Texas Western's defeat of all-white Kentucky three years later, in the game that became known as college basketball's Brown vs. The Board of Education.

Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, assigned to cover the Final Four, said that before the game he heard Rupp refer to Texas Western's players as "coons." Afterward the only accurate appellation was "champions." And the game changed forever.

That watershed contest was played in Maryland's Cole Field House. That's a couple of hours from Scotland, where 14-year-old Orlando "Tubby" Smith was rooting against the program he would one day lead to its seventh national title.

Of course Smith was rooting for Texas Western. He'd never seen an all-black starting five in big-time college basketball. It was an amazing sight, one of many mid-60s revelations in a turbulently changing nation.

Smith was attending George Washington Carver, the local all-black school. A year later Great Mills High School was fully integrated, and Smith went on to become a star player there.

"I remember segregated bathrooms, those sort of things," Smith said. "But by the time I was in high school, you're seeing blacks more involved in things around the nation, in all walks of life.

"In sports, from the standpoint of watching Texas Western in Cole Field House, being black and being a basketball player, that had a great effect. All of a sudden Maryland is calling, and I'm being recruited by Maryland. All of a sudden teachers and coaches are saying, 'Hey, you've got a chance at a scholarship.' "

Smith was set to go to Maryland, but the Terrapins' new basketball coach, a guy named Lefty Driesell, rescinded a scholarship offer extended by the previous coach. So Smith went to High Point College in North Carolina and into coaching, serving six seasons as a high school head coach and 12 as a college assistant before getting his big chance at Tulsa in 1991.

All it took was that chance. After four stellar seasons at Tulsa and two at Georgia, Smith succeeded former boss Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Twelve years earlier, a Kentucky columnist had pessimistically predicted in print that a Martian would inhabit the White House before a black man coached the Wildcats.

Less than a year after taking over at Kentucky, Smith was the third black coach to win a national title. He's never had a losing season, and now has recorded his 10th straight season of 20 or more wins.

Barnes was still sucking on a pacifier when Texas Western captivated Tubby Smith. The tumult of the 1960s is lost on the 37-year-old. But when it was time for him to choose a college to play basketball in 1984, Barnes heard from many family members and friends who told him that Ole Miss was no place for a black man.

They saw the Confederate flags waving at football games. They knew the nickname was Rebels. They heard the band play the song "Dixie". They knew how heavily integration was resisted by an old-boy culture they suspected still clung to the campus like kudzu to an ivory column.

Rob Barnes
Against his mother's wishes, Rod Barnes played for Ole Miss in the 80's before becoming its second black head coach.

"It wasn't that long ago that it wasn't fashionable for a black man to be on the Ole Miss campus," Barnes said.

Gladys Barnes, Rod's mom, remembers the general family advice as follows: "You don't need to go there."

Barnes was the first person in his family to go to college. What was wrong with historically black colleges like Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley or Jackson State?

"I was an SEC fan," Barnes said. "I just had it in my mind that if you could play in the SEC, that was the highest level. And it was a good school academically.

"That was above any symbol or any song. This university held things I wanted to get."

Barnes got them: a solid playing career as an outstanding defensive player, a degree in business and a shot at the coaching profession. When his boss, Evans, left for Arizona State in 1998, Barnes was promoted at the age of 33.

Clearly, these were men born at the right time. When society was changing. When the old ways were being replaced.

Both men work hard to never let you see them sweat. When criticized, they feign deafness. Confrontation isn't their style.

Richardson, who came along a little earlier and probably banged into a few more closed doors, was an angry man. His anger served him well. Diplomacy was likewise less useful than combativeness for John Thompson at Georgetown, the first black coach to win a national title.

But while it has perhaps been easier for Smith and Barnes than some of their black predecessors, that doesn't mean it's been easy.

Sometimes it's fairly subtle. A clerk in an expensive department store will ask whether Barnes knows the cost of what he's looking at.

"Yes, I do," Barnes will respond. "I looked at the price tags."

Sometimes it's not subtle at all. The letters almost never have a name or a return address.

That's the cowardly way racism works. Anonymity has been the preferred method of spreading intolerance since the Klan started wearing hoods.

When the letters land on Barnes' desk, he'll usually read it, sigh and move on. What else can he do?

"It's not my problem," said Barnes. "It's the person saying those things that has the problem. That's not to say you don't read a letter that doesn't hurt your feelings, make you wonder how they can say those things based on skin color. Sometimes you read it and look at it and say, 'Man, in 2003.' But that can happen anywhere."

I was an SEC fan. I just had it in my mind that if you could play in the SEC, that was the highest level. And it was a good school academically. That was above any symbol or any song. This university held things I wanted to get.
Rod Barnes, Mississippi head coach and former Ole Miss player

True. It can happen to Louis Orr at Seton Hall or Tommy Amaker at Michigan or Lorenzo Romar at Washington. But Barnes works in the South, where race and sports are famously fractious bedfellows.

It can happen at Kentucky, too, but Smith rarely sees the worst of it. His secretary, Marta McMackin, usually disposes of it first.

"I don't see any sense in him reading it," McMackin said. "It's just stupid stuff."

McMackin, who has been the head basketball coach's secretary at Kentucky from Joe B. Hall through Eddie Sutton and Rick Pitino, said Smith is hardly inundated with "stupid stuff."

"In fact, Coach has probably gotten the least hate mail -- or complaint mail, as I call it -- of any coach I've worked for," McMackin said. "I attribute that to his sweet personality."

On the occasions when Smith is confronted by those wishing to lock him up on charges of Coaching While Black, his response is similar to Barnes'.

"You can't deal with that," Smith said. "People of that nature, they're set in their ways and beliefs, and very few change.

"You'll hear, 'How come we don't have a white player starting?' Gimme a break, people. The best players are going to play. You're not going to last very long otherwise. People see wins and losses more than they see color. There's really no gray areas to it.

"All you can do is keep doing what we do with class, and maybe people will accept that."

Tubby Smith and Rod Barnes are accepted in today's SEC. There remains much room for the league and the South to grow, but it has come a long way since these sharecroppers' sons were young.

Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to

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