Honoring the Southwest Conference
I had a chance to hang out with nine Southwest Conference Hall-of-Famers on Monday. You may not even realize there is an SWC Hall of Fame, but it’s part of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco, which is the oldest Hall of Fame in America and one of my favorite places in the entire state. The SWC Hall of Fame is a recent addition, in fact we inducted the first class last fall in Dallas.
This year the ceremony was in Fort Worth and the nine inductees were as inspirational as they were spectacular. One inductee from each SWC school including Arkansas, each selected by an on-campus panel. Last year the legendary Frank Broyles was the Hogs selection, this year they sent Nolan Richardson for induction. His coaching was celebrated Monday, as he’s the only man to have lead teams to a championship in junior college, the NIT and the NCAA. But he also recalled how he was not allowed to play in the SWC, because when he was in college the color barrier had still not been broken.
Coincidentally, TCU’s inductee was the one that broke that barrier. James Cash entered TCU in 1965 becoming the first African American player to play basketball in the SWC. He went on to a long and impressive career in academia, in fact he was a professor at Harvard. He shared stories of what it was like to be the Jackie Robinson of his office. He and his teammates needed a police escort to play at Arkansas, ironically enough. The punch line to that sad story was how happy he was to be at the Final Four in 1994 when an African American coach (Richardson) lead a team of five African American starters to a national championship over Duke. He marveled at how far race relations had come in thirty years from needing a police escort because of one black player in ’65 to the enlightenment of 1994.
Walter Abercrombie was there representing Baylor. He’s from Waco and he remembers being a young child and noticing that there was no one who looked like him on the Baylor football team. In fact, he lived near the stadium and he said there was no one that looked like him that attended Baylor football games. That’s why among the many that Walter thanked, was John Hill Westbrook, who broke the color barrier for Baylor football. That date is etched in Walter’s mind – September 10, 1966. Westbrook entered the game in the fourth quarter and opened a door for the likes of Abercrombie and so many more.
Then there was Jill Sterkel, the only female inductee was there representing the University of Texas. She was a world class swimmer who won her first Olympic Gold Medal at the age of 15 at the Montreal games in 1976. When she got to Austin in 1979 women’s sports were not a part of the NCAA. In fact, the Lady Horns won national championships in swimming in 1980 and ’81 but they were sanctioned by the AIWA – whatever that was. She talked about the changes she has seen in women’s sports and then told the crowd that she adopted a son eight years ago. As she addressed the other inductees, the tears started flowing, she composed herself and revealed that her son is African American and that if it weren’t for people like James Cash, Nolan Richardson and even Walter Abercrombie paving the way, his path to sports would be blocked.
All of these people and five others were inducted into the SWC Hall of Fame because of greatness on the field of play. But they all exhibited Hall of Fame-like patience, perseverance and perspective. They all feel blessed, they appreciate their lives and they all celebrate the Southwest Conference. Do yourself a favor, visit the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and celebrate it too.