“From our side of things, the college basketball standpoint, this game is equivalent to the march on Washington, or to Little Rock. How powerful is that?”
This is a nice little story about defying tyranny, of good triumphing over the iniquity of evil; with a small slice of pathos to arouse one’s sense of fair play, served up by the most unlikely of heroes – a segregation busting tobacco chewing self-professed Mississippi Redneck with the apt nickname of Old Magnolia Mouth.
However, even against such a callous backdrop of cynicism, through the NCAA’s thick layer of cash, will ever so often pop through a reminder of how powerful for the good of humanity athletics can be, defying cultural gridlock by unifying diverse groups on the level playing fields of athletic competition.
Before Madness took control of March, the NCAA basketball tournament was just a nice cozy little post season get together to honor teams who had completed good conference seasons. No national TV, no insane fanatic adulation by the masses, no million dollar payouts to universities and coaches, no coach losing his job for failure to garner an invitation to “the big dance;” just a nice little tournament. Back in 1963 the National Invitational Tournament held at Madison Square Garden - today reserved for those losers not invited to the NCAA post season party – was held by many in higher esteem than the NCAA’s event.
Mississippi State’s University’s outstanding men’s basketball teams of 1959, 1961 and 1962, nationally ranked and Southeast Conference Champions of each year, victorious over the legendary Adolph Rupp coached Kentucky Wildcats, had turned down invitations to the NCAA tournament and thus the chance to compete for a national title, giving the NCAA selection committee a blow off that seems hard to believe by today’s standards. The reason: the state of Mississippi, at that time, did not allow its student athletes to participate against racially integrated teams. The segregationist state leaders considered allowing whites and blacks to compete against each other in a basketball contest morally corrupt.
Rupp, ironically a known segregationist himself, had with the blessing of the state of Kentucky, no problem waltzing his second place team in through the back door and into the NCAA dance as the Southeast Conference representative - a replacement on the bracket for the balking Mississippi State Bulldogs.
In the Deep South of the early 1960’s, the gauntlet of racism had been dropped and the line of discrimination clearly drawn; segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. To take a stance less conservative was viewed as political suicide for a southern politician. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, an avowed segregationist, was too astute of a politician not to hang his hat with the popular racist views of the time. It would be 1967 before the Southeast Conference had it first black basketball player and 1968 before any league school gave a football scholarship to a black athlete.
However, by 1963, even in the most entrenched bastion of segregation – Mississippi - the winds of racial inclusion were beginning to blow. They would soon reach full mast. The previous fall, in 1962, black student James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, albeit with the help of the US Army and the state national guard, integrating Mississippi’s flag ship and previously all white university, located in Oxford, 90 miles south of the Mississippi State campus in Starkville. Less than a month after the completion of the 1963 NCAA basketball national tournament, Martin Luther King Jr. would write his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," an essay that became an anthem for the civil rights movement.
Then along came Babe “Old Magnolia Mouth” McCarthy to set the athletic world of Jim Crow segregation on its ear.
Babe McCarthy, with his so-called "honey-dew Mississippi drawl,” had carved out a niche for his basketball Mississippi State Bulldogs in a state that had previously given faint notice to the sport, relegating round ball to a mere winter diversion in the eyes of the state’s fanatical football fans. Three times previous, in four years, Babe and his team had been left on the sidelines seething when denied their due by the segregation laws of the state, forced to watch his personal nemesis, Adolph Rupp and his runner up Wildcats seize the playoff spot his Bulldogs had rightly won on the court. McCarthy vowed to his team it would not happen again in 1963. “Win your way onto to the bracket again and this time I will take care of getting you there,” was his pre-season promise to his tall and talented cagers.
