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UL’s dark past: Book reveals hidden truths behind historic death penalty for basketball

Kevin Foote • kfoote@theadvertiser.com • July 13, 2008

When former USL head men’s basketball coach Beryl Shipley came to former play-by-play announcer and state representative Ron Gomez about a decade ago to write a behind-the-scenes book on the program’s death penalty of 1973, Gomez wasn’t convinced it was a good idea.

Even when Gomez agreed to the project, he was still apprehensive about how many copies should be printed.

And yet there the two were talking to a long line of fans Saturday at the signing for their new book Slam Dunked at Barnes and Noble, answering each and every question from the large crowd on hand.

And there they were, too, having to apology to many in attendance because they didn’t have enough books to meet the demand.

"I’ve got to give it to Beryl,” Gomez said. "He said all along that the book would sell. I just didn’t think we had enough material and I didn’t think it could be what Beryl really wanted – and that was to vindicate himself.”

While Gomez apologized to the crowd for not having enough books, he likely didn’t have any idea at the time how much wisdom was in his initial reluctance.

The primary purpose for writing the book was to tell the whole story behind why the then-USL basketball program was given the death penalty by the NCAA for the 1973-75 seasons.

The truth is that much of the new information in the book wasn’t available until two years ago when Shipley’s brother, Tom, of Birmingham, Mich., launched a personal investigation that quickly uncovered that no documents between USL and the NCAA between 1970 and 1973 were available in the UL archives.

The end result of the brother’s investigation led Shipley and Gomez to several disturbing conclusions. The most important one, however, was simply that "the university never presented a defense,” said Gomez.

"There was no defense,” Beryl Shipley said. "There was more of an offense from this university than a defense.”

Gomez said that the pro bono research put together by three local attorneys that exceeded 300 pages wasn’t read by the NCAA before handing down the punishment, which was a first for a collegiate athletic program.

"I guess the university figured it was going to cost a ton of money and a ton of time to go all across the country talking to people,” Gomez said.

The book also reveals the two primary accusers – a former assistant coach fired by Shipley and a former player Shipley kicked off the team.

Throughout the book and throughout Saturday’s proceedings, Shipley maintains that none of the accusations were ever communicated to him by the NCAA investigators or the university.

"That was 90 percent of their allegations from those two sources who we didn’t even know at the time,” Shipley said.

Gomez said that as it turned out, the work of the three lawyers produced two or three people to directly contradict each of the 125 allegations against the program made by the two primary accusers.

"If you go before a judge with that, the case would get thrown out,” Gomez said.

As Gomez and Shipley presented their case before the bookstore crowd, Gomez twice became emotional and had to stop his presentation. Shipley’s been mixing tears with anger and bitterness for 35 years now.

"We had more jealousy from within (the university) than from the other schools in the state,” Shipley said. "There was fear and jealousy and jealousy always overrides fear.”

Gomez suggested that the jealousy came from the basketball program becoming the most important part of the university and the money being contributed going toward athletics and not academics.

Much of the emotion also stemmed from detailing how the civil rights movement of that era impacted the eventual fate of the program.

SLI, as it was known in 1954, became the first university in the deep south to allow black students with 114 enrolled the very semester follwing the famous 1954 Supreme Court segregation ruling on Brown v. Board of Education.

Then 11 years later, USL became the first university in the deep south to recruit black athletes. In fact, Shipley recruited three – Leslie Scott of Baton Rouge, Elvin Ivory of Birmingham, Ala., and Marvin Winkler of Indianapolis.

Gomez told the stories of how the state board of education and the commissioner of the Gulf States Conference fought Shipley’s recruitment of black athletes. He told how the commissioner illegally instructed Shipley to hold a tryout including the three black recruits and then to tell them that they didn’t make the team.

After all three shined in the tryouts, Shipley said, "I guess they made the team.”

The commissioner then turned USL into the NCAA for holding an illegal practice.

That and several other similar instances led to the program going on probation from 1967-69 and eventually led to putting the NCAA in the mood to deliver the death penalty in 1973.

Al Bergeron, an assistant principal at N.P. Moss, was a student at USL in those days and still remembers the heartache the bad news brought.

"You didn’t want to believe that it could be happening,” Bergeron said. "You heard rumors, but the suddenness of it was tough. All of a sudden, we didn’t have a program anymore.

"The first thing about this book is that it answers quite a few questions. You were hearing all kinds of fish stories, like J.Y. Foreman standing at the back door at Blackham handing the players envelopes of money after every game.”

Bergeron said he hopes the book statewide and nationally works to clear Shipley’s name, something he never felt should have been necessary.

"For one thing, he was never a villain in my eyes,” Bergeron said. "I think this book validates what a lot of us have always said, that we got a raw deal.”

Few in attendance Saturday were more gratified to see the emotional crowd stirred up by the new book than Shipley’s son-in-law, Bill Watson, who is married to Shipley’s daughter, Marilyn.

Watson was a student at McNeese State at the time when Shipley’s USL team was rising to national prominence.

"He just wanted people to know the truth,” Watson said. "He was never confronted by anyone. He never knew what the allegations were.”

Watson expressed gratitude that Shipley, now 82, has remained in good enough health to see the book published.

"For all these years, he’s been writing on tablets as he remembers things,” Watson said. "His side could have been written, but not in his words like this.”

Unlike other situations when a coach who was involved in the death penalty of a program left town to escape the criticism, Shipley has remained in Lafayette since 1973.

"The people here have never turned against him,” Watson said. "The people of Lafayette have been unbelievable to him.”

"I have never felt like a villain here, not in Lafayette,” Shipley said. "I’ve always been treated great here. I think most people kind of figured what happened.”

Now Gomez and Shipley have a book to fill in the details.