The C in C.M. Stands for Class, By Mark McCarter10.02.2017
“Come on. Get out here. Play you for a Pepsi.”
This, a command from a major college basketball coach to a lowly sportswriter.
This, in the middle of a gymnasium where his successor would require lowly sportswriters to sit at least 10 rows from the floor were they allowed access.
This, in the middle of practice, as the team took a water break nearby.
This was C.M. Newton. And the lowly sportswriter happened to be me, dragging my fickle, raggedy, church-gym shooting touch to the foul line in a cavernous arena, to shoot free throws against a future Basketball Hall of Famer. With a soft drink on the line.
Covering Vanderbilt basketball back in the day was a privilege. The players were accessible and bright. You had C.M.’s home phone number. You were on a first-name basis with players’ parents. You were appreciated. You were, if you were a lowly unmarried sportswriter, blessed by the matchmaking skills of C.M.’s secretary.
Major college basketball has again revealed itself to be a sausage factory of unsavory characters, criminal coaches, greedy players and unscrupulous sneaker companies. (Memo to NCAA: require every player to wear white Keds and half your problems disappear.)
Sometimes I think God and TV programmers are in cahoots when it comes to irony. On the very week of this latest tsunami of slime, the SEC Network aired “Courage Matters: The C.M. Newton Story.”
Now, I’m not going to claim that C.M. was perfect. If nothing else, let’s remember he brought Rick Pitino from the NBA and back into college coaching.
What I will tell you is that he is one of the truly class guys in the coaching profession. That he is warm and friendly and approachable and funny and charming. That one of the great blessings of my career is getting to know him. And that he is one of the most important figures in the history of basketball.
The documentary used the occasion of Newton’s 87th birthday as its hook. Like directors of many other “SEC Storied” films, Jonathan Hock seemed determined to tell the story through the prism of race relations.
No question, Newton’s courage in recruiting African-American players in the 1960s was remarkable. Two things about C.M’s vision: He was dead-eyed when it came to shooting free throws and he was color blind when it came to recruiting.
Wendell Hudson, a splendid guy who would later coach Alabama’s women’s program, was Newton’s first black recruit, and the first black athlete at the university. Newton would later start five black players, taboo in those days.
But C.M. was more than an advocate for social change. He played on a national championship team at Kentucky. He became a college head coach at age 26. He rebuilt the Alabama and Vanderbilt programs. He salvaged a tarnished Kentucky program as its director of athletics. He was NCAA Selection Committee chair. I’ll never forget that night in San Antonio when he got to present the national championship trophy in his NCAA role to the coach, Tubby Smith, he had hired in Kentucky AD role.
Newton was a leader in USA Basketball and was an Olympic assistant coach. He was one of the architects of the “Dream Team.”
“People give me a lot of credit for doing things I’ve done in my life,” he is quoted in the documentary. “That doesn’t really sit well with me. I’ve just done what should be done, nothing more, nothing less.
“People still make a fuss about what I’ve done. I do have to admit I’ve been in the right place at the right time.”
C.M. is 87 now and his health isn’t the best, and that saddens me greatly. But never was there more of a right time to tell his story than last week, to remind us of a man of courage who represented the best in a sport whose worst side once again appeared.
Mark McCarter is a four-time Alabama Sportswriter of the Year and author of two books. Currently the Senior Writer for the City of Huntsville Communications Office, he regularly covered Vanderbilt from 1983-1988 as basketball writer for The Chattanooga News-Free Press.