For decades, Otis Washington’s ascent through Louisiana sports history ran parallel with resentment for his college sports home.
Washington distanced himself from the school that brought him to New Orleans from his hometown of Selma, Alabama; broadened his life experiences with road trips throughout the Southeast; gave him a reason to care about academics; and, during a period in U.S. history when many blacks — especially in the South — were disenfranchised, helped him land at St. Augustine High School, the start of his coaching saga.
All because of Xavier’s sudden decision in 1960 to disband all sports.
At the time, Washington, a junior, was a two-sport All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference athlete, playing guard and linebacker on the football team and catcher on the baseball squad.
The last captain on what became the final football team of 40. Men mostly forgotten.
“I was really kind of angry,” said Washington, a 2015 inductee into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame who lives in Baton Rouge.
It marked a quiet soreness, one that lagged for decades.
Even as Washington led St. Augustine to state titles in 1975, 1978 and 1979 and a runner-up finish in 1971, served as offensive line coach for one season under LSU’s Bill Arnsparger (1980), then moved crosstown in Baton Rouge as Southern’s head coach (1981-86).
He shared his feelings with few close friends.
This was about more than football, the biggest component of the administration’s financial-driven decision, part of a growing trend among private historically black colleges and universities in the 1960s.
“Most people I was associated with felt the same way: They didn’t have to get rid of everything,” said Washington, 76. “They could have kept some sports.”
It’s the reason why their tales of serving as the college football home of Marino Casem, who later served as head coach and athletic director at Southern en route to the College Football Hall of Fame; integrating football in Louisiana; even challenging the Jaguars’ HBCU football dominance are mostly hidden in aged yearbooks and student newspapers few happen across in the university archives. Black and white memories hang on campus walls, glanced at daily by many as a historic novelty.
Xavier Stadium is long since demolished, making room on the Gert Town campus for the annex to the College of Pharmacy. Even the Bone of Contention, awarded annually to the winner of a Thanksgiving weekend game between Xavier and rival Dillard in the 1950s — the precursor to what became the Bayou Classic — has been missing for years, maybe decades. An argument could be made that it’s more forgotten than missing.
“It’s like most other things,” said Johnny Crear, a left halfback/safety at Xavier from 1953-56. “You don’t miss what you don’t have.”
Washington and his teammates won what became the last matchup in the series, the final game of the 1959 season.
He and his underclassman teammates, including captain-elect John Holmes, never dreamed about their last college football game the night before the big game. Instead they endured an anticlimactic culmination, their only closure an all-sports banquet near the end of the spring semester.
“A lot of alumni took it real hard. That was a hurt,” Xavier’s longtime president, Dr. Norman C. Francis, said of the disbandment of athletics. In 1960, he was the university’s dean of men.
When Francis, later as president, re-instituted Xavier sports in 1967 — excluding football — Washington knew it was the right decision. Still, it made the university’s former evaluation even more baffling. Why didn’t they figure this out during his senior year, when four sports were discontinued?
This question kept Washington away from Xavier basketball, the crowing achievement of the rebooted athletic department, until his retirement from coaching in the 2000s.
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Xavier University of Louisiana was established in 1925 by St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, citing a lack of Catholic-oriented education available to young blacks in the South. Their endeavors were funded by Drexel’s family fortune; her father was a wealthy investment banker.
Early academic success prepared graduates for the teaching profession, one of the few careers open to blacks in a segregated nation.
That same year, Xavier debuted its football team, a counter to Jim Crow’s will, worsened decades earlier by the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case that began when Homer Plessy, classified as black by Louisiana law, refused to leave a train reserved for whites in New Orleans.
-- In 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings became the first known black to play professional baseball. By the early 1890s, though, blacks were banned from the game until Jackie Robinson and New Orleans native Johnny Wright joined the 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers in spring training.
-- Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby before being shut out of the sport, relegated to grooming posts. When Lafayette’s Marlon St. Julien rode in the derby in 2000, he was the first man of African decent in 79 years.
-- Jack Johnson’s reign as heavyweight champion (1908-15), full of unapologetic masculinity and marriage to a white woman, incensed many in white America. More than two decades passed before another black, Joe Louis, earned a heavyweight title shot in 1937.
-- Preston Eagleson (Indiana), George Flippin (Nebraska) and a Kansas trio (Sherman, Grant and Ed Harvey) marked some of the first known blacks in college football, as early as the 1890s. Generally, conferences south of the Mason-Dixon line integrated much slower. In 1967, Kentucky’s Nat Northington became the Southeastern Conference’s first black player; LSU and Ole Miss debuted their first black players in 1972.
In New Orleans, Xavier followed college football’s growth, which in the 1920s, began to rival professional baseball in popularity, leading to a surge in massive stadiums and stars, from Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne and Illinois star Harold “Red” Grange.
“We’re a tough school academically,” Francis said of the university’s rationale, which was about more than games. “We were producing doctors and all. ... You can’t rally around English or math. But you can rally around sports.”
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By the 1950s, Xavier added sports to its national reputation for breaking race barriers.
