A different South for Sumlin's father

Originally Published: September 5, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

William Sumlin is hesitant to get into it. He doesn't want to go all PBS documentary on his son Kevin as he prepares for his first game as head coach at Texas A&M on Saturday. But as a high school coach in the segregated South a half-century ago, William Sumlin will allow that he never, ever thought the day would come when his son would be a head coach in the Southeastern Conference.

"I never thought he'd be a head coach in Texas, either," the elder Sumlin, 77, said. "I never thought he'd be a head coach anywhere in the South."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/Patrick GreenKevin Sumlin said his father just got tired of trying to get things done as a coach in the segregated South.

Kevin Sumlin is not the first African-American head coach in the Southeastern Conference. He's not even the second or the third. That barrier was dismantled and carted away over the past eight years by Sylvester Croom, the former coach at Mississippi State, and by Joker Phillips and James Franklin, the current coaches at Kentucky and Vanderbilt, respectively.

The focus of Sumlin's first eight months at Texas A&M has been on his ability to shepherd the Aggies into the nation's toughest conference. The focus has been on the future. That's as it should be, William Sumlin said.

"When I get to talking about this stuff, I get to talk too much," the father said. " … There's too much to be happy about for somebody to come up and start questioning me about something I said about how bad things were. And yeah, they were. But that was then and this is now."

Kevin Sumlin turned 48 years old last month. He grew up in a metropolitan city in the Midwest (Indianapolis) and played football in the Big Ten (Purdue). But his roots are in the pine trees of southwest Alabama. He was born in 1964 in the lumber mill town of Brewton, 80 miles east-northeast of Mobile, where Bill Sumlin coached football at Booker T. Washington High.

A little more than two years later, the Sumlins moved to Indiana, where Bill and his wife, Marion, went to graduate school and made careers as educators. Indiana offered opportunities that a young black family didn't have in Alabama in 1964.

"Segregation was still there," Kevin Sumlin said, "and he was just tired of trying to do things and get things done. You travel with teams and you had to plan the stops. You couldn't stop here and eat. Guys couldn't go to the bathroom. … You got kids on the bus, and you got to figure out where you're going to eat, where you're going to stop. He was just so tired of it."

Bill Sumlin grew up in Brewton. He attended Southern Normal, a local school established by missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church. He graduated in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the "separate but equal" schools that dominated the South.

He had played football at Southern Normal, which had a team good enough that it attracted the attention of college recruiters. Alabama coach Red Drew came to Southern Normal. But Drew didn't come on his own behalf. The Crimson Tide didn't have an African-American scholarship player until 1970. Back then, Southern coaches scouted for their Northern friends.

"He didn't come into the building," Bill Sumlin said. "He sent a driver into the building to talk to the principal and ask a couple of guys to come outside.

"I was out there. He didn't even get out of the car. Michigan State's name came up. He was looking around for somebody, Duffy Daugherty, from Michigan State. He [Drew] wanted to look at us. He sat in the car and asked us to get into a stance and run for him. He said, 'Give me your names and I'm going to get in touch with my friend at Michigan State. You may hear something.' Which we never did."

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/Butch DillKevin Sumlin's Texas A&M team opens its season on Saturday against Florida. His father will be there watching.

Sumlin played football at Kentucky State. He returned to his hometown in 1960 to coach at Booker T. Washington High, which had opened the year before.

Clemson associate athletic director Woody McCorvey grew up in Atmore, a half-hour down the road from Brewton. McCorvey, an assistant coach in the SEC and ACC for 26 seasons, played for Escambia County Training School and played against Washington.

"When Booker T. Washington hired Coach Sumlin, it didn't take long for his teams to become competitive," McCorvey said. "They won a lot of football games. His teams were very disciplined. His teams were very well-coached. He was the one that I remember branched out into the throwing game."

David Lovelace, the retired police chief of Brewton, played basketball for Sumlin. "He was just strict," Lovelace said, "about how you acted, how you played. He didn't mind putting that paddle on you. He didn't tolerate any foolishness. Overall, he was a great coach."

Washington had a new building, a new stadium, new uniforms, new equipment -- and the old way of living. High schools and their sports remained segregated. Brewton had two white high schools -- T.R. Miller and W.S. Neal.

"We sat in segregated sections in the back of the end zone when we came to see them [Miller] play," Sumlin said, "in the back of the end zone in some makeshift seats. There was a guy there. I would show up or the principal would show up, and he would just let us sit there without paying."

