Playing the “what-if” game with college football integration

As an amateur historian, I lack academic credentials such as “M.A.” and “Ph.D.” after my name, am not invited to speak at graduation ceremonies and do not have an office on a leafy campus. There are compensations, however. I have freedom to say just what I believe, unbound by PC strictures. While I strive for accuracy in everything I write, I do not bother with footnotes to support my assertions. And I see no reason to worry about how my Ivory Tower colleagues judge me. I am not part of their world, and they are not part of mine. This situation suits me quite well.

Not long ago, I was reading an article about Marion Reeves.  He and I are contemporaries—him 66 and me 65; he is of African descent, and I am of European descent. Reeves, a native of Irmo, South Carolina, was expecting to attend South Carolina State (an all-black school) until to his great surprise, he got some tentative feelers from Clemson. Throughout the 1960s, few schools were more fervent about adhering to the segregation line than Clemson. It was founded in 1889 on the site of a plantation formerly owned by fire-breathing, pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun. Thomas G. Clemson, Calhoun’s son-in-law and for whom the school was named, had been a slaveholder and officer in the Confederate army.

In terms of clinging to old ways, Alabama and Ole Miss had nothing on Clemson. Longtime head coach Frank Howard was a thoroughgoing racist. He had done moderately well, but a close look at his career record shows a single top-10 finish (1950). Things plateaued and then began to decline. The Tigers went 6-4 in 1967 (Howard’s 28th year at the helm), 4-5-1 in 1968 and 4-6 in 1969. Whether he retired or was nudged gently toward the door, who cares? Old man Howard had to go—and with him, Jim Crow football. Hootie Ingram, the new head coach, suggested that Reeves reconsider his commitment to SC State. Come to Clemson, Reeves was urged, and play before big crowds, get your name in the paper, be on TV and help us integrate.

Reeves had been to Orangeburg and attended some of the Bulldogs’ games. South Carolina State played in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference along with schools like Tuskegee, Morehouse, Miles and Fort Valley State. All of these were underfunded and underpublicized, which is not to say they played weak football. Reeves, with some trepidation, signed with Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, etc.). A defensive back, he contributed on the field for the Tigers in the 1971, 1972 and 1973 varsity seasons. Because he had such a pivotal role in that school’s athletic, social and cultural progress (Craig Mobley, the Tigers’ first black basketball player, was a year ahead), Reeves has been interviewed numerous times. In all such interviews, he is careful to say he made friends, was treated well and so on. But he made one comment that I found just riveting. In Reeves’ view, most of the players on the freshman and varsity squads at CU were average. Strong, fast and elusive? Not so much. “The talent level didn’t hold a candle to what we had at SC State,” he opined.

Reeves is saying that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, players at South Carolina State and presumably other members of the SIAC were superior to those at Clemson and presumably other members of the ACC. Not just better, but much better. I will now do what professional historians are taught never to do—engage in “what-if” speculations. It is ludicrous to think of South Carolina State and Clemson meeting on the gridiron in those racially tense days. Most (I say “most” because there were exceptions) European-Americans in South Carolina and indeed throughout the South reluctantly and grudgingly allowed one or two African-Americans play on “their” football teams.

I see no reason to doubt Marion Reeves’ frank recollection. In the years after World War II, the quality of ball at these all-black schools really improved. One of the things for which we should thank the American Football League (1960−1969) is its willingness, vis-à-vis the stodgier National Football League, to draft or at least give tryouts to players deriving from schools like SC State. I’m sure you know that Marion Motley and Deacon Jones (both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) played for the Bulldogs.

What if? What if a game featuring Clemson and South Carolina State been held late in the Jim Crow era? I will not purport to say that Howard’s Tigers or the Bulldogs would have prevailed. (Or how the students or alumni would have reacted. Or how the media would have treated it. Or whether the officials would have handled the contest impartially. Or whether the players would have adhered to the highest levels of sportsmanship.) But I have no doubt that the integration process, moving along at the speed of a turtle in first gear, would have been hastened.

The very same thing would apply, for example, to Wake Forest and North Carolina Central, Florida and Florida A&M, Auburn and Alabama A&M, Tennessee and Tennessee State (black college national champs six times between 1946 and 1966), Mississippi and Jackson State, LSU and Grambling, and Prairie View and SMU, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech or any other Southwest Conference team.  As a native of Texas, I am more familiar with its history than the others. I know that football games held between African-American high schools in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and elsewhere were generally ignored by European-American coaches, media and fans. In keeping with the racism of the day, many such teams wore hand-me-down uniforms—those no longer good enough for teams at the other end of the racial divide. The quality of play was perceived as undisciplined or “hully-gully,” the coaching unscientific and the statistics produced of doubtful authenticity. When the integration word came down in 1966, it soon became apparent that these guys could play. They played very well. It was the end of what I call the fool’s paradise of Jim Crow football in which mediocrity was tolerated. Things soon opened up, and everybody—in Texas, in South Carolina and elsewhere—had the chance to participate.

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