On January 20, 1968, the University of Houston Cougars upset the UCLA Bruins, ending a 47-game winning streak. Billed as the “Game of the Century,” the defeat of the UCLA hoopsters was witnessed by 52,693 fans and a national television audience — the first-ever regular-season college game broadcast nationally. But the game would never have happened if Houston Coach Guy Lewis had not recruited two young black men from Louisiana in 1964: Don Chaney and Elvin Hayes. Despite facing hostility both at home and on the road, Chaney and Hayes led the Cougar basketball team to 32 straight victories. Similarly, in Cougar football, Coach Bill Yeoman recruited Warren McVea in 1964, and by 1967, McVea had helped the Houston gridiron program lead the nation in total offense. Houston Cougars in the 1960s: Death Threats, the Veer Offense, and the Game of the Century, a new book by historian Robert D. Jacobus published by Texas A&M University Press, features first-person accounts of the players, the coaches and others involved in the integration of collegiate athletics in Houston, telling the gripping story of the visionary coaches, the courageous athletes and the committed supporters who blazed a trail not only for athletic success but also for racial equality in 1960s Houston. University of Houston Magazine is pleased to offer this excerpt from the book.
Although slow to integrate, Houston did not see the violence prevalent in many Southern cities in the 1950s when the roots of the Civil Rights movement were being planted. The Bayou City simply was not in the national limelight and quietly remained the largest segregated city in America — remote and out of the sight and mind of the movement’s leaders. Although Houston was in transition like the rest of the South after Brown v. Board of Education, it was still very much a Southern city. Segregation and racism were still the way of life there.
Racist attitudes particularly became apparent at UH football and basketball games against opponents with African American players on their rosters. These opponents first appeared in 1953 and faced blatantly racist home team fans through the early 1960s. In spite of these harsh attitudes, the city of Houston and the University of Houston eventually stood at the forefront of change, with UH becoming the first major college in the South to integrate its athletic programs.
This began with UH officially integrating its student body in the summer of 1962.
Philip G. Hoffman, UH president from 1961 to 1977, explained, “Integrating was the right thing to do. However, we did not want a Mississippi or Alabama on our hands. We decided to integrate in the summer when there weren’t as many students on campus. We also had a local media blackout for a week so as not to publicize the event. My resolution was to get the best possible students on campus regardless of their color. The later recruiting of black athletes was a by-product of our integrating the school.”
By 1963, however, the athletic department had not yet integrated.
In the midst of Coach Guy Lewis already trying to get basketball integrated in the early 1960s, Coach Bill Yeoman came to UH in late 1961. Planning to recruit black athletes in the fall of 1963, he met with local black community leaders at a dinner at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel. The leader of the black community was Quentin Mease, the director of the South Central YMCA, and there were also in attendance prominent doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Mease said, “Bill got up to speak to the crowd and said, ‘I’m prejudiced, all right.’”
“All their eyes lit up,” Yeoman said, “and they showed concern until I said, ‘I’m prejudiced against bad football players.’”
Once Yeoman started to recruit black athletes and install his newly developed Veer Offense, the UH football program was headed in the right direction.
So, by the summer of 1962, UH was officially integrated, and they had their basketball and football coaches in place — setting the stage to decide exactly which players would be the ones to integrate their respective sports …
The question was who the African American player was going to be that would change the face of college athletics, not only at UH, but also throughout the South. When it came time for Yeoman to recruit his first black player, he said, “I was too stupid to realize people had a problem down here. I wish I could say it was a conscious decision, and I mulled it over and contemplated doing it, but I just didn’t pay any attention to it. I went to Athletics Director Harry Fouke and President Hoffman, and I told them I was going to recruit Warren McVea, a magnificent athlete who could roll with the punches.”
