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Men's Basketball: Reunion weekend offers healing from past, positive boost to program's future

Men's Basketball: Reunion weekend offers healing from past, positive boost to program's future

Kevin Foote • kfoote@theadvertiser.com • January 23, 2011

The weekend was a celebration of 100 years of UL basketball.

Leslie Westbrook/lwestbrook@theadvertiser.com Tom Cox, center, former UL assistant basketball coach to Beryl Shipley, shakes hands with former head coach Bobby Paschal as Jim Hatfield, another former UL head basketball coach, looks on Saturday night at the Cajundome during a celebration of 100 years of UL basketball. The ceremony to honor former players and coaches took place at halftime during a game between UL and UL Monroe.

Leslie Westbrook/lwestbrook@theadvertiser.com Tom Cox, center, former UL assistant basketball coach to Beryl Shipley, shakes hands with former head coach Bobby Paschal as Jim Hatfield, another former UL head basketball coach, looks on Saturday night at the Cajundome during a celebration of 100 years of UL basketball. The ceremony to honor former players and coaches took place at halftime during a game between UL and UL Monroe.

With apologies to all who came before, however, what we know as Cajun basketball today actually began in 1957 with the hiring of coach Beryl Shipley.

Since arriving in Lafayette 53 years ago, Shipley has experienced the best and worst of times.

From the day he arrived until 1973, he took UL's program from a perennial loser to the top 10 in America.

Since the NCAA two-year death penalty that year, Shipley and the university have been disconnected.

That began to change Saturday night during halftime reunion ceremonies at the Cajundome.

Unfortunately, Shipley was too ill to personally attend the game, but he delivered a taped message.

More importantly, the public address announcer officially thanked Shipley for what he did for UL basketball.

Coach Bob Marlin later said Shipley was getting the game ball after UL's 84-75 win over UL Monroe.

The importance of those gestures could easily be seen on the faces of the players who played for Shipley, who had a record of 293-126 at UL.

In the minds of so many of the "Shipley's boys," such a high percentage of the fans at Saturday's game will never truly understand the impact Shipley had on basketball in Lafayette, in the state of Louisiana and throughout the country.

Andy Russo, a former Shipley player and eventual state championship basketball coach at Brother Martin in New Orleans, explains that when Shipley arrived in Louisiana in the 1950s, both college and high school basketball "were just something you did after football season was over."

Russo credits Shipley's intricate offensive system back in the 1960s, his coaching clinics and his desire to bring "big-time" college basketball to South Louisiana for ignite a passion for the game in these parts and beyond.

Close friends, like former Shipley assistant coach Tom Cox, often doubted that that Saturday's recognition of Shipley would ever truly occur.

"From a selfish standpoint, I've always hoped that nobody would forget," said Cox, who served under Shipley at USL from 1965-73.

"For so long, there's been a disconnect between coach Shipley and the university. It's been hard for Coach Shipley and for some in the administration to get over it. It never has happened."

And yet during Saturday's halftime ceremonies, Shipley was officially recognized for the first time since he left in 1973.

"I'm really not trying to be negative or say anything bad about anybody, but that wouldn't have happened a year or two ago," Cox said. "That's just the truth."

One of the primary objectives of this weekend's 100 years of UL basketball reunion was to rally the troops to somehow bring Cajun basketball back to its glory years as one, uniting those interested from every era of UL hoops.

"I really do think this is a good chance for a new beginning," Cox said. "There are some things working that really could help that happen. There's a new coach and a new president. I really think it's a great time for everyone to say, 'Hey, let's try to get together and get this thing back to where we were.' I really hope it can happen."

As time goes on, Shipley supporters hope the healing process continues to pick up steam. For instance, despite Shipley bringing the Cajuns into the elite of the college basketball world in the early 1970s after 15 winnings seasons in 16 years, the Louisiana Sports Writers Associated has never elected him into the Louisiana Hall of Fame.

"He was blackballed by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association," Cox said. "The coaches recognized what he did. They knew how he did it. He's been in the Coaches Hall of Fame for 20 years now."

So much time has passed since those volatile days of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon when the USL basketball program was shut down for two years in 1973 — the first program given the death penalty by the NCAA.

Out of that intense controversy, decades of resentment and "blackballing" pursued. To this day, however, Cox contends that there will never be true justice or complete understanding of what took place.

"From 1965 to 1973 when we made the big move from NAIA to the college division to the big time in college basketball, we never paid a single player to come to this university," Cox said.

"That never happened."

No, don't get him wrong, Cox isn't pretending that the program was 100 percent innocent of all charges. He's simply saying that the death penalty was a big cat smashing a small mouse with a sledgehammer.

"Now I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made. We did try to take care of players. We did help transport some players back home. Were we supposed to make them hitch-hike their way back home?

"There were violations, but a lot of the allegations were not true and a lot of them were ballooned way out of proportion by the NCAA and by newspapers all over this state."

There were certainly reasons that Shipley's program was so unpopular.

"There was just so much animosity against us in those days," Cox said. "We were the first school in the South to play black players.

"The conference and people at the university tried to force us to release them. It got bad."

Cox remembers being a player at Kentucky Wesleyan and Mississippi State not participating in a regional tournament because teams in that tournament had black players.

USL itself was told by the university in 1965 not to attend an NAIA in Kansas City because black players would be participating on other teams there. A student demonstration changed the administration's mind.

The next year, Shipley and Cox began recruiting black players and the program's fantastic rise to the elite in the country began.

By 1972, Sports Illustrated was including USL as one of only four teams in the country capable of beating John Wooden's powerhouse UCLA Bruins. No team in America was scoring more points.

"When I got here, we discussed what our goals were," Cox said. "We both wanted to get to Division I. We both knew to do that we had to up our schedule and we also knew that we had to recruit the best players we possibly could recruit.

"We went from NAIA to the college division where we were ranked No. 1 in the country at one point to Division I where we went from nowhere to the top 10 in the nation. That had to be the fastest eight years in the history of college basketball."

Fast-forward four decades, Cox and many former players over the years came back home this weekend hoping to do their small part in regenerating the hope that this program can once again be great.

"This is still one of the best programs in the country," Russo said.

Former coach Jim Hatfield, who led the program for three years after NCAA probation, will tell you that leaving USL for the money of Mississippi State is still one of the biggest regrets of his life.

"This is a program, like Butler or Gonzaga, where you have a chance," Hatfield said. "You can be in the Final Four from a program like this one. It's a special, special place."

For some, it's hard to imagine such high praise for a program that's about to finish a sixth straight year without a winning season.

But that's what this weekend has been all about, and many of the alumni are now even more convinced that coach Bob Marlin is the main for the job.

"Bob Marlin already has more than 300 wins (353 total) as a head coach," Hatfield said. "You can mark this down: 20 years from now he's going to be in the Hall of Fame. This is a great opportunity for him. The timing is right."

Photo Galleries: Click here for reunion photo gallery http://www.theadvertiser.com/article/20110122/NEWS01/110122009/NEW-PICTURES-Former-UL-Coaches-Players-Honored-and-UL-vs-UL-Monroe-Basketball


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