Former University of Alabama basketball coach C.M. Newton, who ushered in a new era of Crimson Tide basketball by signing the first African-American players at UA in the early 1970s, passed away on Monday at the age of 88.
Newton, who had been in declining health, died Monday afternoon at Hospice of West Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Reaction to Newton’s death came in from across the country on Tuesday, including comment from University of Alabama officials.
“I was extremely saddened when I heard of the passing of legendary former University of Alabama coach C.M. Newton,” said head men’s basketball coach Avery Johnson. “C.M. was present at my first press conference when I arrived at Alabama back in April of 2015 and was always very supportive. He welcomed me with open arms and was so instrumental in my transition to The University of Alabama. C.M. impacted so many people in the world of basketball on the collegiate and professional levels and with USA basketball. His spirit will continue to live on, and we will strive to make him proud of us each and every day.”
“Coach Newton was a true leader in intercollegiate athletics,” said Alabama Director of Athletics Greg Byrne. “He took risks and was willing to do the right thing even when it was not the most popular thing. He made a tremendous impact on The University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky, Vanderbilt University, Transylvania University and the Southeastern Conference. Thousands of student-athletes have been positively impacted because of his approach as an athletics director, a coach and an exemplary human being.”
Charles Martin Newton became a basketball coach in 1956 at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. After spending 12 years there, Newton became head basketball coach for the Crimson Tide. Newton recruited the first black player for Alabama. He continued coaching at Alabama for 12 years before moving to Vanderbilt University and then ultimately became the athletic director at the University of Kentucky.
Newton was born in the small town of Rockwell, Kentucky. His family later moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Growing up, Newton excelled at both basketball and baseball. After being accepted to Kentucky to play both sports, Newton played guard on the 1951 national championship basketball team.
Newton played for legendary coach Adolph Rupp, who would later help Newton secure coaching jobs.
On the baseball side of his career, Newton was a pitcher for the Wildcats. He chose not to play his senior season for Kentucky, instead signing with the New York Yankees organization. Newton would play in the minor leagues for three years.
After graduating from college, Newton joined the Air Force for a couple of years, cutting his baseball and basketball careers short. During his time in the military, Newton married his first wife, Evelyn, and the couple had a daughter, Debbie.
After his military career, Newton had a few options to consider before picking a new job. His basketball and baseball experience opened up many doors for him. His daughter, Debbie, was the reason he decided to leave baseball behind.
With the assistance of Rupp, Newton became the coach at then-Transylvania College, now university. Newton’s experience under Rupp helped him turn the program around. His first year at Transylvania ended with a 9-8 record.
During his 12 years at Transylvania, Newton led the team to one NAIA tournament in 1963. He also recruited the school’s first black athlete.
In 1968, Newton received a phone call from Paul W. “Bear” Bryant asking him to become the men’s basketball coach for Alabama. Newton and his family moved to Tuscaloosa and he began coaching the Crimson Tide in the fall.
For the next dozen years, Newton reshaped the Alabama program. Like he did at Transylvania, Newton recruited the University of Alabama’s first African American scholarship athlete, Wendell Hudson.
“I learned only after I became the coach at Kentucky and started looking more into the history of the SEC that C.M. basically integrated Alabama basketball,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said in a post on his website last week. “I asked him how he was able to have the courage to go against the grain in Alabama at that time. He told me, ‘I saw people as people. And I wanted to win. I was trying to bring in the best players. I didn’t care if they were black, white, green or gold. I wanted to win.’ I have asked myself this may times. Would I have had the courage to do the right thing if I was in that same position at Alabama? I don’t know. But I know this. He did. What is popular isn’t always right and what is right isn’t always popular. That is something we can all learn from C.M.”
At the end of his career with the Crimson Tide, Newton’s record was 211-123, with three consecutive SEC Championships. He was also named SEC Coach of the Year in 1974 and 1976.
Newton led Alabama to the NCAA Tournament in 1974 and 1975.
In 1980, Newton resigned from Alabama to became the SEC’s associate commissioner. Newton served in that role for two years before becoming Vanderbilt’s head coach in 1982.
Newton led the Commodores to a 129-115 record over the span of eight seasons. In 1988 and 1989, Vanderbilt made back-to-back NCAA appearances. After the 1989 season, Newton left to become athletic director at Kentucky.
“I’m certainly sorry for everyone’s loss,” former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson said. “We had a good professional relationship and I appreciate what he did for me in the game of basketball. He was a very good basketball coach and did a lot for the University of Alabama and for basketball in this state.”
Returning to his alma mater, Newton revamped the entire athletics program within 10 years. Newton hired a new football coach, a black women’s basketball coach and two different men’s basketball coaches.
While working at Kentucky, Newton was also president of USA Basketball. He payed a key role in the decision to allow professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics, bringing about the “Dream Team” of NBA stars who played in the 1992 Summer Games.
In March of 2000, his wife Evelyn died of lymphoma. She had been battling cancer for 18 years.
In 2000, Newton was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Newton remarried shortly after Evelyn passed away. His new wife, Nancy, helped Newton retire from Kentucky and move back to Tuscaloosa. He has been a resident since then.
Newton continued to serve on the NIT board from the time he retired from the game until his death.
Caroline Gazzara contributed to this story.