There was no better known high school running back than “Wondrous Warren” McVea, as he was known. He was unquestionably the most-sought-after recruit in the nation by the spring of 1964. A native of San Antonio, McVea attended Brackenridge High School, which he helped integrate in the early 1960s. Playing halfback, McVea led the Eagles to an 11–3 record and a Class 4A state championship in 1962, the largest high school classification at the time.
Every major college in the country wanted McVea. During the 1963 season, Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson came in person to watch McVea play. Apparently McVea ran wild in the game, and Wilkinson said afterward, “I’d lock him in the trunk of my car and head for Oklahoma, but, from what I saw tonight, I’m sure he’d get out.”
The last piece of the McVea recruiting puzzle was, of course, Bill Yeoman himself.
“After I visited and saw how he acted around his mom,” the coach remembered, “I knew we had a chance to get him. We were the closest major college to San Antonio that actually had integrated. I knew he wasn’t going to go too far from home.”
Once McVea was signed, no one in Houston really knew what to expect in terms of the social ramifications of signing the first black football player in UH history. Would McVea be accepted just like any other player, or would the racism that had been prevalent to opposing players from the early 1950s up until 1963, the previous season, reappear?
As much hype, publicity and excitement as the recruitment of McVea brought to UH, the signing of Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney to the Cougar basketball program in the spring of 1964 brought little fanfare. Ironically, the least heralded of the three African American recruits was Elvin Hayes. “The Big E” ended up having the more illustrious college and professional career. Hayes came from the small Northeast Louisiana town of Rayville. He stood tall in the background with his record. He led his high school team to the Class 2A state championship as a senior in 1964, but was considered a relative unknown compared to McVea or Chaney.
Coach Lewis only found out about Hayes when Isaac Moorehead, the head basketball coach down the street at Texas Southern University, was afraid Hayes was going to sign with nearby Grambling, which played in the same conference as TSU. Moorehead hoped Lewis might be interested in getting Hayes to visit UH.
When the time came to recruit Hayes and Chaney in the spring of 1964, Coach Lewis focused mostly on Chaney and trusted his longtime assistant coach Harvey Pate to handle Hayes.
“We signed Elvin and Don on the same day. Harvey dropped me off in Baton Rouge to sign Don, and he went to Rayville to sign Elvin. Don’s mother was probably the biggest factor in him coming to Houston,” Lewis recalled.
“I told everyone in my neighborhood I was going to Loyola, (but) my mom made the decision for me to go to Houston,” Chaney confirmed. “She was big on the Civil Rights movement, and she felt this was an opportunity to be a pioneer. The way she presented it to me, it made sense; it would be a challenge. I must say, too, that I admire Guy Lewis for the commitment he made in recruiting black athletes. He never mentioned it, like he had done all of this before. Once we got there to Houston, he didn’t treat us any different. Everything was team.”
Recruiting Hayes was less certain.
“For a while,” Pate said, “I thought we weren’t going to get Elvin. Then one day Elvin’s sister called and said Elvin wanted to go to Houston. I got in the car with Guy, dropped him off in Baton Rouge so he could sign Don, and then I drove to Rayville all night to go sign Elvin the next day. You know, Elvin is the best player I ever recruited. He’s the best player UH has ever had. He put UH on the map. Some people talk about these other players like (Clyde) Drexler and (Hakeem) Olajuwon being the best. They were great players here, but they both got better after they went to the pros. Trust me, Elvin was the best.
When Warren McVea, Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney arrived in the summer of 1964 to attend UH, the city, the university and its fans underwent a transformation.
Before this historic arrival, the Houston fans’ treatment of opposing African American athletes from visiting schools was generally poor and unsportsmanlike. It started with terribly segregated hotel accommodations and continued unmercifully with verbal harassment during the actual games. While not entirely incident-free, UH students appeared to welcome their new fellow Cougars. Interestingly, the acceptance of McVea, Hayes and Chaney transpired fairly quickly. Years later, some of the coaches, players and fans close to the athletic program provided insights about that transformation.
