C.M. Newton, a giant in the history of the University of Kentucky, the Southeastern Conference, and in the sport of basketball, died Monday, June 4. Newton launched a basketball coaching career that spanned three decades at three different institutions. He began in 1956 at Transylvania College (where he recruited that program’s first African-American player), followed by coaching stints at the University of Alabama (where he recruited that program’s first African-American player and led the Crimson Tide to three straight SEC titles) and at Vanderbilt University, before returning to his alma mater in 1989 to become UK’s athletic director, a post he held for 11 years.
Newton is widely credited for navigating the resurrection of UK’s basketball program after the NCAA imposed three years probation and other sanctions following the 1988–89 season. He also hired Bernadette Mattox as UK’s first African-American women’s basketball coach (in 1995) and Orlando (“Tubby”) Smith as the university’s first African-American men’s basketball coach (in 1997).
He served as president of USA basketball from 1992–1996 and helped select the United States Olympic “Dream Team” of 1992. In 2000 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Newton reflected on his career in Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats by Doug Brunk. In honor of this sports legend, here is an excerpt from the book:
Having grown up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida I had never seen snow before I went to Kentucky. Being in such a different environment was quite a culture shock to me. In fact, there were times I was so homesick that I thought of leaving the program and returning to Florida. My teammate Ralph Beard and our team manager Humsey Yessin talked me out of that. They’d say things like, “you don’t want to leave Kentucky” and “we’re here for you.” So I stayed.
As a player I never had a significant impact because I was a substitute. But I always felt a part of something really big. The fact that I played on the 1951 national championship team, the fact that I made the travel squad, and that I was one of the first substitutes off the bench made it palatable for me.
Coach Rupp was very important to me because he motivated in a different way than what I was accustomed to. He motivated by fear, mostly, but he was an outstanding basketball coach. I never did break through that fear of Coach Rupp. For example, I’m the only player that ever played for Coach Rupp who went on to coach against him and won. This was in 1972, during my third year as coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Alabama. We beat the Wildcats 73-70 on our home court. Coach Rupp always considered former players as “one of his boys.” You never were a peer, but I wanted to be a coaching peer of his. When our Alabama team beat him that day I thought that might be a breakthrough on the way to that goal but it wasn’t. After our win he congratulated me and said we deserved to win. Then he said, “but…” — and with that I was transported right back to the player-coach relationship. “You’re trying to do too much offensively,” he told me. “You need to simplify your offense.” He wasn’t being critical; that was just his nature.
My freshman year as a player for UK was Coach Harry Lancaster’s first as a full-time assistant coach. Coach Lancaster actually did more teaching than Coach Rupp did. He was very good to me over the years, and very demanding. He became UK’s baseball coach my junior year and I was a member of that team. He was a task master but he was great to be around. I enjoyed him a great deal.
My teammates and I were student-athletes in the truest sense of the word. We were expected to come in and perform well in basketball as athletes, and we were expected to earn a degree in four years. Today’s players are much more coddled and recruited and different in that respect. I never will forget our transition from the 2,800-seat Alumni Gym, where I played until my junior year, to the 11,500-seat Memorial Coliseum. At the time many people thought Memorial Coliseum was just too big. “They’ll never fill it up,” critics said. But they did. There were similar sentiments expressed by critics and even by some coaches when Rupp Arena was built. Yet today, it’s difficult to find an open seat at any UK game played there.
I was the head men’s basketball coach at Vanderbilt University in 1989 when I got a phone call from UK’s then-president Dr. David P. Roselle asking if I would consider becoming UK’s athletic director in the wake of an NCAA probation. I had no thought of leaving Vanderbilt for UK or anyplace else. But Dr. Roselle convinced me that I was not only wanted as the athletic director but that I was needed. It was the “needed” part that really got to me because UK had been so good to me over the years. They’d provided me an opportunity to receive an education and to play basketball. I had become a successful basketball coach because of my experience there. So off I went to UK.
[. . .]
The Big Blue Nation is fanatical about UK basketball. The way I see it, their level of devotion is on par with that of fans who follow Alabama Crimson Tide football. They are great fans in every respect of the word. Sometimes I felt like they took it too seriously and took it over the line, and yet you’d rather have that then have them be indifferent. People really care about Kentucky basketball. The Big Blue Nation includes people from all walks of life: alumni, bankers, coal miners, and even some who have never set foot on campus in Lexington. It doesn’t matter; they’re Kentucky fans.