McCarthy had always been the happy go lucky type, the guy who could come into a small southern farm town as a stranger and within weeks have a seat of honor around the wood stove down at the local feed store. Born in 1923, raised in the depths of the Great Depression in one of the poorest states’ in the Union, Babe had the gift of gab, dripping with rural Mississippi charm. But, dismissing him as just another good ole boy looking for an easy job in the shade would be a gross under calculation of the slick McCarthy’s grit and ambition.
A right out of college job as an oil salesman didn’t turn out to be McCarty’s appropriate life’s calling. All his life, Babe never was one to have much luck with money. He had little time for such picayune concerns. He was the kind of guy that could go into Fort Knox with a grain scoop and a gunnysack and come out with his wallet missing.
But Ole Babe did turn out to be a fine basketball coach for the town of Tupelo, MS, about the time another young local boy with long sideburns and gyrating hips, singing about a hound dog, was just starting to make a name for himself playing that fancy guitar of his down at the skating rink on Saturday nights. Yes, Babe was a fine coach in Tupelo --for the junior high team.
A graduate of Baldwyn, Mississippi High School, class of 1940, Babe spent three years as a student at Mississippi State University. Upon early graduation in 1943, McCarthy volunteered for the Army and service in World War II as a transport pilot. He returned to Baldwyn following the war’s 1945 conclusion to coach the local high school basketball team from 1946 to 1950, his team winning the state championship in 1948.
McCarthy cut his coaching teeth as a young 20 something gung-ho pied piper for his hometown high school. He preached effort, team work and accountability. No excuses. The play of his Bearcats became for McCarthy a reflection upon his performance as a coach. It may be an imperfect world, he told his boys, but within the confines of the Baldwyn gymnasium, Babe would accept nothing short of perfection.
In 1951, during the hot days of the escalating Korean War, Babe joined the newly established military branch of the Air Force. Over a three year hitch, Babe coached a Memphis Air Force basketball team to third place in the worldwide Air Force tournament. From 1953-1955, returning to civilian life, Babe bade his time as coach of the Junior High team in Tupelo.
It seemed a long shot in 1955, when at age 31, a man who had never played college basketball and whose last coaching experience had been at the junior high level, applied for the head basketball coaching position at Mississippi State University. But that didn’t deter the confident McCarthy. Still, Babe’s ebullience and self-salesmanship, aside, it was a surprise when the Bulldogs’ Athletic Director Dudy Noble hired Babe, claiming later that he admired and was sold by the fast talking McCarthy’s boldness. Babe had told Noble at that 1955 interview, “if I don’t win big within three years, you don’t have to fire me, I will quit.” Noble told several in the athletic department that the new hoops coach he had just hired, “sure does have a mouth on him.”
But, with the squalid condition of the basketball program at a college with an already inferiority complex over Ole Miss, the state’s rich man’s University over in Oxford, hiring such an unlikely candidate really wasn’t that far-fetched. Applicants were not lining up three deep in 1955 to be the basketball coach at Mississippi State. When Noble’s judgment was challenged on why he hired a coach with such limited on court coaching experience, the AD replied: “The team is playing like junior high players; I thought they needed a junior high coach.”
Babe hit the ground running, holding true to his promise to quickly build a winner in Starkville. His teams showed steady improvement. A 12-12 record in Babe’s rookie season of 1956 was a harbinger of good times to come.
McCarthy’s Bulldogs followed the promising start with marks of 17-8 in 1957 and 20-5 in 1958. MSU moved from a sixth place SEC finish in 1956 to 3rd in both 1957 and 1958. He had the Bulldogs poised perfectly for a big year in 1959 and pounce they did. Lead by future Boston Celtics star Bailey Howell, the Bulldogs rolled to a 24-1 record, a top five national ranking and the securing of an undisputed Southeastern Conference Championship, rarefied company for such a previously unheralded program.
Before sending his team onto the floor for the decisive 1959 conference showdown with the arrogant Kentucky five, Babe told his confident team, "Now, let's cloud up and rain all over 'em." The college basketball world was in awe of how quickly “Old Magnolia Mouth” had delivered on his seemingly outlandish promises of four years before. After his team’s impressive 65-58 defeat of Kentucky, clinching for MSU the SEC championship, Babe boasted to the national press, “We can beat anybody in the country on our home court.”