In 1965, when Jerry LeVias became the first African American scholarship football player in the old Southwest Conference, his experience was entirely different from what McVea faced the year before. LeVias was the subject of hate mail, death threats, confrontations at social events and racism in class. McVea, however, encountered relatively few problems when he arrived on the UH campus.
Why was it different? SMU was a rich, elitist school, and UH was a working-class, urban institution. UH students, faculty, administration, and — yes — many alumni wanted a winner so badly that skin color was no problem. The three new Cougars looked like a growing number of UH students. Identity was more easily established.
Native Houstonian Bill Worrell experienced McVea’s arrival from a unique perspective. Worrell was a UH cheerleader, a member of the Cougar baseball team and a resident of Baldwin House, the athletic dormitory. “Warren was well-liked,” Worrell remembered. “I had several classes with him. UH, I felt, did an overall excellent job with integration. One thing is that the UH campus had become pretty liberal by the mid-to late 1960s. Blacks on campus started to have a voice, led by campus activist Gene Locke.
We also elected a black Homecoming Queen, Lynn Eusan, in 1968. As far as I know, we were the first college in the South to do so.”
When Hayes and Chaney arrived in the summer of 1964, before the fall semester started, they, like McVea, faced a few obstacles, but for the most part, the transition was fairly smooth.
“It took Elvin a little more time to adjust,” Worrell recalled. “He was from the country, and he had a slight speech problem. Both he and Don were kind of quiet at first. Both of them were smart, though. I also think that since UH is on the fringe of the black community in Houston, that helped them adjust when they first got here.”
That doesn’t mean everything was perfect.
“I used to hear some racial slurs at first,” Chaney recalled. “Sometimes we’d be sitting in the lounge at Baldwin House watching television with about 25–30 other guys in the room, and someone would shout out the N-word. That didn’t last that long, though.”
Hayes’ situation was slightly more challenging.
“When school was close to starting, I naturally thought Don and I would be roommates. But that was not the case. It was a difficult time for us, especially me. We had been brought up in a totally black environment. I had more problems than Don. I lived in a totally segregated society prior to coming to Houston. People in my life had tried to limit contact with whites as much as possible,” Hayes said. “I also learned that there were a lot of players in the dorms who hadn’t ever been around blacks … Eventually it worked out. By the time I was a sophomore, I was just one of the team.”
Gradually, the pioneering African Americans adapted to their new integrated social environment thanks to well-laid plans that counteracted as many natural conflicts as possible. McVea, Hayes and Chaney grew to be accepted by their fellow UH athletes and the vast majority of their fellow collegians. What remained, however, was facing the white people in the stands and on the Houston streets with the same courage and dignity.
As new students at UH in the fall of 1964, McVea, Hayes and Chaney officially become “Kittens,” as players for the freshman football and basketball teams were called. Freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports during this period of American amateur sports history, so these three recruits would have to wait a year to show the college sports world their abilities.
As expected, all three had an immediate impact, with both the football and basketball freshmen teams, setting school records for wins … and setting the stage for McVea, Hayes and Chaney to move into the national spotlight during their upcoming seasons … The UH freshman basketball team, the Kittens, with Hayes and Chaney as members, integrated numerous East Texas junior college gyms their freshman year. The Cougar football team quietly blazed a trail of integration in college football venues throughout the South, integrating stadiums in Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia from 1965 to 1968.
The buildup to Warren McVea finally taking the field as a varsity player member of the rivaled the hype around his recruitment and freshman season as the school’s first African American player. The upcoming 1965 football season had another apparent tinge of excitement — the Cougars’s new home field was set to open, the Harris County Domed Stadium, where indoor football would be played for the first time in history. The debut of both the Astrodome and Warren McVea led NBC to televise the first-ever indoor football game to a national audience — also the first time the Cougars appeared on national television. The Tulsa Hurricane pulled off a mildly surprising upset with their 14–0 season-opening victory in history’s first indoor football game. McVea experienced a nightmarish first college varsity game, carrying 11 times for a mere 21 yards and fumbled the ball away four times. The would-be superstar had big problems with the rock-hard Astrodome grass playing field.
