A celebration of Shipley's life

by Leslie Turk

There were stories to be told, and some of them were - on Good Friday when friends, family and former players gathered to celebrate Beryl Shipley's life rather than mourn his passing.

There were stories to be told, and some of them were - on Good Friday when friends, family and former players gathered to celebrate Beryl Shipley's life rather than mourn his passing.

"Now we don't need anybody being sad."

That's what Beryl himself had said to longtime assistant coach and longer-time close friend Tom Cox, only weeks before the winningest and most controversial coach in UL basketball history finally succumbed to his long battle with lung cancer. The coach, knowing his time was coming, had thought out all the details of what was to be a celebration service and not a memorial.

The family had peacefully - a word which describes the last years of his life, right up until its final minutes - laid the 84-year-old legend to rest on the Monday. That was the time for the sadness felt by Dolores, his wife of almost 62 years, and daughters Marilyn, Patty and Amy.

No more sadness on Friday. The coach demanded that. And he was never very patient when "his boys" didn't follow his orders.

"He loved a crowd. He loved having people around him. The phone rang all the time, and no matter how he felt he'd always tell them before he hung up to come see me."

Amy Shipley Cowand, the youngest of Beryl and Dolores' three girls, grew up around coaches and athletes, and she knew the moments those men spent together were some of the most treasured in their lives. Over the last few months, when she spent nearly as much time in Lafayette as she did at home in The Woodlands, Texas, she saw a constant alumni gathering pour through the door at the end of Claymore Drive.

They were "his boys," the ones that played for Shipley over the 17 years he served his adopted school and hometown with passion never before and rarely since seen at SLI/USL/UL. They came back to relive those times, knowing their coach and mentor wouldn't have much longer to share those memories.

And the stories

"These two white men are crazy, and they're going to get you hung."

Marvin Winkler, who teamed with Shipley as player/coach to break the color line that polluted Louisiana college athletics, couldn't be at Friday's services. But he did send a letter that Cox read, and one part described his recruitment and when Shipley and Cox came to his Indianapolis, Ind., home to convince the future NBA and ABA player to come to the segregated Deep South to attend college and play basketball.

Winkler was keen on the idea. His mother wasn't, and she made her opinions and her worries about her son's safety known in no uncertain terms with the two USL coaches in the room.

Winkler did sign with the then-Bulldogs and became one of the legendary figures in school history, both for his abilities and his groundbreaking presence. He also grew to know Shipley much more deeply than in a player-coach relationship.

"Coach was like a father to me. Without him, the Marvin Winkler that is here today would not exist. I have only cried for the loss of two people in my life, my mother and Beryl Shipley."

That was how Winkler wrapped up his letter, one that Cox barely made it through and brought tears all over the First Baptist Church. Coach would have been proud but maybe not happy. He'd said this wasn't going to be a time for sadness.

"Oh, God, there's his tobacco pouch."

One of his former players was walking in the front of the church before the services, and many mementos of Shipley's life and coaching career were on display. There were awards, pictures, some special game balls, even a special plaque that UL President Joe Savoie had presented to Shipley as part of the recent 100-year basketball history celebration. It was one of the original wooden bench seats from venerable Blackham Coliseum, where Shipley claimed 173 of his career 293 USL victories, and symbolically it was seat number "1".

On the front of one of the tables was a half-full foil pouch of Red Man, and more than one of his boys ran a hand across it as they filed by.

"It not only brought Beryl back into the fold, it brought us - the Shipley boys - back into the fold."

Randy Price, one of two brothers who both played for Shipley, was always one of Shipley's staunchest supporters during the rough times, when the NCAA closed down the USL program for two years amid allegations of impropriety. He contended, as did legions of others, that the coach never had the opportunity to clear his name or tell the truth about the allegations. And worse, he felt the university turned its back on the man.

Price's feelings changed only recently, when a couple of player and coach reunions during Cajun basketball seasons started a healing process. Part of that included the Beryl Shipley Mended Hearts Scholarship, one that has to date been awarded to 15 UL students who have or are currently experiencing cardiovascular problems. But it could have also described the forgiveness between the coach and the school in the waning months of Shipley's life.

