EDITOR’S NOTE – This is the 15th and final installment in OSU basketball historian Lee Caryer’s series on the integration of OSU men’s basketball.
By the time Fred Taylor had coached five consecutive Big Ten championship teams, other coaches were desperate to find a way to keep players away from the Ohio State campus.
Since OSU had fewer African-American basketball players in the 1960s than they had earlier, and other schools had more, the whispering started: “Fred Taylor does not get along with black athletes.”
If you care enough about the integration of Ohio State basketball to be reading this series, you have heard that charge and have seen the facts. It is time to review those facts.
Fred Taylor initiated the recruitment of African-Americans to the Ohio State basketball team. When he did this, in the 1952-53 season, the National Basketball Association had five African-Americans among 125 players in the entire league – a total of 4 percent.
Over the years, several of Taylor’s recruits, black and white, made marvelous contributions athletically and graduated; others did not choose to do the required work, academically or athletically; others were not able to do the required academic work due to poor preparation in high school. Taylor recruited each of them because he believed that each would help Ohio State, and that the university would help each player.
Was Coach Taylor prejudiced? No. The dictionary definition of prejudice is to make a “preconceived judgment.” Taylor did not do that before recruiting an athlete. However, he absolutely made judgments … Does the young man have the athletic ability to compete? The basketball skills? Will he be a good teammate? A credit to the university? Does he have the intelligence to do college work? Is he prepared, academically? Can we prepare him through tutoring assistance? Will he work, on the court and in the classroom?
Taylor judged every one of those qualities, and considered academic achievement far more important than some of his coaching peers. If he judged a high school player to be able to excel both on the court and in the classroom, he recruited him.
When he did, Taylor made the same promise to each recruit, “You will get a good education and we will compete for the Big Ten championship.” However, Taylor did not pre-judge, or the athlete would not have been offered an Ohio State scholarship, nor would Buckeyes like Joe Roberts, David Barker, Mel Nowell, Jim Doughty, Tom Bowman, Jim Cleamons and Larry Bolden, African-American basketball players who found greatness as students, players and men at Ohio State under Fred Taylor, speak of him as they do today.
In fact, Taylor’s lack of attention to race had a negative effect on assistant coach Frank Truitt, who, after serving as Taylor’s lead recruiter for six years, became the head coach at Louisiana State University in 1965.
“I just assumed I could recruit blacks, and didn’t think to ask before I took the job,” recalled Truitt during an interview for “The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball: 1960-1971”. “The athletic director asked to see my recruiting list and said, ‘You can’t recruit these guys. We aren’t ready for this.’ I was just a coach, and it never occurred to me that could be a problem.”
Truitt left after one year, becoming coach at Kent State. It took six years more years for Collis Temple to become the first African-American to play basketball for LSU.
During his years at Kent State, Truitt had the same approach to recruiting as Taylor did at OSU - find young men who met academic standards and wanted to strive to win championships and to earn a college degree. Like Taylor, Truitt did not cheat, so was unable to recruit everyone he wanted to have play for him. Like Taylor, Truitt was asked why he did not have more African-Americans. Like Taylor, Truitt refused to embarrass young people who did not qualify for scholarships.
As Truitt said in 1991, “What do you say?” He still did not have the right answer if the athlete had not been prepared to do college work in the classroom.
If you have read the accounts in this series, you realize the essential part Taylor played in initiating and expanding the integration of Ohio State basketball. If you have not seen all the articles and all the quotes, I invite you to read the previous articles and reach an informed conclusion.
Actually, if Taylor had his wish, jerseys celebrating the great careers of OSU basketball careers of Junior Franklin, Ray Brown, Larry Hisle and others would be hanging in the Schottenstein Center today.
There were many trailblazers who made change possible, and allowed much broader participation in the games we see today.
Some took a difficult path so others could follow more easily; some questioned why things were the way they always had been and caused change; some demanded their rights; some demanded the rights of others; some focused on the color of the uniform rather than the color of the skin underneath; some saw the commonality of people, instead of the differences. They all contributed to an important cause, important to each of them and to each of us.
As Ron Mix, a Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle who is Jewish, once said, “Organized athletics has done more to bring races and religions together than just about any other activity or organization in the United States. The participants, even if they had not been exposed to other races and religions, once they see everyone is the same, their minds change. Fans suddenly find themselves rooting for black players, and whether they know it or not, slowly over time their minds change.”
Closer to home, former Columbus East and Ohio State basketball star Joe Roberts remembers, “They (Ohio State officials) used to ask me how I wanted to be treated. I always said, ‘Like a man. Like anybody else.’ ”
There was a time when that was the most an African-American could hope for, on or off the court. Hopefully we are nearing a time when it will be the least anyone, of any race or religion, can expect.
Milestones for African-American basketball players at OSU:
* 1952, Ray Tomlin first African-American player recruited to the university, after leading Cincinnati Lockland-Wayne to the Class B state title;
* 1953-54 season, Cleo Vaughn first to play on the varsity, first to start, first to letter; 1956 Vernon Barkstall second player;
* 1957, Barkstall second to start, second to letter;
* 1958, Barkstall, Joe Roberts and Dave Barker, first African-American teammates; Barkstall first to play three years; Roberts first to play every game;
* 1959, Joe Roberts first to be starter throughout season;
* 1960, Roberts first co-captain; first to lead his team to Big Ten title; Mel Nowell joins team, which wins only national championship in school history; Roberts first drafted by NBA; Roberts and Barker first to letter three years;
* 1962 Nowell, first to start every game in his career; second to be drafted;
* 1971, Jim Cleamons moves from forward to guard, leads team to Big Ten title; first captain; first named Big Ten Player of the Year;
* 1980, Kelvin Ransey first All-American (though Cleamons deserved to be in 1971).
The book “Getting Open -- The Untold Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball” by Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody was an invaluable source in presenting stories of the racial pioneers in the Big Ten, particularly Bill Garrett.
Joe Roberts read the book and he thought it described the time very accurately. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand the situation the pre-OSU racial pioneers had to face. Thanks to The Call and Post, as well as newspaper archives at The Columbus Public Library.
“A Higher Court -- The Lost College Basketball Legacy of Fred Taylor” by Joe Weasel, “They Cleared the Lane” by Ron Thomas and “The Little League That Could: A History of the American Football League” by Ken Rappoport were helpful as well.
Special thanks to past Buckeye players Tom Williams, Robin Freeman, the deceased Cleo “Chico” Vaughn, Gene Millard, Frank Howard, Jim Laughlin, David Barker, Joe Roberts, Dick Furry, Mel Nowell, Jim Doughty, Tom Bowman, Dennis Hopson and Jim Jackson, as well as Ron Bell, Jim Gates, Larry Hisle, Jack Park and Frank Truitt, for their help in compiling this information. Interviews originally appearing in “The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball: 1960-1971” were used as well.
We hope you enjoyed the story of OSU Hoops Becomes Black and White.
Below are the 14 previous installments in the series.