The date was March 18, 1976.
Seven years earlier, the University of Alabama had a basketball team. Most colleges did. Not many people cared. There were some loyalists who remembered the Rocket Eight. If they were truly long-time gray-haired loyalists, perhaps they recalled Lindy Hood some 50 years before. There had been few other highlights along the way. In 1969. Alabama had a big new arena and a new coach that had played for Adolph Rupp in Kentucky. It had just wrapped up a season with a record of 4-20 that didn’t come as a big surprise to anyone.
In seven years, C.M. Newton changed all that. He did not create Alabama basketball but he transformed it into something new, not just on the court but in the eyes of the nation. He pulled the program into modern times, not with strife and anger but with his usual cool, calm demeanor and the occasional puff on his pipe. He brought the first African-American players to Tuscaloosa. That was part of a story, a big part, but there was more than one level to the narrative. Newton and his diligent assistants, Wimp Sanderson and John Bostick, had not broken the color line by importing wandering players from basketball hotbeds like Philadelphia or Louisville. The Alabama team was built with players from Gadsden and Leighton and, as often as not, from the city of Birmingham. Young men whose parents, even their older brothers, would have been denied entry to the University of Alabama barely a decade earlier, were now the heart (and the majority) of the basketball team. They were the state of Alabama’s team and, for all the bitter days of the state’s civil rights past, they were embraced, supported and cheered in ways that many people who didn’t know this state were amazed to see.
University of Alabama alumni and fans had always loved the football team, of course. In those days in the 1970, pulling for Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide was like cheering for Superman. Except when Notre Dame pulled out whatever green Kryptonite it was carrying, you could pretty well count on the outcome against any rival (not entirely unlike today.)
Basketball has always been different for Alabama fans, a sport that has had its joys and its heartbreaks and an uncertainty about which of those would be next. But Newton built and recruited until that day in March 1976, when his team with five starters from Alabama was poised to take a place on the mountaintop — if it could knock off the team that stood there, the undefeated Indiana Hoosiers.
It was a great NCAA Tournament game in Baton Rouge, La., that went into the final minutes, quite possibly between the two best teams in college basketball even if it was in the Sweet 16 in those days of the unseeded bracket, when the Big 10 champion and the SEC champion were both stuffed into the Mideast Regional. It came down to a 74-69 final score but turned on a late block/charge call that went against UA star Leon Douglas and gave Indiana the cushion it needed, a call that was probably approved in Fort Wayne but one that broke hearts in Fort Payne and a hundred other Alabama hamlets. There have been deeper runs since then, but never has Crimson Tide felt so close to winning it all, with a team that C.M. Newton built. Indiana went on to finish undefeated, small solace for Alabama fans.
Newton went on to live for 40 years more before passing away on Monday. He had enough success and influence to fill a dozen careers at Alabama and Kentucky and Vanderbilt and as a force in USA Basketball, an architect of the 1992 Dream Team that accelerated the spread of basketball to every corner of the world. Testimonials and eulogies have already started to pour in and will continue from all the places that he touched. But for Alabama basketball fans, every game in the upcoming season and far into the future will stand as a tribute.
Some men and women are great coaches, although they are rare.
C.M. Newton went beyond that, past the accolade of great coach to that of a man who transformed an entire program and affected an entire state in ways beyond sports — something that is far more rare.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.