The Rev. Steve Horn said he felt coach found the ability to forgive when others had wronged him in the last year of his life. He had asked Horn for 10 copies of a recent sermon on forgiveness, and he knew a lot of those copies wound up in the hands of some that were there on Friday.

"I know he's got a bunch of angels around him right now, and he's teaching them that 1-3-1 defense."

Bo Lamar was college basketball's most prodigious scorer during the early '70s, and became the most notable of the most noteworthy collection of basketball talent in school history. But he also became an example of how much Shipley cared for his players, and how much they cared for him, even after their careers. After playing professionally for several years and returning to work in the Acadiana area, Lamar went back and finished work on his bachelor's degree - mostly because Shipley wanted him to.

Lamar came back from Columbus, Ohio, to be there Friday. "I felt like I needed to be here," he said. "He meant so much to me."

"He had as much concern for his boys after college as he did when they were in college."

Dean Church was a great player for the Bulldogs, earning All-America honors as a 6-foot-1 guard, and never left Louisiana after that on his way to success in the oil business and raising a family. More than once during the week, he credited Shipley for many of the good things that have come his way. He told those on hand Friday that "coach was always making sure we were doing things right, and not just the way we played basketball."

"I'm gonna take care of you, all the way to the end."

Peyton Townsend was another standout brought to South Louisiana by Shipley and Cox, and was also a ground-breaker as the third black athlete recruited to the school. He also had his reservations, having heard the stories of racial strife in the South, but he trusted Shipley.

The coach told the towering Townsend, still a Lafayette resident, that he would make sure nothing bad would happen under his watch. And it didn't. In a time of turmoil and civil rights upheaval, the USL campus was markedly calm, and basketball had a lot to do with that. The black and white communities in Acadiana had a common rallying point, and it was on that Blackham Coliseum floor when the Bulldogs were the hottest show in town.

"What a great day. What a great way to honor a great coach and a great man."

Bob Marlin hadn't been on the job very long as UL basketball coach last spring when he called Shipley and asked if he could come and visit. It could have been an awkward situation, the old coach and the new coach, but it was never that. The two struck up a friendship that carried forward until Shipley's final days, and Marlin was a frequent guest on Claymore Drive.

He may have been 84 years old, but Shipley's basketball instincts were as fiery as the close-cropped red hair and the outlandish clothing styles that he sported in front of the Bulldog bench. Often, their talks turned into play diagrams, scratched out on paper as the two talked strategy. They were in their element, and the only person happier than those two was Dolores, who never failed to thank Marlin for coming by.

Shipley was never bashful with advice and ideas, and more than once he wrote down ideas for the new Cajun coach. Some of those still sit on Marlin's desk.

"That's where I want you to be, at the end, because you sat down at the end of the bench."

Jimmy Dykes had the good fortune of both playing for and coaching with Shipley - if playing was the proper term. The self-professed 12th man on a 12-man roster got to see the coach close-up from that seat, and he also grew closer to Shipley than most and was instrumental in planning Friday's celebration.

Shipley was adamant that his players be the ones to speak at the service, and was adamant that Dykes be the last one, knowing that he would handle that responsibility. Dykes did that, talking about how proud coach was of what his players had become in life, and what a mentor he had been.

"He taught us so many things," Dykes said near Friday's close, "and even at the end he taught us how to die, with such grace and dignity."

Dang it, Jimmy. Didn't you hear what coach said? No sadness today. And at least Dykes reminded everyone of a couple of ways Shipley's memory will be perpetuated. A documentary, "Lights Out in Blackham," is under production, and Shipley will be part of a Sports Illustrated story on athletic integration in the South scheduled for next month - a story being done by Opelousas native and literary icon John Ed Bradley.

"I get the feeling that no one really wants to go home."

Rev. Horn didn't go long with his final message. He didn't have to. The "Shipley boys" had said what needed to be said. And, after all, lunch was waiting next door, as was the opportunity for more stories, some that wouldn't have been suited for the church pulpit. These are the better stories, but they are also reserved for that inner circle - "his boys" - the ones fortunate enough to have "the coach" part of their lives for so many years.