It’s the “schoolhouse” from the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.”
Everyone who’s ever seen newsreel footage of that day in June 1963, or “Forrest Gump” for that matter, remembers Gov. George Wallace stonewalling the entrance to the building in an ill-conceived effort at blocking federal integration orders. The circus was short lived, however, as Vivian Malone and James Hood walked through those doors and into history as the first black students at the University of Alabama.
Foster’s historical significance today is forever linked with that of the civil rights movement. But the building, which turns 70 years old this year, is significant for much more than just that one afternoon in 1963. It used to be the school’s basketball arena.
Forty-six years after Wallace’s grandstanding, Alabama has finally rocketed into the modern age and hired a black coach for a revenue-generating sport. Anthony Grant, a 42-year-old coaching prodigy, was officially introduced last Sunday as the new men’s basketball coach, replacing the previously terminated Mark Gottfried and interim coach Phillip Pearson.
Grant joins the Alabama family by way of Virginia Commonwealth University, a school with a history of turning obscuring young coaches into proven winners (see Jeff Capel and Tubby Smith). The Rams made a national splash two years ago when they defeated powerhouse Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That one victory made Grant, who was in his first year as head coach, a household name and a coveted commodity.
Florida wanted him in 2007, when it appeared Billy Donovan was heading to the NBA. Georgia wanted him to replace Dennis Felton, who was fired around the same time as Gottfried early this year. Virginia wanted him to replace Dave Leitao, who resigned two weeks ago. Despite the intense competition for his services, as well as the Tide’s reputation as a one-sport school, Bama successfully snagged its man.
The story here, aside from the breaking of another racial barrier once thought impenetrable at the state’s flagship university, is that Alabama not only managed to hire a good young coach, but that the search seemed to go off without a hitch. Recent history considered, when’s the last time you could say that?
For all its marvelous history and tradition, the Alabama athletic department has generally been a mess since the Bear left us over two decades ago. From a football standpoint, eight post-Bryant coaching searches have yielded six goats (Perkins, Curry, Dubose, Franchione, Price and Shula) and only two heroes (Stallings and Saban). Even Saban’s hiring, albeit a tremendous success to this point, was achieved in the most ass-backwards way imaginable. (Remember Rich Rodriguez?)
Basketball hasn’t faired much better. Since the abrupt departure of Wimp Sanderson in 1992, the school has now hired three men’s team coaches, including Grant. David Hobbs, who oddly also came to Alabama by way of VCU, was an unmitigated disaster of a head coach considering the talent pool he dipped from. Gottfried, a former player and successful mid-major coach, had flashes of success but was unable to sustain positive momentum from year to year.
Grant, albeit a bit of an unknown quantity, appears to find himself in a right place, right time scenario at Alabama:
First, his VCU Rams are due a rebuilding year in 2009 following the graduation of superstar Eric Maynor. A down season next year could have sent his stock plummeting. By accepting a change in scenery now, Grant is selling his stock high.
Second, the Alabama basketball brand has reached a nadir point, which should give Grant an excuse to implement his own style of play and exert more control than he would have been able to at a place like Florida, where success has been more recent. And since Alabama is not primarily a basketball institution, fans should give Grant more of a leash than recent football coaches have gotten.
Third, although Alabama is not playing good basketball right now, the cupboard is not bare at the Capstone. Barring unforeseen incidents (academics, transfers, etc.), Bama is set to return all but two of last year’s squad, including talented rising sophomores JaMychal Green and Andrew Steele. If Grant was able to win 76 games in three seasons with VCU’s talent, what is he capable of doing with the likes of Green and Steele?
Fourth, there’s no better time than the present to undertake a coaching change in the SEC. The league stunk from top-to-bottom this season, managing only three tourney bids and one second round appearance. At least three teams, including Alabama, will debut new coaches (Georgia and Kentucky), while one other school (Ole Miss) awaits the outcome of an embarrassing assault case involving their head coach from late 2008. A lot of teams in the conference are young, like Alabama, which effectively levels the court for the new guys and their new systems.
Fifth and finally, Alabama has beaten Auburn only once in their last six match-ups, a fact not lost on even the most fair-weather Tide hoops fan. Losing to Auburn, be it in basketball or badminton, is fundamentally unacceptable. Grant’s arrival couldn’t have caught the Tigers at a better time for Bama fans. Auburn, fresh off a deep NIT run, will lose four seniors after this season, including their go-to guy Korvotney Barber. Catching the Tigers in rebuilding mode should get Grant started on the right foot in the rivalry.
The question of whether or not Grant will be successful on the court in Tuscaloosa will be debated for the next few months and proven soon enough. As it stands now, it appears Alabama has hit the proverbial home run with his hiring, at least from a public relations standpoint. Grant’s race, although not the most important storyline, is highly significant for this particular institution and this particular state.
Change usually doesn’t happen at Alabama spontaneously, but rather out of coercion. They say that Bear Bryant integrated his football team only after Southern Cal beat the prejudice out of his Tide at the beginning of the 1970 season. Black players offered a competitive advantage, so black players were brought in.
George Wallace’s schoolhouse stand was due in equal part to the government’s ordering him to segregate as it was to the idea of segregation itself. In the end, Alabama’s student body integration was achieved by force, not by natural evolution.
So, to see Alabama doggedly and spontaneously pursue a black coach is largely indicative that the old way of doing things at Alabama, like the old Foster Auditorium, is crumbling away. There are still plenty of racial demons remaining for us to exorcise, but for now the hiring of Anthony Grant is yet another positive step forward for a state that just recently learned how to crawl.