In 1963, two years after Klansmen attacked Freedom Riders as they attempted to desegregate the interstate bus system in Alabama, Sumlin took the Washington basketball team 25 miles up U.S. Route 31 to Evergreen, Ala., for a tournament. The team played one game Friday night and three Saturday and upset the local team to win the championship.

"They wanted to give us dinner before the final game," Sumlin said. "We were going to have dinner and play an hour later, and I didn't want to do that.

"I told the kids, 'Look, they're just trying load us up on the food. I know you guys are hungry, but we're not going to eat. We're going to play this game and we're going to win it.' Which we did. They were mad for losing the game. They just told us to get out."

I never thought he'd be a head coach in Texas, either. I never thought he'd be a head coach anywhere in the South.

-- William Sumlin

The team drove home, back to Brewton. The only restaurant still open was in the Greyhound station. What happened next is according to Sumlin's recollection. Lovelace, his former player, has only vague memories of the restaurant. But it's a story that Kevin Sumlin said he has heard "all my life."

"We drove there and pulled up to the front," Sumlin said. "A big sign on the door there said, 'White Only.' I had a basketball team. I told them to get off the bus and line up. When you go into the gym on the floor, you had a line, the shortest guy to the tallest. I got in front. I still had my suit on. We walked to the door."

As the Washington team walked through the door marked "White Only," the music continued to play but the diners went quiet. The team sat down at the counter. Sumlin carried in the championship trophy and put it on the counter, too.

"What do you all want in here?" the person behind the counter asked.

"I want to see a menu," Sumlin replied.

"What for?"

"I want to order some food for my team," Sumlin said.

"You're in the wrong place."

Someone called the police. A few minutes later, police chief Glenn Holt walked in. He and Sumlin had been friends for some time.

"Everybody else thought they were going to arrest us or take us out to jail," Sumlin said. "He said, 'Coach, can I see you a minute?' He had another guy with him. I went back there to him. And he started smiling.

"He said, 'They think I'm going to do something to you. I'll tell you what. I'm going to tell them to let you go ahead and eat and I'm going to take care of this.' He says, 'I'll be outside watching in case they call anyone to do something else, to carry on.'"

Chief Holt walked up to the counter and began handing out menus to the players.

"On the way back," Sumlin said, "he said to me, 'Tell me something, Coach.'

"I said, 'What is that?'

"'What took you so long to get here?'"

Sumlin coached at Washington for six years. He went undefeated in 1964 -- Kevin was born on the first day of practice -- but he yearned to be more than a one-man athletic department.

"I looked at the white school situation," Sumlin said with an audible sigh, "and equipment. They had coaches. We had a coach. That was me, and I met myself coming and going, trying to do everything. We didn't even have an equipment person. You had to do everything. Everything. I did it out of love for the game, my town and all of that. It was tiring."

After the 1966 season, Sumlin moved his young family out of Brewton. He earned two master's degrees at Indiana and became a high school principal (and always, he said, an unpaid assistant coach). But he never severed his ties to his hometown.

Sumlin has seen big changes in his life. He's pretty sure his grandfather never cast a vote. But his father served on the Brewton city council. He watched the son of his next-door neighbors in Brewton, Walter Lewis, become the first African-American quarterback at Alabama. Lewis, Bear Bryant's last starting quarterback, is still an iconic figure in his state. He and Kevin Sumlin are close friends.

"They came often [to Brewton]," Lewis said of the Sumlins. "We were running buddies in the summer. He fit right in. Kevin has that type of personality. That's why he's been successful. You talk about his dad coaching. His dad having to go through what he went through, it affected Kevin, and how he dealt with people, at an early age. You're learning how to cope with different things. I had to deal with a lot of things. We all had to deal with it."

That's pretty much how William Sumlin feels.

"It more or less had to evolve," he said. "There were a lot of well-thinking people who didn't go along with what the situation was, but they couldn't do anything about it. It was just the way it was."

Sumlin will be in College Station on Saturday to see his son coach his first game at Texas A&M and his first game in the SEC, a league that refused to recruit the elder Sumlin nearly six decades ago.

"History is a good thing," William Sumlin said. "We learn a lot from history. We learn to look at it and say, 'Well, that's gone.' Just like reading in the history books about World War II and the Nazis. But [the Germans] are our allies now, you know? So we move on."

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com