Macalester's Hudson: The first, but forgotten until now

ST. PAUL , Minn. -- On Dec. 21, 1971, Don Hudson was named head football coach at tiny, academically elite Macalester College in St. Paul. He made history. It should have been headline-news type of history: He was the first black head football coach at a predominantly white college.

Alas, no trumpets blared. In fact, no one seemed to notice. No one even mentioned the social significance of college football's
racial barrier for head coaches being broken, even if at a small Midwestern school with a less than stellar football reputation.

Time passed. And Hudson's achievement was more than simply forgotten. It was downright ignored. Indeed, other colleges and other coaches claimed to be "The First."

Until last October, that is, 36 years after Hudson blazed a lonely, bittersweet trail that remains lightly traveled to this day.

Then, on a warm autumn Saturday at a laughter-filled banquet on Macalester's campus, about 50 of Hudson's former players and another 100 friends, family and college administrators gathered to honor him. Later, at halftime of the Scots' game against Colorado College, a sun-drenched crowd of 750 fans stood and cheered for him. A proclamation from Macalester's board of trustees -- "Whereas Coach Hudson pioneered the way for other coaches of color …" -- was read to him.

Don Hudson, now 78, finally got his due.

"He deserves the truth to be told and the truth to be recognized," his daughter, Kelly Hudson, says. "History needs to be set straight."

Donald Edward Hudson was born Nov. 20, 1929, and raised in Pittsburgh, the son of a jazz musician and the neighbor of Chuck Cooper, who would become the NBA's first drafted African-American player. He was only 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds, but Hudson never had a problem taking leadership roles. A quarterback at Lincoln University (a historically black college in Missouri), a physical education teacher and coach in the Kansas City schools, a U.S. Army officer in Korea, an assistant coach at Lincoln through the 1950s and 1960s … Hudson should have been on a trajectory to a head college coaching job.

But there were no college jobs for black men. At historically black colleges such as Grambling, Florida A&M or Lincoln, coaches such as Eddie Robinson, Jake Gaither and Dwight Reed stayed for what seemed like forever, having nowhere else to work; and so opportunities rarely opened for their protégés. And at predominantly white colleges, there simply were no black head coaches.

(Researchers at Dartmouth College recently learned there was one black head coach before Hudson -- before college football's modern era. Matthew Washington Bullock, the son of slaves, coached at predominantly white Massachusetts Agricultural College. He got his job in 1904. That was before the creation of what would become the NCAA, which organized college sports and molded them into the modern era. That was before the forward pass, too. It was another 67 years before Hudson was hired at Macalester.)

Finally, in 1968, when Hudson had already been an assistant on the university level at Lincoln for some time, he learned of a high school head coaching gig in Minneapolis. Months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the ensuing
riots in the Twin Cities, he became the head coach at Minneapolis Central High, the first black head football coach in that city's league.

All of the white assistant coaches quit on him.

"They never showed up,'' Hudson says.

Only 10 players attended his first practice: five black, five white. But he managed to develop a winning team in his second season.

And, swiftly, an opportunity arose at Macalester, long known for its progressive political atmosphere -- former vice president Walter Mondale and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan are alums -- and its losing football teams. Hudson was offered
an assistant football coaching position and teaching job. He jumped at the chance, mostly because he had two teenage children and a tuition break was part of the compensation package. After a 1-7-1 season in 1971, Macalester's head coach, Dick Borstad, resigned.

There sat Hudson on the staff. With little fanfare and even less of a chance to win, he was promoted to be the Scots' head coach.

"My opportunity to get a head coaching job was terrible," he says. "So, when the Macalester job came, I just took it. I didn't care what it was. I just knew I could build that program.''

At Macalester, too, a white assistant quickly resigned. Meanwhile, Macalester's public relations office fumbled the historic moment. The college's official press release, in its third paragraph, quietly noted he was the first black head coach ever at a Minnesota college. The Twin Cities newspapers meekly wrote about his promotion, but dodged the national social import of it.

Soon after, other pioneering black coaches received credit for being the first. Portland (Ore.) State claimed it made history in March of 1972 when it hired Ron Stratten to be its head football coach. Wrong by three months. Oberlin College in Ohio claimed history in January of 1973 when it hired Cass Jackson to lead its football program. Wrong by more than a year.

It wasn't until 1979 that Wichita State hired Willie Jeffries, the first black head coach at a Division I school.

At Oberlin, Jackson was hired by controversial athletic director Jack Scott, who also hired famed Olympic sprinter and black-gloved demonstrator Tommie Smith to be that college's track coach. Scott was a publicity magnet. So the vaunted New York Times reported that Jackson was the "first black head coach at any predominantly white college." Television's Howard Cosell, who "told it like it was," visited Oberlin to mark Jackson's hiring.

When asked about Hudson recently, Jackson, who later became the longtime track coach at California's Monterey Peninsula College, acknowledged he'd never heard of Hudson.

"I didn't know they even played football at Macalester," Jackson said.

