Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In '71, Louisiana Tech football turned for good

Fred Dean, at Louisiana Tech
     (10th in a series)
     When Louisiana Tech University's football program integrated, it did so in a big way ... and it paid off in a big way.
      Unlike the basketball program, in which only one player (George "Petey" Thornton) broke the color "barrier" in the fall of 1968, six African-American players joined the Tech football team in the fall of 1971. They signed scholarship grant-in-aids in the winter of 1970.
      The names -- and old Tech fans will remember -- were Fred Dean, Roland Harper, Charles "Quick Six" McDaniel, Wenford Wilborn, Larry Griffin, Gerald Eddings. This was a dynamic group.
     Dean was a hometown kid (Ruston), a defensive tackle who would wind up in the Pro Fotball Hall of Fame. Harper (Shreveport-Captain Shreve) and McDaniel (Springhill) were running backs; Wilborn (White Oak, Texas) and Griffin (Shreveport-Northwood) were cornerbacks; Eddings was an offensive lineman from Minden.
      All but Eddings (who redshirted) were immediate starters. All, including Eddings, were four-year regulars. All were, from the people I've talked to recently, good fits off the field, as well.
      What a class it was; what immediate impact those players made. Joined by some other talented (and sensational) white recruits, they touched off the greatest five-year period of Louisiana Tech football.
      The Bulldogs went from a luckless 2-8 record in 1970 -- the first year AB (After Bradshaw) -- to 9-2 in 1971 and a Southland Conference championship in Tech's first year in the league.
      Then came successive records of 12-0, 12-1, 11-1 and 8-2. Add it up: 52-6 in five years, 37 victories in 38 games in one stretch (and 42 out of 44). Four consecutive Southland titles and two national championships -- a "mythical" one (1972) and then the first official NCAA Division II title in history (1973).
      Think integration didn't help turn Tech's program in a hurry? But who knew how it was going to turn out?
      According to the three then-Tech assistant coaches -- Pat Collins, Mickey Slaughter and E.J. Lewis -- I spoke to, there was no grand plan to integrate Tech football.
      There was no edict from school president Dr. F. Jay Taylor, no single meeting in which head coach Maxie Lambright told his assistants to begin recruiting black players. But after that 2-8 season, something had to change.
      "Because we were playing teams with black players," Slaughter recalled, "we came to the realization, as a staff, that in order to compete, in the present and future, we had to recruit good athletes regardless of color. We wanted kids that could make a contribution. It just kind of evolved at a time when teams in the Deep South actively began recruiting black athletes. ... It was the natural order of things."
      "It was time for us to get with the program," Collins said, "to get with what was going on around us. And Dr. Taylor gave his blessing to that [integrating the program].
      "As a staff, we kept persisting that we should do this."
      Tech was four years behind rival Northeast Louisiana, which brought in running back Joe Profit in 1967. A hometown player (Richwood High), Profit played sparingly as a freshman, but by the time he finished in 1970, he had been outstanding enough to be a first-round NFL draft pick (by the Atlanta Falcons).
      LSU integrated its program the same year as Tech, 1971, although the two signees (RB Lora Hinton of Chesapeake, Va., and cornerback Mike Williams of Covington, La.) didn't play play with the varsity until 1972 (freshmen were not eligible in Division I then).
      Collins, who -- with Slaughter, Lewis and Pat "Gravy" Patterson -- was part of Lambright's staff for all of his Tech tenure (1967-78), said integration almost happened sooner.
      The 1970 recruiting class included, he said, "one hellacious running back and a great kid" he signed from an all-black high school in Shreveport. The young man reported for fall practice and worked out for three days before the Tech coaches learned he would not qualify for school academically.
      "We had to take him to the bus station and put him on a bus back to Shreveport," Collins said. "It was a sad day for us, and a sad day for him."
      And in the previous spring training, an African-American student already enrolled at Tech tried out as a walk-on. "He had some ability, but didn't make the team," Collins said.
      But it provided a lesson for the linebackers coach who, after leaving Tech went to Northeast Louisiana and built a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame-worthy head coaching record (he'll be inducted this summer).
      "We rolled him out there with the rest of [the team]," said Collins, who like the others on the coaching staff had never coached a black player, "and I realized that it didn't matter what color a guy was when he put on that helmet."
      "Everyone on our staff looked at our players as all the same," Slaughter said. "They were athletes going to college. We treated them all the same. Maxie set the pace on that. He expected good efforts from everyone."
      Here is what else Lambright -- a quiet but stern man -- expected.
       "Maxie was a stickler about this," said Collins, who has been known to use some colorful language. "He didn't want any turds. He wanted good people. He wanted us to treat recruiting white and black kids equally."
      No one could recall any significant problems, on or off the field with the black athletes and with the mixture of black and white kids on the team.