The crusty old Rupp took from the start exception to the boasting of the cock-sure upstart young coach over at Starkville, taking personal affront to his impetuous barbs. McCarthy became a pain in the backside of the Baron of the Bluegrass, a man who had over the previous 30 years built at Kentucky the nation’s unquestioned top program. Always maintaining a saturnine and brooding front, Rupp’s aloofness intimidated many a coach, but not the spotlight loving and free swinging Babe who showed no respect or fear of the Adolph Rupp mystique. Contrary, he went out of his way in his gamesmanship to irritate Rupp.
In 1958, when Rupp’s Kentucky team beat Mississippi State in Lexington, the Baron ordered a black wreath nailed to the door of the visiting team’s dressing room. After the game, Babe smiled and then removed the wreath, taking it with him on the return trip back to Starkville. He told his team, we will just file this one away for future reference.
The next season, McCarthy had the home crowd whipped to a frenzy for Kentucky’s visit to Starkville for a rematch. The inspired MSU crowd (mob) did its part from the opening tip, harassing Kentucky with cowbells and students beating on plow shares. The clamorous cheering section, like none ever seen before in Starkville for a basketball game, had rowdy students jammed into the old MSU field house from the floor to the rafters.
Mississippi State won the game and Babe ordered the wreath he had taken in defeat off his team’s locker room door in Lexington the previous year to now be nailed to the dressing room door of the vanquished and dethroned Wildcats. The next year, in Lexington, MSU would beat Kentucky again. The State students, showing no respect in his home arena for the man considered the day’s top college hoops mentor, left a dead skunk under Rupp’s chair.
McCarthy followed up the breakthrough season in 1959 with Southeastern Conference titles in both 1961 and 1962. In all three seasons’, MSU turned down the invitation to represent the SEC as its representative to the NCAA’s National Tournament.
The following March, Governor Barnett’s marching orders to the President of Mississippi State University, Dean Colvard, were once again clear and cut to the racist bone: the again Southeastern Conference champion Bulldogs, with a sparkling 1963 regular season record of 24-1 and a number 6 national ranking, were forbidden to cross the state lines of Mississippi with the intent of playing a basketball game against an integrated team. To give some judicial muscle to his directive, one widely rumored that McCarthy’s team this time intended to defy, the Governor enlisted the help of another powerful state segregationist, Sen. Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State student body president. Mitts was instrumental in securing a willing state judge to issue a temporary injunction to prevent the team from leaving the State.
But, back in Starkville a plan of defiance was brewing. McCarthy needed a deceptive scheme to get his team out of the state of Mississippi and to East Lansing, MI and a NCAA Regional match with the Chicago’s University of Loyola and its four black starters.
Tired of his nationally ranked team becoming an annual sacrificial offering on the Segregationist alter of bigotry, McCarthy focused his legendary determination on finding a way of getting around his racist bosses’ edicts. He would, “come hell or high water,” he told his players, find a way to get his 1963 team into the NCAA’s integrated tournament. Borrowing from football’s playbook, Babe pulled off one of the greatest end runs in sports history and in doing so struck a mighty and symbolic blow to the crumbling Jim Crow laws of the Deep South.
McCarthy would share after the game that he never could have gotten his team out of Mississippi ahead of the serving of the trip quashing subpoena if not for the resolve and courage of a sympathetic University President Dean Colvard, a man determined to take a stand against Jim Crow. To not actively use his position to integrate his University, he believed, made him culpable for the injustice of segregation.
Marion A. Ellis in the 2004 book Dean W. Colvard: Quiet Leader, wrote: "Colvard had several reasons for wanting the team to compete. First of all, it would give a positive boost to the MSU and Mississippi image. Second, he felt the four seniors on the team deserved a chance after having played together for three years and having won the SEC championship all three years."
