Four decades later, Shipley gets his due

by Leslie Turk

"Beryl Shipley integrated the Deep South as far as athletics. ... USL was the first to offer scholarships to black athletes, and the state and the NCAA didn't like it very much."

It comes almost 40 years after he was dismissed as the university's basketball coach, but UL Lafayette takes its biggest step to date toward bringing Beryl Shipley back into the family this weekend.

The late coach, who passed away earlier this year, is being honored in a variety of ways this week surrounding activities of the inaugural Beryl Shipley Classic, a four-team, three-day college basketball extravaganza hosted by the Ragin' Cajuns.

The tournament is something that second-year coach Bob Marlin pushed to happen, and it comes to fruition Friday through Sunday with a six-game event at the Cajundome.

Although there were many who coached the Cajun program between their two stints, Marlin was the first to establish a relationship with Shipley, one that developed into a friendship in the final year of Shipley's life.

"I'd go to his house, he'd come to the office. We talked an awful lot," Marlin says. "We'd just talk ball, talk about the team, talk about some of his players and some of the things he tried to do with them. It was just a great thing for me, and I absolutely treasure that time that we got to spend together."

Marlin told a crowd that packed every corner of the Acadiana Center for the Arts Wednesday night that he'd like to add 11 more wins to Shipley's career 293-126 mark as Cajun mentor - the 11 straight wins that UL had to close out Marlin's first season last year. Those wins brought the Cajuns back from a 3-14 mark in what was supposed to be a huge rebuilding year and gave UL a 14-14 regular-season record.

"He should get credit for those," Marlin said, "because he was responsible for those wins."

The second of those wins and the first Sun Belt Conference victory in that streak came on the weekend that Shipley was honored with a reunion of many of his former players. That weekend gathering was the culmination of UL's first major efforts to patch up what had been a rift between the coach and the school dating back to the early 1970s when the NCAA shut down the program for two years for recruiting and rules violations.

Those actions came during a time of racial strife, when the South was in the throes of integration, but Shipley didn't hesitate to recruit black players well before other schools even considered that step - actions that are the central core of Domingue's film.

"Beryl Shipley integrated the Deep South as far as athletics," says local filmmaker Doug Domingue, who previewed his in-the-works Lights Out in Blackham documentary for Wednesday's crowd at the Arts Center. "USL was the first to offer scholarships to black athletes, and the state and the NCAA didn't like it very much. This documentary will be about the controversy and the aftermath, and people will be able to see the real story about what happened."

Domingue's documentary is slated to be finished by next summer, and he's aiming it at national and international film festivals he mentioned Sundance and Tribeca along with national sports outlets. The entire documentary is told in first-person, with Shipley being extensively interviewed before the ravages of lung cancer took him at age 84.

"The players I talked to and who talked for the film were always telling me that they'd never been asked about it all," Domingue says. "Fans are going to get to see their perspective."

The Wednesday night gala raised funds to help with final production of the documentary, as well as Shipley's Mended Hearts Scholarship Fund that helps students with heart-related illnesses. Many of Shipley's former players were on hand for the event, at least one - legendary center Roy Ebron from the heart of the early '70s glory days back in Lafayette for the first time since he finished his career.

A lot of those players will also be on hand this weekend when the focus turns from films and the arts center to on-court action. UL faces Houston Baptist at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Cal State Fullerton at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Nicholls State at 3 p.m. Sunday, hoping to improve on its 1-2 start from the season-opening Hilltop Challenge in San Francisco last weekend.

Friday's activities are dubbed "Shipley Family Night," with members of Shipley's family honored in activities prior to the Cajuns' game. Marlin will be a big part of those presentations.

"Having coach Marlin get so close to Beryl last year meant the world to the family," says longtime Shipley assistant coach Tom Cox. "It's going to be a very special night."

Saturday is "Shipley Team Night," with the former players in attendance also honored, and Sunday is "Shipley Fan Day" with recognition of the fans and followers who have been around Cajun basketball dating back to Shipley's 16-year career.

For those fans and followers, it's been a long time coming.