Stratten, who eventually became an NCAA executive, said he had never heard of Hudson, either.

Hudson remembers watching the Cosell segment about Jackson and Oberlin on television and laughing at its inaccuracy. But he did nothing then to correct the mistake.

"My father is a very humble man," says Natalie Hudson, who is now a judge on Minnesota's Court of Appeals, the state's second-highest court.

There are conflicting opinions among former Macalester players about whether Hudson received the full support of the college's administration during his tenure there. He, at least, has no bad feelings.

"I can't blame Macalester. They stuck to their principles, and they have all these years," he says about the school's policy against admitting athletes who couldn't handle the academic rigor. "We were, for the most part, outmanned."

During Hudson's four years at Macalester, his roster never grew beyond 35 players, and they faced off against teams such as perennial Division III power St. John's, which regularly dresses more than 100 players.

Hudson was a stranger in a strange land as he attempted to recruit football players in lily-white places such as Silver Bay and Cloquet in northern Minnesota, where high school coaches sometimes dropped their jaws and clipboards when Hudson walked into their schools.

Hudson did woo Twin Cities-area athletes successfully. When there were about a dozen black players on his team in 1975, fans at Gustavus Adolphus in southern Minnesota referred to Macalester as "BLACK-alester," according to a story in The Mac Weekly, the campus paper.

Over four seasons, Hudson's teams were 3-36. Sixteen of those losses came consecutively at the end of his tenure, laying the groundwork for Macalester's then-national record of ignominy: 50 straight defeats.

"We got killed," Hudson says, while noting in his defense that in 1974, six of Macalester's losses were by six points or fewer. By the end of the 1975 season, Hudson knew it was time to move on. But he still protests that the record doesn't mean he was a bad coach.

"It didn't have a damn thing to do with my coaching or a damn thing to do with the kids," Hudson says. "We had some great players, but just didn't have enough of them. One thing I learned: You don't take a job where you don't have a chance to win."

He returned briefly to Lincoln to be the head coach at his alma mater, and then took a job as athletic director of the Cherry Creek, Colo., schools. He worked there for 16 years before retiring in 2000. He still lives in suburban Denver with his wife, Connie.

By 2006, his time at Macalester was all but forgotten. Then, while visiting Chicago with his son-in-law, Eric Parris, Hudson told a story. He told Parris that, despite what The New York Times or Cosell had once said, he was the first black head coach in college football history.

"I kept asking myself, 'Did he realize what a big deal it was?'" Parris, a real estate executive, remembers.

Taking matters into his own hands, Parris contacted Macalester athletic director Travis Feezell, who was new to the college and unaware of Hudson. Research was conducted. A local magazine wrote about Hudson's historic role. Feezell and other Macalester administrators determined it was time to return to Hudson the place in history that belonged to him.

"My dad has been carrying this with him." Kelly Hudson said. "It remained a burden on his heart."

Last October, when Hudson's former players showed up at the banquet to honor him and wrote letters praising him, the burden was lifted.

Wrote linebacker Dave Montgomery: "It is hard to win when you have 29 players, and most of them are limping. It's hard to win in college football with a 175-pound (soaking wet holding a 10 pound barbell weight under a towel) offensive center-guard-tackle (me). And I could tell that not winning was tearing up Don Hudson. He had a thirst for victory that you could just sense being around him."

Wrote fullback Stan Lynch: "Other than our cheerleaders, we rarely had more than a handful of people in the stands. For this reason we played for Don and him alone as he was always there inspiring us to do our best, even in the face of virtually insurmountable odds against us … My only regret from my two years of playing ball for Don Hudson is that we were only able to win one game for him … When he left, my reason and motivation for playing football ended and my medical career called me away to focus my time and energies elsewhere."

And wrote halfback Charles Young: "[Hudson] missed his true calling. However much he knew about football and leadership, he should have been a comedian … We lost all our games that year by an aggregate score of (as I recall) 312- 46. Football is not a pleasurable activity when you're getting flattened on every play, and I think everyone on the team dreaded looking at the films on Monday afternoon … Over the course of the season, however, I came to look forward to the films, because Coach Hudson was so hilarious as he broke down the plays. 'Evavold, you tackled that halfback with your ass!' he told one of our defensive linemen. 'He ran into your backside and just fell over. Imagine what you could have done to him if you'd been pointed in the right direction' … In the course of a few minutes, Coach Hudson could take 30 guys who were drowning in shame, dread and anger, and have them laughing as hard as they would probably ever laugh."

As Hudson listened to the words of his former players -- now doctors, lawyers, businessmen -- that October day last fall, he blinked away tears.

"I'm blown away by this," he said.

But he had one thing to add. Since his hiring at Macalester, there's been only one other black head coach at any level of college football in Minnesota. John Parker coached at Division II University of Minnesota-Morris in 1996 and '97.

"I mean, holy cow, 35 years later and here we are," he said. "There's not another black head coach in Minnesota. Why?"

Don Hudson, The First, wants to know.

Jay Weiner writes from St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.