The progressive thinking Colvard was determined to bring the university out of the Neanderthal days of the Civil War and into the Space age of the 1960’s. He was, however, going to use wise caution in choosing the ground for his upcoming battle with the state’s segregationist politicians. "It had begun to look as if our first major racial issue might pertain to basketball rather than to admissions," Colvard later said. "Although I knew opinion would be divided and feelings would be intense because of the law, I thought I had gained sufficient following that, win or lose, I should take decisive action."
To get their team to Michigan and into the NCAA Regional Tournament, Colvard supported McCarthy in a plan of deception right out of a James Bond movie. He agreed to have McCarthy leave the state a day early, crossing over the Tennessee state line, thus out of the jurisdiction of any Mississippi state court injunction. While McCarthy was laid up in Memphis for the evening, Colvard discreetly traveled to Alabama for a speaking engagement, also conveniently placing him out of the reach of the serving of any legal injunction.
The plan then called for the coach and the university president to meet up the next day in Nashville where the team’s plane would make a quick landing to pick them up for the last leg of the trip to Michigan.
The following morning, in a cloak and dagger move, an MSU assistant coach transported the freshmen basketball team, disguised as the varsity, to the Starkville Airport.
The local politician and law enforcement guardians of segregation swallowed the bait, rushing to the public airport, attempting to issue a futile injunction to a freshman team who had no intention of leaving the state. Meanwhile, the real varsity starting five was secretly shuttled to a private undisclosed airport where waiting was a private plane to wing the athletes to East Lansing and a date with destiny. Once the starting five were safely in the air, a call was made to send the reserves to the same secret airport as a second plane was idling in wait for the trip to Michigan.
"Being split up was the nerve-racking part," Mississippi State player Bobby Shows, one of the five starters, remembers. "We didn't have our coach. We didn't have half our team. We didn't know if we were going to be able to play the game. But it wasn't us boys. Don't build us up. It was Dr. Colvard and Coach McCarthy. Those two men had the backbone. When coach told us to jump, we said, ‘how high.’ We were just kids. We obeyed our coaches. So when Babe said, ‘boys if we win it again, we are playing in the tournament, come hell or high water,’ we believed him."
The team had help from an unexpected source. “We didn’t understand the politics,” said Shows. “But we were on pins and needles. Just as we took off, the sheriff drove through the gate. He waited until we were in the air, cause he knew we had switched airports, but turns out he wanted us to go so he was in no hurry to get there before we were in the air.”
On March 22, 1963, in East Lansing, MI, Jerry Harkness, the African American center for Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers, stepped into the center jump circle and extended his hand to the waiting Joe Dan Gold, center for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. As the two shook hands, the glare of the popping flashbulbs of the media photographer’s cameras momentarily blinded both men. The official tossed the ball between the two 6’9 players and what was to become known as “the Game of Change” had finally began.
"When those flashbulbs went off -- boom, boom, pop, pop -- you felt the history of it right there," Harkness told ESPN in a 2012 interview, "but I don't think many people even know about it now. That game, if you ask me, was key. I felt like it was the beginning of things turning around in college basketball. I truly believe that. I just don't know how many other people know about it."
For the all-white Bulldog team, the trip to East Lansing and the NCAA Midwest Regional Tournament had followed a twisted path. The long anticipated game now almost became an afterthought. So relieved to finally be able to compete in the NCAA Tournament, 50 years later, MSU players feel all the drama to just get to the tip off had mentally worn out the Bulldogs, taking the edge off of their game, thus their performance that day was uninspired. “We just put on our tennis shoes and went to go play," said Mississippi State player Bobby Shows.
A Loyola team with four African American starters and ranked at the time 3rd in the nation had been well prepared and understood the Jim Crow system that their opponents were defying. Later, the Chicago school’s black players said that they respected the resolve of their Dixie opponents.