      "They were quality citizens, all of them," remembered Ken Lantrip, the starting quarterback of the 1970 and '71 teams, the left-hander who succeeded Bradshaw in that role. "They were very athletic -- more so than the white boys, if I can say that. They could run, and their speed made so much difference on our team. ... They all had God-given ability."
      David Wilkins, who was a junior defensive end lined up next to Fred Dean at tackle in 1971, said, "When we signed them, it made so much difference. ... They had all that talent, all that ability, all that speed."
      And there was this, Wilkins added, "We had great respect for those guys. We were so focused on the hippies and Vietnam at the time, and maybe that mattered more then. So we had these athletes and they were great players -- I mean they could play -- and they kept to themselves. They were respectful, and they were there to get an education and take advantage of the opportunity given to them."
      "We got along with them," said Lewis, 86 and living at a retirement home in Ruston, "because they were good guys. They went to class, and they behaved themselves."
      There was one memorable "incident" with three of the black players who arrived at Tech in 1971, but it happened a year or two later. Both Slaughter and Lewis recalled it.
      "They were veterans and one year they reported to run the Bulldog Mile [at the start of fall practice]," Slaughter said, "and they had facial hair. We had team rules against that." (Remember this was a long time ago.)
      "Maxie saw them, and he blew his whistle and called them over," Slaughter continued. "They knew the rules. He told them, 'Shave that stuff off or you can go home.' He gave them 15 minutes to go to the dorm and report back [clean-shaven]. And he meant it; he didn't care. He was very strong in that regard. When he said something, he meant it. He was a tough disciplinarian.
      "I knew that because he had been my high school coach [at Bolton in Alexandria, La.]. And let me tell you, he was just as tough on his young coaching staff as he was the players. So he didn't surprise me, but he might've surprised the others."
      The players, as you might guess, returned within 15 minutes ... without facial hair.
      It has been 45 years, so there is a slight dispute about the story of the day Fred Dean committed to attend Tech and signed the grant-in-aid scholarship papers.
      Collins says he and Lambright were headed out on a trip in late afternoon and as they were driving out of the Joe Aillet Fieldhouse parking lot -- Maxie driving -- Dean came walking past, on his way home from nearby Ruston High School (headed west; he lived on the road toward Grambling).
      "Maxie whipped that car around," said Collins, "and asked Fred if he needed a ride. Fred got in the back seat; he was so big he had to scrunch his legs up, and he had his hands on his thighs, and Maxie asked him, 'Fred, have you made up your mind what you're going to do?'
      " 'Yup,' Dean replied.
      "Maxie said, 'What's that?'
      " 'Gonna go to Tech,' Dean answered.
      "Maxie stopped the car, punched a button [on the glove compartment] and a bunch of scholarship papers came falling out. We drove to Fred's house, and his parents were there, and they all signed the papers."
      Told that story, E.J. Lewis has his own version.
      "I saw Fred walking [near a store on Tech Drive, close to Ruston High] one day that December (1970) and I flagged him down, asked if he needed a ride; he sometimes rode to school with Luke and Jed (Lews' sons]. Then I asked him if he was ready to sign," Lewis said. When Dean said yes, "I carried him over to the Fieldhouse to meet with Maxie."
       OK, pick whatever version you want. Bottom line: Dean signed, shunning Grambling -- which was recruiting most of the good black football players in North Louisiana, the state and the area.
      Lewis said Ruston High's legendary coach, L.J. "Hoss" Garrett, helped steer Dean to Tech.
"Coach Garrett liked ol' Fred; he appreciated Fred."
      Tech had a four-time all-conference defensive tackle, "Defensive Player of the Year" in the Southland Conference in 1972 and '74 (Tech linebacker Joe McNeely won the award in '73), a second-round NFL draft pick in 1975 (33rd pick overall) by the San Diego Chargers, an 11-year NFL player, Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers, Hall of Famer.
      "No one could block Fred Dean," Lantrip remembered of his 1971 freshman season.
      Dean is No. 6 on Tech's career list of tackles made (records in this category date only back to the late '60s) with 392. The late McNeely, a super aggressive madman who led Tech in tackles in the 1971-72-73 seasons, is No. 3 with 400.
      There is a legendary story that one day during his Tech career, Dean practiced with a gunshot wound in his side.
      "I heard that after practice," Wilkins recalled, "and I went to the trainer's room (where Dean was being treated). I had to go look. There it was, the shot went right through his oblique. It went in and out of him, a flesh wound."
      On the field, Wilkins could vouch that Dean was unstoppable.
      "Fred never said two words," Wilkins said. "When he first got there, when they called a blitz, we might have to help him, double-check on the call to make sure he knew what to do.
       "Fred, he was an unbelievable guy; we were all just amazed at his athletic ability. One day we lined up to run the 40, and he outran Wenford Wilborn ... and Wilborn was very fast."
       The talent level went far beyond Dean, though, at Tech in 1971.
       (Next: A running-back team to remember)


  1. From Gerald Eddings: Anthony Jones also signed to attend LTU in 1971. He was from El Dorado, Ark.,but never started a game and Tyron Jones was a walk-on who eventually started but was released from the team before his four years were up. Fred Kelly, from Arcadia, tried out in 1970 during the spring as a walk-on.

