Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing

by Patrick Flanagan

The man who made things happen' gets his due.

Beryl Shipley photos courtesy UL Sports

Beryl Shipley won nearly 300 games in 16 seasons at USL, a remarkable average of 18.5 wins per season; longtime assistant coach Tom Cox is pictured with Shipley in two images below.

In 1957 Southwestern Louisiana Institute Athletic Director John Bell found Beryl Shipley coaching at Starkville High School in Mississippi and hired him as head basketball coach. Both were natives of Kingsport, Tenn., a factor in Bell's decision. Bell left Lafayette after only a year, his legacy secure. Shipley stayed for 16. His teams won 296 games and seven conference titles, advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 twice and were ranked as high as No. 4 in the country. Shipley himself won nine Coach of the Year awards. Yet his legacy, complicated and profound, extended far beyond basketball. As an African-American high school coach once told him, "You made things happen."

Saturday, June 21, 2014, Beryl Shipley was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, 41 years after his college coaching career ended at age 46 in 1973. Four decades was a long wait for recognition - too long for Shipley who died in 2011. It proved too long also, for my neighbor Bob, a retired UL history professor and white Virginia gentleman who died this spring. Bob was an avid basketball fan and at his funeral his daughter read a note of appreciation and condolences from Bo Lamar.

The wait may have been longer if not for the efforts of current UL coach Bob Marlin and President Joe Savoie, who reached out to Shipley and officially recognized his contributions to the university and to Lafayette. At the unveiling of a memorial to Beryl Shipley last fall, Savoie said, "We all hope we can do something in our lives that helps and influences people. Coach Shipley influenced a whole community. His commitment to his team, to the university and to the community created a movement of support that hasn't happened many times in our history."

What Shipley "made happen" actually was a continuation of the university's commendable record involving race relations. In 1954, SLI became the first state-supported college in the Deep South to admit African-Americans as undergraduates. True, it was under a court order but the desegregation process went smoothly.

According to historian Michael Wade, the SLI administration "solicited cooperation and discouraged publicity." That policy worked reasonably well until the Legislature went crazy in 1956 passing unconstitutional, yet frightening statutes suggested by the White Citizens Councils to halt integration. By the time Shipley arrived in Lafayette, bigots' screams drowned all else. SLI's policy of quiet cooperation no longer stood a chance.

Shipley, son of a union organizer, had black friends in childhood. His confidence and ambition made him the perfect man for his time. He spent his first six years dominating the Gulf States Conference. In 1965 Shipley led his team to the NAIA Finals in Kansas City where USL became the first white college team from Louisiana to play against a team with black players.

Lafayette loved Shipley, but to get to KC and compete against integrated teams he had angered some small men in big offices.

In 1966 Shipley sat in Cole Field House and watched an all-black team from Texas Western dismantle lily-white Kentucky for the national championship and thought: USL can win this too. By that fall Shipley had convinced Elvin Ivory, Marvin Winkler and Leslie Scott to be the first African-Americans on a white public university athletic team in the Deep South. Two things happened: USL basketball was better than ever and the small men came after him. The State Board of Education turned in USL on some trumped up charges, and the NCAA, eager to please somebody, even those with a racist agenda, assessed a two-year ban on post season play. The Cajuns won the next two regular season Gulf States Conference championships, but the 1966 "violations" put the death penalty in play seven years later.

By 1970 Shipley had the Cajuns rolling, and for three years, led by Bo Lamar, USL basketball was the toast of Lafayette. Then the NCAA returned, aided by even more small men, and gave USL a two-year death penalty and ended Shipley's career. Some of the charges involving academics were serious, but most were trivial and committed in Shipley's words for "humanitarian reasons." Shipley never had a chance to defend himself, so let the record show he broke more bad rules than good ones and all of them for the right reasons. He told John Ed Bradley in a 2011 Sports Illustrated story, "I'll be honest. I don't care about any damn rule book. I just tried to do right for my boys, what I knew I had to do."

For years after his forced retirement from coaching Shipley felt the small men had won the final victory. But as his time grew short he found it in his heart to forgive those who may have wronged him. Shipley had indeed "made things happen." He had blacks and whites jammed together in Blackham Coliseum cheering blacks and whites playing for USL. He had a loving family and dozens of former players who admired him even more as a man than a coach.

"Coach Shipley gave up his life for us," said Marvin Winkler. And he had countless fans, black and white, who remembered Shipley, the challenges he faced and the possibilities he created. Including the possibility a friendship can grow and survive like the one between my neighbor Bob and Bo Lamar.