McVea overcame a horrendous start to his college football career and redeemed himself over the Cougars’ final four games and certainly proved himself an able pioneer for the integration of college football in the South.
Although not achieving the same high level of publicity — some would call it hype — as McVea, the two black UH sophomore basketball players, Hayes and Chaney, in fact generated an impressive amount of optimism and anticipation going into the 1965–66 season. While the 1965–66 basketball Cougars didn’t lose their first game on national television like McVea and the football team, they also got off to a rather rocky start, dropping the first three contests. But, after that inauspicious start to their varsity careers, their season turned out well, posting a 23-6 record.
Meanwhile, Warren McVea’s highly anticipated second season as wide receiver in Coach Yeoman’s high-powered Veer Offense was overshadowed when the NCAA placed UH on probation, with no television or bowl appearances allowed for the 1966, 1967 and 1968 seasons. Nevertheless, McVea was less injury-plagued and the arrival of additional African American players (fullback Paul Gipson, flanker Don Bean and backup fullback J. B. Keys) encouraged him. Another change for the 1966 Cougar football team was the new playing surface in the Astrodome. After the disastrous attempt to play on grass in 1965, stadium officials replaced the dead grass with a new synthetic playing surface called Astroturf.
That season included one of the finest performances ever by a UH football team, with UH rolling up a 73–14 blowout over highly ranked Tulsa Hurricane before 42,061 fans at the Dome. The 8–2 record the Cougars fashioned in 1966 matched the season record of Houston’s 1952 team. The team led the nation in total offense with 437.2 yards per game and wound up second nationally behind Notre Dame in scoring, averaging 33.5 points per contest. As for Warren McVea, his 1966 season was his best in statistics and durability — the two not being independent of each other. It proved to be his best season at UH …
Because of their strong finish to the 1965–66 season and the return of experienced juniors Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney, optimism and expectations for the basketball Cougars ran sky high. Like Warren McVea in his junior season of football, Hayes and Chaney were no longer the only black faces on the team, joined by Melvin Bell, Theodis Lee and Andrew Benson.
Not long after the season got underway, UH athletic director Harry Fouke and J. D. Morgan, his UCLA counterpart, confirmed in a joint statement what had been in the rumor mill: UH would host UCLA next year on Jan. 20, 1968, in the Dome. The classic match-up would pit two of the top teams and the two top players in the college game — Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. (But) this highly successful season concluded with UH in Louisville for their first Final Four in school history, offering a preview of that heralded match-up as UH fell to the top-ranked UCLA Bruins.
Overall, 1966–67 went down as the greatest in history for UH sports. The football Cougars finished 8–2, ranked 19th in the nation, and was the national leader in total offense, the 1966–67 basketball season ended as by far the most successful in school history, the Cougars finishing at 27–4. The excitement of these successes helped set the stage for the senior seasons of Warren McVea, Elvin Hayes, and Don Chaney — seasons that packed more thrills and excitement than ever before.
September 23, 1967, in what is still considered the biggest day in UH football history, was also “Wondrous” Warren McVea’s greatest day as a Cougar. In front of what proved to be the official stadium count of 75,833 Michigan State faithful, Houston blasted the third-ranked Spartans, 37–7: McVea racked up 155 yards rushing on only 14 carries … While the racial slurs toward McVea and others who followed him had begun to fade, during the Ole Miss game in Oxford that year provided a grim reminder: Several of the African American players received death threats, including McVea. Coach Yeoman remembered, “They said they were going to shoot him if he scored a touchdown.”
