By Jamie H. Vaught
C.M. Newton has seen a lot of SEC basketball tournaments during his long career.
He participated in the conference tourney as a UK player (in 1951 before it was discontinued after the 1952 season and later revived in 1979) and as the head coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt. He later was also UK athletics director for several years.
And the personable Newton, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday, again will be coming to the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville in a different role -- SEC Basketball Legend. The likeable gentleman is one of 14 men who have been selected for the 2015 Allstate SEC Basketball Legends. (Representing UK as SEC Legend this year is Bob Burrow.)
A former four-time SEC Coach of the Year, Newton -- who is representing Alabama -- will be recognized Thursday afternoon at the tournament during the halftime of the Alabama-Florida game. The retired coach said he is very pleased with the latest honor.
"This is a big deal to me and I look forward to attending the tournament in Nashville," said Newton in an e-mail.
As you'll recall, Newton was a very successful coach at Alabama. He coached the Crimson Tide for 12 seasons, mostly during the 1970s, compiling a record of 211-123 along with three consecutive SEC titles. In addition, four of Newton's teams finished 14th or higher in the final national rankings.
He also had a big part in improving racial relations in SEC basketball. While coaching in the prejudiced deep South, Newton, in a controversial move, managed to jump-start the integration in Alabama's sports program by signing the school's first African-American scholarship athlete, Wendell Hudson, in 1969. And, of course, Newton later hired Tubby Smith in 1997 as UK's first African-American basketball coach.
"In signing Wendell Hudson, you were correct in that there were many difficulties," said Newton, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "You must remember that in 1969 Wendell was the only black athlete at the University of Alabama. Asking Tubby Smith to replace Rick Pitino as basketball coach at the University of Kentucky in 1998 was a good hire. Wendell's and Tubby's appointments seemed like the natural thing to do. I didn't think of them as 'black or white.' My only thought was: Could they do the job?"
Hudson, by the way, was Alabama's SEC Legend in 2000 and the 1973 SEC Player of the Year.
In 1989, after Newton left his head coaching post at Vanderbilt to become the athletics director at probation-ridden Kentucky, his first major task was to find a new hoops boss for the Wildcats. If the new AD could not lure a proven coach to Lexington, he himself would have coached the Cats for the 1989-90 season.
"In becoming the athletics director I was faced with the task of hiring a head basketball coach," Newton recalled. "I made the judgment that one person, Rick Pitino, could do the job. Rick accepted, preventing me from having to take on the job myself."
Not surprisingly, Newton has been following college basketball, especially top-ranked Kentucky, this season. He has seen the 2014-15 Wildcats play in person and on TV. He really enjoys this group of UK players.
"There is a lot to like about this team," said Newton, who now lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "First, they are very unselfish. They share the ball extremely well. Secondly, the Cats have extreme height and reach; this makes them a very good defensive team. Finally, the job that John Calipari has done with this team is remarkable and can't be ignored. The current Wildcat team should win it all, in my opinion."
As far as heath is concerned, Newton, who once served as the head coach at Transylvania during his early days, said he is feeling much better.
"This last year was a difficult one, however, I am regaining my health and look forward to the future," he said.
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With Kentucky high school state basketball tournaments taking place this week (girls' tourney at Bowling Green) and next week (boys' tourney at Lexington), I thought you might be interested to know there is a recently-published book that is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of Kentucky prep basketball records and facts that I have ever seen.
The 632-page book is titled "Kentucky High School Basketball Encyclopedia 1916-2013" (Acclaim Press, $39.95) and is compiled by statistician and editor Jeff Bridgeman, who spent 10 years researching and putting together this massive effort. The hardcover includes the records of statistics of every high school team (boys and girls) that are listed by year from 1916 to 2013, Coach of the Year winners, Mr. & Miss Basketball winners, All A State Classic participants and scores, All-State teams, Sweet Sixteen All-Tournament teams, numerous team pictures, among others.
And, for me, I was able to locate my immediate relative who was the basketball coach at a tiny high school during the late 1950s.
Nevertheless, if you are a high school hoops junkie, it is a nice copy to have for your library.
The book is available on Amazon.com and Acclaimpress.com.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.