(Above: Hosting C.M. Newton’s weekly radio show each summer was a pleasure and a privilege. Photo courtesy The Courier-Journal)
The first time Mama called, C.M. Newton wouldn’t listen.
In his autobiography, “Newton’s Laws,” as told to veteran sportswriter Billy Reed, Newton talked of the classic Bear Bryant response to the question, why leave Texas A&M for Alabama?
That, of course, was his alma mater which is why Bryant said, with his signature drawl, “Mama called.” And he went home.
C.M. Newton, who died Monday at age 88, eventually came home to Kentucky, where he forged a second career as one of the top administrators in the history of college basketball. Only it took some convincing. David Roselle was up to the job.
The UK president in the winter of 1988 was convinced (and, of course, absolutely correct) that it was going to take someone with a pristine reputation to bring Kentucky basketball back from the ashes – to help put the “Kentucky’s Shame” Sports Illustrated cover as far behind as they possibly could. There was only one man, he reasoned, for the job.
But Newton didn’t want it.
He was comfortable in Nashville, where he’d found success as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Just the year before, he’d been named SEC Coach of the Year, leading the Commodores to the third round of the NCAA tournament. And his wife, Evelyn, had grown to love the Music City. She had dug in.
So Newton told Roselle, “No, thanks,” adding that he and ousted AD Cliff Hagan were friends and that he didn’t think Hagan deserved to be fired. Roselle was resolute in that decision; there would be a new man in charge, regardless.
He wanted Charles Martin Newton.
But C.M. had made his decision and, in fact, shared it with longtime Nashville Tennessean sports columnist John Bibb. He would NOT be taking the Kentucky job.
Then Mama called again.
Representing Newton’s alma mater, Roselle asked the coach to meet him halfway – literally. Newton agreed, so they met on the campus of Elizabethtown Community College. That’s where Roselle made his three-hour pitch, convincing Newton that he not only wanted him for the job, but that the University of Kentucky needed him.
“The need part got to me,” Newton wrote. “When your alma mater needs you, it’s a powerful tug.”
So they struck a deal and when the basketball season ended, Newton somehow convinced his wife to pull up stakes – again – and head north to Lexington.
Bibb, the columnist, was livid, believing Newton had lied to him, refusing to accept the notion that Vandy’s coach had simply changed his mind. He roasted Newton in print, but the two eventually came to an understanding.
All of that was behind C.M. as he arrived in Lexington. Not long after, he was looking for a new head coach after Eddie Sutton stepped down, the program in a shambles.
Newton wrote that he had heard from former Providence coach Dave Gavitt that Rick Pitino was unhappy in his job as head coach of the New York Knicks. Newton filed away that tidbit of information and then set about sifting through his personal list of candidates which, believe it or not, included Pat Riley, Mike Krzyzewzski – and Pat Summitt, coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols.
Newton whittled his list to two: Arizona’s Lute Olson and P.J. Carlesimo, who had just coached Seton Hall to the NCAA championship game. Both were interested; both declined.
But Newton hadn’t forgotten about Pitino.
They met; Pitino turned him down, recommending he go with Carlesimo. Newton wrote that something in his gut told him to wait until the NBA season as over. Smart move.
He approached Pitino again. You know what happened next – basketball magic, and not the guy who played for the Lakers.
Pitino Ball was exactly what the Big Blue Nation needed. In that first season, the Cats lost exactly as many as they won, but those 14 victories represented some of the most exciting basketball Rupp Arena had ever seen. UK was on its way back.
After four seasons, the Wildcats returned to the Final Four. Three years later, they won the NCAA championship. And a year after that, Newton again was looking for a new head coach.
I once asked him if, like most ADs, he kept a “short list” in his pocket of potential candidates, for just such a moment. He told me he had a list, all right, with just one name on it – Tubby Smith.
He had admired the way Smith’s teams played, especially on defense, but what he liked most of all was the way Tubby had taken over at Tulsa and won immediately. He did the same thing at Georgia. Newton realized that Kentucky fans, so overjoyed with the success Pitino had brought, would offer no honeymoon – that they would demand instant results.
They got it. For the second time in three years, C.M. Newton, in his role as chairman of the basketball selections committee, handed the NCAA championship trophy to the head coach of the University of Kentucky – first Pitino, then Smith.
And even though he led the Cats to a championship in his first season, Smith never did win over a faction of UK fans. Some of it was because of the fact that his style of play did not mirror Pitino’s, even though Smith had once been on his staff at UK.
And of course, some was because of the color of his skin. Newton never flinched when it came to hiring the first African-American men’s basketball coach at UK. Remember, this was the man who had signed the first black players at Transylvania and, more famously, at Alabama.
Bear Bryant was the athletics director at the time. When Newton left Lexington for the job in Tuscaloosa, one of the questions he asked Bryant was, Would there be any limitations put on whom he could recruit? Bryant assured him – if a player can carry the academic load, he can sign. Done deal.
During an interview for a documentary I produced on Adolph Rupp, Newton shared with me the fact that, while he was busy integrating the Alabama basketball program, someone burned a cross on his lawn – a story that was re-told in the SEC Network documentary on C.M.
And, he said, some of the most vile, racist hate mail he ever received came from Louisville, Ky, “which was shocking to me,” he said.
But he never backed off. He had that toughness that came with the knowledge that he was doing the right thing. It was that kind of integrity Roselle realized would help dispel the reputation UK had developed through the years as a “renegade” basketball program.
Newton made mistakes, most notably with the football program. He shocked the nation by hiring the reigning national Coach of the Year, Bill Curry, away from Alabama, which wasn’t quite the challenge some might have thought.
Curry was never that popular in Tuscaloosa for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was because in four seasons, he never beat Auburn. And once the administration told him that he would no longer be allowed to pick his own assistants or keep his shoe money, he was ripe for the hiring.
Because Curry changed offensive schemes five times in six seasons, he never could build a consistent program, despite recruiting top-notch talent, including Tim Couch.
Newton gave Curry seven years, at least one year too long, before hiring Hal Mumme, architect of the Air Raid Offense. And the first three seasons were delightful, footballs sprayed all over Commonwealth Stadium, resulting in an upset of Alabama and a pair of bowl bids.
But then Mumme convinced Newton to allow him to promote recruiting coordinator Claude Bassett basically to second in command. Before long, the NCAA was on campus and Kentucky once again was shackled by penalties. “I put the fox in charge of the henhouse,” Newton later said of Bassett.
By the time probation took hold, Newton was gone, working primarily with USA Basketball. But he never lost his love for his alma mater, whose powerful tug brought him back to Lexington to do a job that maybe only he could do.
Mama called. C.M. Newton eventually answered. UK will always be better off for it.