TUSCALOOSA — It has been 50 years, but what Gary Elliott experienced in his only season playing under legendary Alabama basketball coach C.M. Newton was life-changing — in more ways than one.
As a senior on Alabama’s 1968-69 team — Newton’s first of 12 years leading the Crimson Tide men’s basketball program — Elliott fondly recalls how much of a difference Newton made on the court, even if the wins were difficult to come by.
“(I remember) the type of person that he was and what he expected in practice, that type of thing, and what a good man he was,” Elliott said Tuesday. “I mean, he was fair to us and I think that first team probably played as hard as we could play for him. I think he appreciated that.”
Alabama won just four games (4-20) in Newton’s inaugural season, but it set the stage for much of the success it had over the next two dozen years, including 15 seasons of 20 or more wins.
“That (first) year, we had a lot of close games, … we just didn’t have the talent I don’t think to really overcome the things we were lacking,” said Elliott, who won a Division II national championship in 1991 and more than 250 games as North Alabama’s head coach from 1989-2003. “I think Coach Newton did a great job coaching that year to keep us from getting beat worse than we did.”
For many years after, Newton — who passed away Monday afternoon at the age of 88 — had a photo of Elliott and his fellow seniors from that first season on his desk, a daily reminder of everything that went into the success that was to come.
“He wanted to establish exactly how he was going to play that first year,” Elliot said, “He was going to set a precedent right then and I think we were kind of the guinea pigs, which was fine.”
During more than four decades as either a head coach or administrator, Newton routinely helped set precedent, especially with regard to integrating sports at both Alabama and later across the Southeastern Conference.
And it all started with that first team in 1968.
“He knew he had to build and he just went about it the right way, I think, knowing what he had to do and the type of players he had to get,” Elliott said.
That included signing Birmingham forward Wendell Hudson, the school’s first African-American scholarship athlete, in 1969.
“I’d say, if you (want to know Newton’s) impact, it’s that we had good teams, and we got good teams because we got better players, because for the first time in the history of Alabama basketball we started taking minorities,” former Crimson Tide assistant and eventual head coach Wimp Sanderson said.
Later that year, Ozark running back Wilbur Jackson became the first black player to sign with the Crimson Tide football team under Paul “Bear” Bryant, and in 1971, Mobile’s John Mitchell joined Jackson as the first African-Americans to play football at Alabama.
“As I look back on that, it’s more remarkable to me all the time that it worked the way it did,” Newton told The Tuscaloosa News in 2008. “Had (Hudson) failed, I don’t think there would have been a Wilbur Jackson, or a John Mitchell.
“I guess the good Lord looked down on me as a basketball coach and said, ‘OK, if you’re going to do this, if you’re going to integrate the basketball program, we’re going to give you exactly the right guy.’ And that’s the way it worked out.”
Newton also introduced wholesale change in the SEC when Alabama fielded the conference’s first all-black starting lineup in 1973 with Ray Odums and T.R. Dunn at guard, Charles Cleveland and Charles “Boonie” Russell at forward and former Colbert County star Leon Douglas at center.
“I don’t know if it was real hard, it was a thing where you didn’t know what was going to happen,” Sanderson said of integrating the basketball program. “When you recruited Wendell, you didn’t know what the fans were going to think, or how they were going to feel. But here’s the one thing you had to do — and you had to do this all throughout (the 24 years under Newton and Sanderson) — you had to recruit a good person who was a good player. … That’s the key.”
Newton compiled a 211-123 record in 12 years at Alabama and won 340 games in two decades as an SEC head coach, including an eight-year stint (1981-89) at Vanderbilt. During that time, Newton also was named the conference’s coach of the year six times, including four in a five-year span (1972, 1973, 1975 and 1976) while helping guide the Crimson Tide to three consecutive SEC titles between 1974-76.
Alabama is the only SEC school outside of Kentucky — Newton’s alma mater — to accomplish such a feat.
“For three years there, they were one of the top teams in the SEC, and one of the top teams in the nation,” Elliott said.
Newton later helped rejuvenate the Wildcats’ entire athletic department, which was then mired in NCAA probation, as its athletic director between 1989-2000. At Kentucky, Newton is credited with hiring both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, the program’s first African-American head men’s basketball coach.
Newton was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and was inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Hall of Fame last summer.
But, while his accolades are numerous, it was the impact Newton had on the players and individuals.
“He was just a great man and a great coach, just great for basketball,” Elliott said. “And I don’t think there’s anybody that’s ever been associated with him that didn’t think the same thing — what a great person he was.”