Loyola coach George Ireland, to educate his northern team, had taken his team during the 1962-63 regular season on road trips to the Deep South, entering white only tournaments in Houston and New Orleans. The Ramblers players witnessed discrimination firsthand at restaurants that refused to serve their black members and hotels that refused to house them. In Houston, the team was taunted with chants of “nigger” that cascaded down from the stands. In New Orleans, the team’s black players were not allowed to stay in the same hotel with their white teammates, forced instead to bunk in the homes of black families on the “colored” side of town.
The Ramblers - both black and white alike – used the ugly experience to help them remain focused on their goal, winning a national title. In 1963, Loyola head coach George Ireland said: "I feel Mississippi State has a right to be here, no matter what the segregationists say. They may be the best basketball team in the nation and if they are, they have a right to prove it."
Mississippi State jump to any early lead, but soon the superior floor game of the Ramblers took over. Loyola led 26-19 at the half. Mississippi State went on an 8-4 run to pull to within 30-27 early in the second half but would get no closer. State did make one more sustained run at Loyola. Cutting the lead to four with two minutes to go in the game, the Bulldogs missed on an open field goal attempt. The missed shot was a turning point in the game’s eventual outcome. Bulldog’s radio play by play man Jack Cristil remembered in 2011 that it was "a good shot that just didn't go down. We had to start shooting, and Loyola beat us by 10, 61-51. It was a disappointing loss, but it had been a marvelous opportunity for the young men."
Loyola followed the historically significant win over Mississippi State with another victory in the Regional finals the next evening. The next week they would go on to win the 1963 NCAA national championship, upsetting the defending champion and heavy favorite, the University of Cincinnati and their star black player, Oscar Robertson, in a thrilling 60-58 overtime win.
Loyola guard Ron Miller, in a 2013 interview, reminisced with writer John Thomas: "I remember the (Mississippi State) guys being nice. I remember the guys wishing us luck (after the game), and wanting us to win (the national championship). And during the game it was polite. They played a very hard, very aggressive, very strong defensive game, very clean, and they didn't back off."
In reality, the game itself proved to be anti-climactic. Mixing the two races on the basketball court had resulted in no breakdown of America’s moral fiber; no fights or riots, only the intense play of two teams dueling for post season advancement.
Back in 1963, the NCAA played a third place game in their Regional Tournaments. The Bulldogs reclaimed some pride by defeating another integrated team from the north, Bowling Green of Ohio and their African American star player, Nate Bowman, securing for a trip back to Starkville the consolation trophy. “We are not going home empty handed,” McCarthy told his team.
They for surely were not.
When the team returned to Starkville, MS, they found their reception to be surprisingly warm, almost joyous for a team who had failed. The team’s plane, after sneaking off undercover just several days prior, now landed at an airport packed with cheering fans. Polls taken that spring showed overwhelming support for the team’s defiance of the state law. It was, many now say, the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. “When we got back the cars were lined up for 20 miles with thousands of kids there to see us,” remembers Shows. “The KKK boys were pretty nasty, ugly minority. Most people were not like that. And even though we lost, we came home winners. All of us did.”
The MSU players did not recognize in 1963 that what they had just done was more than a game but an impacting catalysis to a changing way of life in Mississippi. "My dad was pretty much a segregationist until the latter part of my college career," remembered Mississippi State player Bobby Shows. "He wasn't Ku Klux Klan or anything, but he used the N-word in the house. He didn't know any better. But he was 100 percent in favor of me playing in that game. He wanted me to have a chance, and after it was over, I can't remember him ever saying anything derogatory after that."
Both the Coach and the President kept their jobs; no formal censure for their insubordination was ever issued. McCarthy stayed at MSU through the 1966 season, but never again qualified the Bulldogs for the NCAA Tournament. His teams won four SEC titles and he was named SEC coach of the year four times.
