By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Throughout his 62-year association with the game of college basketball, C.M. Newton has received countless awards for his accomplishments as a coach, administrator and NCAA committee member. On Thursday, he will be honored for a key trait that has been central to all of his successes, his character.
Newton, the Southeastern Conference Consultant to the Commissioner for Men’s Basketball Issues and Chair of the National Invitation Tournament, will be honored with the Lapchick Character Award at the New York Athletic Club on Thursday in conjunction with the 2K Sports Classic, benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project.
The award honors the late Joe Lapchick, a Hall of Famer who coached at St. Johns and with the New York Knicks, and it was established to recognize basketball coaches who have shown the character and coaching ability of Lapchick.
The award is especially meaningful to Newton who long admired Lapchick as an role model – though the two never met - in the coaching profession, an appreciation that began when Newton was the head coach at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., in the 1950s and 60s.
“It’s really one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had, primarily because when I was a player in the 1940s, I admired Coach Lapchick,” Newton said. “As a young coach at Transylvania and on through, I admired his coaching ability, but I admired him more as a human being. In a period of history in our country where there was tremendous racial and religious bias, he took some very firm stands and I’ve always been appreciative of the impact he’s had not only on basketball, but also humanity.”
Newton, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will join fellow Hall of Fame recipients Cathy Rush, Morgan Wootten and the late Pete Newell as this year’s four honorees of the Lapchick Character Award.
“The election to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame was very, very significant for me,” Newton said. “It was totally unexpected, but this award is probably almost as meaningful as that in many ways. No award I’ve ever received was like going into the Naismith Hall of Fame because so few people have been selected and, frankly, most have been NBA players. To have that opportunity and recognition was very significant to me and this borders on that.”
According to SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, the award is a perfect tribute to Newton’s accomplishments.
“C.M. Newton is an outstanding ambassador for the game of college basketball,” Slive said. “He has demonstrated his passion and commitment to the game through his many years as a coach and administrator, and we feel very fortunate to benefit from his expertise at the Southeastern Conference. C.M.’s influence has transcended the game of college basketball and for him to receive an honor that recognizes his character is very fitting.”
In 1969, Newton was named the head coach at the University of Alabama, where he spent 12 seasons and directed the Crimson Tide to three SEC titles, two NCAA Tournaments and four NIT appearances. He was a five-time SEC Coach of the Year while in Tuscaloosa.
Newton then served one year (1980-81) as an assistant commissioner at the SEC before being named head basketball coach at Vanderbilt University, where he mentored the Commodores to two NCAA Tournaments and more than 100 victories over eight seasons.
“I never dreamed that I would be coaching at the college level,” Newton said. “I always thought it would be at the high school level. Timing is everything and it has just worked out. Dr. [Frank] Rose had just gotten to Transylvania as the president and he hired me as a very young coach. I was then hired by Coach [Bear] Bryant at Alabama. After I thought I was through with coaching, I went to the conference office for a year. When I went to Vanderbilt, it was at the perfect time for me. We were able to reclaim that proud program. I’ve been very blessed.”
In 1989, Newton was named the Director of Athletics at the University of Kentucky, his alma mater, where he served until his retirement in 2000. He helped return the historic Kentucky men’s basketball program to the national elite during his tenure, in large part by hiring Rick Pitino away from the New York Knicks and, subsequently, hiring Pitino disciple Tubby Smith in 1997. The Wildcats claimed NCAA Championships in men’s basketball in 1996 and 1998 and finished as national runners-up in 1997.
In addition to his many successes that can be quantified with victories and championships, Newton has made a meaningful impact in collegiate athletics, especially when it comes to the areas of diversity.
Newton signed the first African-American basketball players at both Transylvania (Jim Hurley) and Alabama (Wendell Hudson). In 1969, he made Hudson the first African-American scholarship athlete in any sport at the University of Alabama.
During his time at Kentucky, he supported Pitino’s move to hire Bernadette Mattox, an African-American woman, as the first female Division I assistant “bench” coach for a men’s team in 1990. Newton then hired Smith as the program’s first African-American head basketball coach in 1997.
“I’ve been given a lot of credit for that, but really the credit is due to Tubby and Bernadette, Wendell and Jim Hurley,” Newton said. “I was a basketball coach just trying to win some games and do the right thing. With Wendell, it came along at a time where it was very difficult for the university. Had Wendell not made it, I don’t know what would have happened. It is meaningful to me today as an old guy to look back and think I had a part in that, and that is a big part of Joe Lapchick’s legacy.”
Newton’s influence on the game of basketball has gone far beyond the institutions for which he has worked. He was president of USA Basketball from 1992-96, chairman of the USA Basketball Games Committee from 1988-92 and has served on countless NCAA committees, as well as the FIBA Central Board.
One of the most visible experiences Netwon has had included serving on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee from 1992-99, including a stint as chair of that committee.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had because as a member of that committee, you hold the game of college basketball in your hand,” said Newton, speaking of his time on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. “I remember Tom Butters, who was a great chair of that committee, always had a saying that a team could play its way out of a bad seed, but it couldn’t play its way into the tournament if it wasn’t selected, so we had to be sure we got the right teams in the tournament. Having the opportunity to chair that committee and be on it for seven years was very significant to me.”
So too was the opportunity to chair the NIT and return that tournament to prominence on the college basketball scene.
“I appreciated the opportunity in retirement to be called by Tom Jernstedt and Greg Shaheen to head up the NIT when the NCAA got that tournament,” Newton said. “It’s a bunch of old coaches – there’s eight of us – old retired coaches and we’ve made a real championship of that postseason tournament. It is truly a basketball championship and we’ve done a good job with that and the preseason tournament in a very difficult climate.”
Newton continues to play an important role in the game of college basketball, especially with his work in the SEC.
As Newton is entering his seventh decade of association with basketball, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. Still, he hopes that when he does decide to retire – really retire – that he will be remembered for more than his contributions on the court.
“I just want people to think of me as someone who cared about the game, loved the game and was willing to give back to the game,” Newton said. “There are two kinds of people in this world – there are takers and there are givers. I want to be known as a giver. I have always wanted to give back to the game that was so good to me. For 62 years, I’ve been very blessed to be involved with intercollegiate athletics. Basketball has been so good to me.”
Lapchick would have been proud