1969: The Year that Was for Black College Football Players

September 8, 2009

Rich Rodriguez. Click image to expand.Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez College football’s centennial year, 1969, also happened to be my senior season at Notre Dame. I played against three teams that year—Georgia Tech, Tulane, and then Texas in the Cotton Bowl—that had not yet integrated their varsity football teams. This was actually a mark of progress. By 1969, the integration of the Southeastern Conference and the old Southwest Conference was finally well underway. It started in the SWC in 1966 at Baylor and SMU and in the SEC with Kentucky in 1967; it ended with Texas and Arkansas in 1970, then with Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss in 1972.

That was college football’s quiet racial revolution. The noisy one took place on northern campuses. At Oregon State in February 1969, a black linebacker named Fred Milton was suspended from the team after an assistant coach spotted him on campus with a moustache and goatee, in violation of the team’s ban on facial hair. Black students on campus responded with a boycott of classes, many of them left the university, and both the football team and the institution struggled for years afterward against a reputation for racial intolerance. Two months later, 16 black players at the University of Iowa boycotted a spring practice and were suspended; seven were reinstated in August. That summer, John Underwood wrote a three-part series for Sports Illustrated titled "The Desperate Coach," describing the incidents at Oregon State and Iowa, along with dozens of lesser ones in athletic programs throughout the country, as a full-scale assault on coaches’ authority. "In the privacy of their offices," Underwood wrote, "over breakfast in strange towns, wherever two or three coaches get together, they talk about The Problem."

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