For a state that has a long and miserable record on civil rights, the courage that Colvard and McCarthy displayed in their daring defiance of the Mississippi Legislature and diehard segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett; is in many ways one of the states’ few shining historical moments of race based righteousness.
“They say athletics can break down barriers and that game did,” said Chuck Wood, a reserve on the 1963 Loyola team. “That game had a social implication on the south and the state of Mississippi. That tournament game was in March. In August, blacks registered at the school for the first time and we had no incidents. They didn’t need the National Guard. They didn’t have any problems like they did before.”
After one unfulfilling year coaching George Washington University in the nation’s capital to a forgettable record of 6-18, McCarthy was finished as a college coach. Out of his element in the District of Columbia, McCarthy’s career overall college coaching record settled at a final total of 175 wins and 103 losses. "Coach McCarthy was really ahead of his time," remembered Cristil in 2011. "He was a great innovator and a great motivator. McCarthy could get players to play above their talent level in the system they ran. McCarthy's teams challenged the best and generally came out on top."
Babe spent the rest of his coaching years in the professional ranks of the newly formed American Basketball Association. In 1968, as head coach of the New Orleans Buccaneers, McCarthy had two future coaching legends on his player’s roster, Larry Brown and Doug Moe. Morten Downey, Sr., father of the future talk show host, was the team’s President.
Coaching six pro ABA teams in a seven year period, the wacky and unpredictable maverick league fit Old Magnolia Mouth’s sense of the insolent. The ABA is remembered for its trademark red, white and blue ball and the introduction to basketball of the 3 point line. The short lived league was also infamous for bounced pay checks, folding franchises and shifting rosters. McCarthy called his years in the pro circuit his most enjoyable on the bench. McCarthy was twice named the ABA Coach of the year, in 1969 and 1974. He was the first coach in the history of the league to reach 200 wins.
Fittingly for a man who had always enjoyed his slightly off kilter reputation, after winning the league’s top coaching award in 1974, McCarthy was fired by the Kentucky Colonels. He never coached again.
Award winning sportswriter Bob Ryan covered McCarthy when he coached in the ABA. Ryan told Terry Pluto in the book Loose Balls, a definitive history of the ABA, “This guy was special. He had that wonderful southern accent that made him sound like Charles Loughton in Advice and Consent.” Long time editor of the magazine Basketball Times, Larry Donald, has many memories of McCarthy from back in the ABA days, most centering on his outgoing behavior. “He loved to talk and tell stories. When he coached the Kentucky Colonels, he had a suite at the Executive Inn, which was right across the street from the Arena. After games, he would invite the reporters over, open up a bottle of Jack Daniels and then talk until the break of day, so long as there was someone around to listen.”
McCarthy was a player’s coach. Doug Moe remembers how Babe, as his coach in New Orleans, could sense when to lay down the hammer, but also when to back off. “He worked us hard, but he knew not to take practice too serious. A couple of times he would bring us to the gym to practice and then he would say, ‘boys the doors are locked and I don’t have a key. Why don’t we just take it easy today.’”
On March 17, 1975, Babe “Old Magnolia Mouth” McCarty died after a short battle with colon cancer. He was 51 years of age and was laid to eternal rest under the Pine trees in the pastoral setting of the country cemetery of his home town of Baldwyn, MS. His pallbearers on that unseasonably warm spring day were members of his 1948 Baldwyn Bearcats state championship basketball team.
McCarthy faced death with the same “bring it on” attitude he displayed when staring down the likes of Adolph Rupp and the Governor of Mississippi. “Why panic at 5 in the morning because it’s still dark outside,” he reasoned, days before his death.
It was reported in the local paper that the overflow crowd attending the funeral of the smooth talking local boy who had snookered the conservative state establishment while spitting in the eye of the segregationists; was composed of mourners in the comfort of bib overalls that far outnumbered those attired in stiff shirt and tie.