In retrospect, the 7–3 record and No. 16 AP ranking was somewhat disappointing. Although the oft-injured McVea’s statistics fell off in his senior year, he still won a number of honors and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. McVea, however, had continued along with his other African American teammates to blaze the trail of integration on football fields across the South. The back-to-back weekends in October when the Cougars integrated the state of Mississippi were truly the defining moments of a successful season. Their efforts, which we now know included facing death threats, changed the course of history in American football. Integration would become the rule and not the exception — a fitting, long-overdue rule of conduct on football fields everywhere in the nation.
As the 1967 football season wore down, anticipation for the Cougars’ basketball grew like rush-hour traffic on the Gulf Freeway. And excitement grew, even as the NCAA announced it was outlawing the dunk shot this season. While many basketball aficionados believed the NCAA was aiming the rule at Lew Alcindor, Coach Lewis said, “I read somewhere once that UCLA Coach Wooden himself said that the dunk was directed at ‘that crazy bunch from Houston.’”
The season schedule included several tough opponents, however, the game on the UH schedule that everybody had been eyeing for more than a year was that Jan. 20 showdown with top-ranked UCLA in the Astrodome. Interest in the game was reaching a peak, since both teams stood a good chance of being undefeated by tipoff. Ten days before the ‘Game of the Century,’ it officially became a sellout. Astrodome officials were now expecting a record crowd of more than 50,000. Press interest was also becoming intense. Sports Illustrated assigned three reporters to cover the game. It was going to be the first-ever national broadcast of a regular-season college basketball game. When the Game of the Century arrived, UCLA got some good news: Lew Alcindor, who’d sat out an earlier game with a scratched eye, was cleared to play.
The results are part of sports history.
On that night, before 52,693 screaming fans, UH scored the biggest win in the basketball program’s history as the Cougars won a heart-stopping 71–69 victory, ending the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak. Hayes was spectacular, especially in the first half, when he rang up 29 points. For the night, the Big E hit 15 of his first 20 shots and ended up with 39 points on 17 of 25 shots. He also pulled down 15 rebounds. His counterpart, Lew Alcindor, had but 15 points on 4 of 18 shots from the field and 12 rebounds.
Afterward, Lew Alcindor said, “I have nothing to say. About anything.” When asked by a reporter if Elvin Hayes was the best player he had faced, Alcindor replied, “Oh, I guess so.”
Years later, Hayes would observe, “It just created euphoria and an atmosphere for college basketball that wasn’t there previously. I think that game kicked the door down, opened the windows, and knocked the roof off the house. What we have today in March Madness is what I think the game in 1968 started.”
The two teams would meet again in the post-season play-offs. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the rematch with UCLA must have also meant a lot to the defending national champions. Before a jam-packed, pro-UCLA crowd, the No. 2 ranked Bruins demolished the No. 1 ranked Cougars, 101–69, ending Houston’s 32-game winning streak.
But what a sports legacy Hayes and Chaney left at UH!
For his three-year Cougar career, Hayes averaged 31 points and 17.2 rebounds per game, which are still school records. He also set school single-season scoring and rebound records, with averages of 36.8 and 18.9 his senior season. For his Cougar career, Don Chaney scored 1,133 points in three seasons, an average of 12.6 points per game. In addition, he averaged 5.3 rebounds per game. For their three years on the UH varsity, despite the 0–3 start to their sophomore year, Hayes and Chaney led the Cougars to fashion an 81–12 record with trips to the Final Four in 1967 and 1968.
More important, Hayes and Chaney — along with Warren McVea and Hall of Fame coaches Guy V. Lewis and Bill Yeoman — helped open the doors for the integration of major college sports in the state of Texas and throughout the rest of the South. “You know, Martin Luther King did a great thing,” Coach Yeoman once observed, “but he owes a lot to the University of Houston.” As Houston Cougars in the 1960s shows, he was not exaggerating …
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About the Book: Houston Cougars in the 1960s: Death Threats, the Veer Offense, and the Game of the Century by Robert D. Jacobus. With forewords by Wade Phillips and James Kirby Martin. 272 pp. $29.95. Texas A&M University Press. www.tamupress.com