  2. From Ron White: Found your blog today especially interesting as I was there; started working with Wiley Hilburn in the journalism department on Aug.1, 1969 (Bradshaw's senior year).
    I caught a ride to a newspaper conference in Jackson, Miss., and a ride back with Mickey Slaughter which included stopping by a high school football game to watch a potential recruit for Tech. He signed, but as in the case you mentioned, turned out he didn't qualify academically at Tech. Only in his case, he went to Grambling State and played there.

  3. From Robert Steckel: I remember him fondly, despite the one-man wrecking crew he played against my Cajuns. Suffice it to say that, in the persons of Fred Dean and Maxie Lambright's football teams, it was mostly a case of men playing against boys -- certainly when the Techsters played Russell Faulkinberry's USL teams. The only other defensive lineman who played a more dominating game against us was a guy named Greene, Mean Joe, by nomme de guerre, of North Texas State, whose favorite way of tackling was to pick up, bodily, large offensive linemen and toss them into the path of terror-stricken offensive backs. I recall the Byrd man chuckling about a story he heard about Fred, who spent one or more of his college summers doing farm work, which included tossing 50-pound bales of hay, one-handed, into a barn loft. That, and the story about his patiently sitting in an athletic department waiting room, waiting to talk with one of the Tech assistants, while he bled from an accidental (fortunately not life-threatening) gunshot wound. Both stories may be apocryphal, but they seemed to fit the guy. You don't tug on Superman's cape.

  4. From Mary Richardson: I WAS THERE! I was Maxie's first secretary and all this brings back all those good memories. All those coaches were a hoot, they had fun, but were seriously serious when it came to the game. I was a flight attendant, secretary to the president of Simmons Co., secretary to five athletic directors, and I can tell you this was my all-time fav job ... not a job, but I looked forward to going to work each day. Quality people, not only coaches, but people. Coach Mize should be mentioned too, as they called him, Gentleman Jim.

  5. From Anne Burford Griffin: Jerry and I could add a lot of stories, including the one Fred told me -- that he was dropping out of Tech because his auntie had died and she was the one who read him his collaterals (I called Pat Collins, who was over at the registrar's office in quick time). Later I discovered Fred's story was a bit of a ruse, though it hit its mark with me.
    Jerry has a load of stories because one summer he and Fred (mainly Fred and his young subcontractors) tore down that enormous old Jenkins house (where Payless Shoes was located); this house had floors we used in the house we were building. Crowds often watched (mainly Fred's fan club of younger black friends) to see Fred kicking out rafters and disassembling the building. I once took them lemonade in a large jar. It was then that I realized that the poetry Fred wrote for my class was actually his own work because he would sing out poems featuring me and Jerry, each line rhyming with the prior line in a Cassius Clay manner. Fred also picked up and delivered all the brick from the old railroad station to our house. At one time, I thought we couldn't have built our house without Fred.
    Right before we moved to Michigan 12 years ago, Fred came to see us. I was late getting to the door, so I saw only the back of a white-haired black man as he retreated to his car. He turned, grinning his gap-toothed smile at me. "Fred Dean," I said. He wondered how I knew him, but the identification wasn't difficult at all.

  6. From David Brookings (Tech defensive back, 1968-71): I can distinctly remember a conversation I had with Coach Mickey Slaughter about when LaTech was going to start recruiting black athletes. I went over to LaTech as a QB but was quickly shifted over to defensive safety and E.J. Lewis was my position coach. He smiled and said they were not going to just recruit black athletes to recruit black athletes, he said they were going to get some top athletes and top quality people that would really improve the program. In hindsight, they obviously knew what they were doing. These black athletes were incredible athletes and great people, too. They fit right in.
    I can still remember Fred Dean as an unknown freshman running the Bulldog Mile in something around 5 minutes and the last quarter mile in about 63 seconds! The linemen had a 6:30 mark to beat. That got everyone's attention.
    Pretty neat experience to be able to tell people I played on the same teams with two NFL Hall of Famers. Not too many people can say that. LaTech was a great experience and I got a great education.

  7. From Vince Langford: Loved the Fred Dean story. Interesting reading the comments. Sounds like people knew then that was a special time. College athletics on that scale, that much pure fun, probably gone forever.