The tragic passing of Dr. Don Phelps, a pioneer in the area of the voice and presence of African-Americans in universities and colleges, stirs memories - and pride of where we are now - of the metamorphosis of the African-American in the football coaching staff at The University of Texas.
Dr. Phelps, of course, was the chairman of the UT Men's Athletics Council, and he died Saturday (July 5) from complications following a heart procedure.
In his time, he had been a teacher, a principal, a professor and a driving force in the importance of community colleges in education.
And his place as chair of the athletics council is a statement of how far we have come in an area which once was a sensitive issue on campuses nationwide.
The year was 1972, and Darrell Royal was doing everything he could to make up for almost a century of posturing that prohibited African-American athletes from competing in big-time college football.
When the "color barrier" as it was called in those days, was dropped by the Board of Regents in the mid-1960s and the Southwest Conference agreed to allow African Americans to play, a Longhorns track walk-on named James Means became the first black athlete to participate for a Southwest Conference team. Longhorns basketball coaches tried hard to recruit an outstanding prospect from Fort Worth named James Cash, but he chose instead to go to TCU. When Jerry Levias played at SMU in 1966, he - along with a player from Baylor - became the first African-Americans to compete at the varsity level in football in the SWC.
Early efforts to change the Texas image failed. John Harvey of Austin's old Anderson High School was perhaps the finest player to ever come out of the city, and he first signed to come to Texas, but things didn't work out academically. Leon O'Neal, a linebacker from Killeen, signed a letter of intent at UT and played on the freshman team in 1968, but it wasn't until 1970, when San Antonio's Julius Whittier completed the first of his three varsity years, that an African-American earned a letter in football at Texas.
Royal knew his challenge was great. Despite his personal commitment to acceptance of all people, his program was often attacked by rival recruiters.
Whittier had taken the first step to opening new doors for UT, and in 1971 the Horns successfully recruited the state's best running back in Roosevelt Leaks. But Royal realized that in order to serve the young men he was recruiting, it was important to have an African-American on staff.
The choice was critical, because it was one that could not afford to fail. Whomever Royal picked, the man would be scrutinized by lots of folks. It was truly a path-finding choice. Experience for African-American coaches at the college level, except at the traditionally black colleges, was almost non-existent--particularly in this part of the country.
So in February of 1972, Royal took a step that opened a door, and combined the best of all worlds.
Alvin Matthews had been a star at Austin High School, and he had gone on to become an NAIA All-American at what was then Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). He was enjoying a successful stint as a defensive back with the Green Bay Packers, so he brought both respect and knowledge to the table. He wasn't ready to give up pro ball, but that didn't matter to Royal.
Royal and Matthews worked out a deal where Alvin became the first African-American coach in Longhorns history, and he also continued his pro career. Matthews would report to Green Bay in the summer, and though he would miss the Longhorns season, he was often back in time for a bowl game and all of the spring training.
That worked for two years, but in 1974 he signed a long-term pro contract and gave up his hopes of a coaching career for the time being. In his place, Royal hired a veteran high school coach and former Prairie View A&M star named Prenis Williams to coach receivers.
With Leaks earning All-America honors in 1972 and 1973 and the staff statement Royal had made, recruiting doors began to open. And the most famous of those was at the home of a great Tyler running back named Earl Campbell.
Progress continued in the area after Royal retired following the 1976 season, but no statement came close to that made during the current tenure of Mack Brown.
Cleve Bryant, who served as one of the nation's first African-American head coaches in Division I-A when he led his alma mater Ohio University, is the Associate Athletics Director for football operations. Arthur Johnson is the Assistant AD. Jeff 'Maddog' Madden serves as the Assistant Athletics Director for Strength and Conditioning.
Three members of Madden's staff are also African-American.On the coaching staff itself, Darryl Drake serves as Assistant Head Coach and receivers coach, Bruce Chambers tutors the tight ends and Michael Haywood is the new running backs coach. Jean Bryant, Cleve's wife, is in the academics area and is in charge of the life skills program.
But it is in the area of the student-athletes where the most powerfully significant stride has been made. Where people once talked of "quotas" and regularly checked the numbers, today nobody knows--or cares--how many players are "of color." Today, it is not about what color your skin is, it is about being a student-athlete, a player, and most of all a person.
Guys like Don Phelps and Alvin and Prenis helped make that happen. They were the pathfinders, seeking a way to teach and to care. Healers, helpers and builders, all at the same time.