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Shipley legacy one of winning, social change

Shipley legacy one of winning, social change

Bruce Brown
Daily Advertiser, April 17, 2011

Legend and legacy blend together today as we recall the historic significance of Beryl Shipley to Lafayette and its university.

The Tennessee native lost very few battles he really cared about, but inevitably lost his battle to cancer last Friday night.

The Tennessee native left behind a 293-126 coaching record as the leader of men's basketball at first SLI, then USL, first Bulldogs and then Cajuns. He had winning seasons in 15 of 16 years at the helm, and put together what was quite simply the greatest show to ever play at Blackham Coliseum.

Shipley won early and often, developing stars like Dean Church, Jerry Flake and Elvin Ivory, winning conference titles and capturing the 1964-65 NAIA District 27 title.

He also took the program to another level, reaching the NCAA College Tournament in 1970-71 and the NCAA Tournament as a top 10 program the next two years.

As a USL student in the 1970's, I recall the nights of rushing to the dining hall precisely at 5, wolfing down a quick dinner and then walking briskly to Blackham from campus with my future wife and hundreds of other students to assure a seat in the student section.

To be a student then was to gasp at the exploits of Dwight "Bo" Lamar, the nation's scoring leader first in small colleges and then among the big dogs; of Roy Ebron, the 6-foot-9 force who could do anything on the court; of Freddie Saunders, Payton Townsend, Wilbert "Tree" Lofton, Jerry Bisbano, Larry Fogle and others.

There was nothing like it, and Blackham was filled to the rafters every time the show was in town. But the curtain came down in 1973, when NCAA sanctions led to a two-year shutdown of the program.

Shipley was gone, athletic director Whitey Urban was soon gone, and president Clyde Rougeau did likewise. Basketball was dead, never again to reach such dizzying heights.

Many remember Shipley for the end, and there was bitterness for years between his supporters and detractors, but he should also be recalled for something larger than a W or an L.

UL was the first all-white university in the Deep South to accept African American students in the 1950's, a process that was uneasy at times but far more peaceful than it came to be in other locations. But by 1965, Black student-athletes remained absent in Deep South athletic programs.

Shipley and USL changed that by recruiting black athletes. When UTEP, with five black starters, stunned all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title game, USL was opening doors forever and breaking down barriers that needed to be broken.

But Shipley made enemies, from segregationists as well as others with racial agendas determined to fight integration. In succeeding years, NCAA actions and those of the Louisiana Board of Education have come under question.

As with many issues, there was far more to the sinking of Shipley's program than met the eye.

Was he an angel? Certainly not. He would chuckle at the notion. But he was also no demon. Like most of us, he was somewhere in between.

Once, when upbraided by conference officials for calling it a Mickey Mouse league, Shipley was told to apologize.

"You're right," Shipley is said to have responded, "I apologize to Mickey."

This past basketball season, Shipley was unable to attend a reunion of the tradition-rich UL basketball program that spanned generations. But he taped a message that was played on the big screen at the Cajundome.

Generations of fans, who knew Shipley just from the history books, finally saw and heard him. What they saw was someone who made a difference, ultimately for the better, in Lafayette and at UL.

It was a long overdue moment of healing between Shipley and the University.