Bob Ryland, whose college tennis career started at Xavier, broke the color barrier later while playing for Wayne State at the 1945 NCAA championships and in professional tennis. Francis said Ryland and Xavier teammate Jimmie McDaniel often played — and beat — Pancho González, one of the world’s best singles players, in private matches. (From 1952-60, González was ranked as the world’s No. 1 player). According to “Blacks at the Net: Black Achievement in the History of Tennis,” Volume 1, after seeing Ryland play at the U.S. National Championships, “a 12-year-old named Arthur Ashe followed him around and told him that he wanted to play like him.” Later, Ashe became the only black ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open or the Australian Open.
In basketball, Xavier legend Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, starred for the Harlem Globetrotters before joining a trio of black players to integrate the NBA in 1950. Also, future Xavier basketball coach Harold Hunter was the first black to sign with the NBA, although he never played in a game. Hunter also coached the U.S. Olympic team during a 1968 tour of Europe and the Soviet Union.
Not long after finishing second to Jesse Owens in 100 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Ralph Harold Metcalfe Sr. taught political science and coached track at Xavier before leaving school for World War II. Metcalfe later served four terms in Congress.
Meanwhile, Xavier’s 1942 track squad became the first black program to win a relay (400-meter relay) at the Penn Relays. A member of the relay, Herb Douglas, became Xavier’s only Olympic medalist; he won a bronze in the long jump at the 1948 London Olympics.
From 1938-58, Xavier men’s track teams, the pinnacle of the athletic department, won 14 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference outdoor championships.
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Xavier enjoyed moderate success in football in the 1950s, including a 22-8 win against Southern in 1951 and, five years later, a 14-13 victory in Baton Rouge.
“We weren’t great stars in football,” Francis said. “We were a small, private school. But we held our own.”
Two years earlier, Xavier played in the first integrated football game in Louisiana, earning a 39-6 win against Keesler Air Force Base. The game was played on Xavier’s campus. New Orleans native Vidal Easton, a senior offensive/defensive lineman that season at Xavier, said Keesler’s roster included several former college football players.
“It wasn’t said that it was an interracial game or anything, but we knew it was,” said Easton, who at 80 years old, works the scorer’s table at Xavier basketball games.
Southern was a rival, its campus having moved from the current location of Xavier Prep to Baton Rouge in 1914. Xavier’s biggest rival, though, was Dillard, which fielded its first football squad in 1935.
In 1952, the Bone of Contention was an added prize for the winner of the crosstown matchup, a series dominated by Xavier under coach Alfred Priestly.
“It was the big deal,” Washington said of the game’s atmosphere.
By 1959, Xavier football faced a trying season, entering the final game of the season with a 2-5 record.
The good news: The Gold Rush beat Dillard. On Nov. 26, Washington enjoyed one of his best games against Dillard, starting Xavier off fast with a tackle for a loss and a blocked punt in the game’s opening minutes at Dillard Stadium.
Final score: Xavier 21, Dillard 9.
Spring 1960: Without warning, the university distributed flyers for students, announcing the end of athletics. By 1965, Dillard’s football program also folded, part of a growing trend at private HBCUs.
Warning signs emerged, though, in 1955 when St. Katherine died. Pursuant to the will of her father, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to support their ministries, which included Xavier.
“It seemed to boil down to economics,” said Crear, whose nephew is Dannton Jackson, Xavier men’s basketball coach. “You have to keep in mind one of the sources of income (St. Katherine) had passed away a couple of years earlier. If you took away the emotions and came back and dealt with it strictly on a business basis, then the question is how are you going to support the program? As much as I hated to see that happen, I did understand how that could happen.”
In 1967, Dillard President Dr. Albert Dent was quoted in a DU student newspaper stating, “The trend among small (private) colleges all over the country has been to discontinue the football and concentrate on other sports.”
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Washington knew he wasn’t talented enough to play in the NFL, which was also slow to offer numerous opportunities based on skill, not the color of skin. And his opportunity to play professional baseball had likely passed: As a sophomore on Xavier’s baseball squad, he declined an invitation by the Chicago White Sox to join their minor league system.
So in the fall of 1960, for the first time in years, Washington was not part of an organized sport. He was just a student. And at a crossroads.
Washington could transfer to a larger football program like Southern but lose class credits, adding another semester of college. Or he could continue at Xavier, without sports, and complete coursework toward a bachelor of science degree in physical education.
He opted for the latter.
Washington and others tried to supplement their newfound free time with pickup games and intramural sports. It wasn’t the same.
Later, Priestly, baseball coach John Crowe and Winston Burns, a local school teacher, recommended Washington to St. Augustine for a teaching and coaching position. There, St. Aug won Catholic League district titles in seven of Washington’s 11 seasons as head coach, and more than 120 of his players earned college scholarships. He left in 1980 to become an assistant at LSU before serving as head coach at Southern for seven seasons.
He had not returned to his college campus.
Around this time, Washington received an invitation to speak to a physical education coaching class at Xavier.
“I was just looking at those young peoples’ eyes,” he said. “They were really interested. You can tell when you’re speaking to someone if they’re really interested in what you’re saying.
“That’s when I told myself, ‘Get over it.’ ”
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The closest the 1959 football squad came to a reunion was a conference call roughly 10 years ago with about eight members. Washington was one of the players.
Each person had an opportunity to express their feelings during the 90-minute conversation. Some felt that they couldn’t compete, so it was fortunate that football ended. Others said they could, and the university never should have dropped it.
Perhaps it was the closure Washington and his teammates craved so many years earlier.
Since that phone call, three teammates have died.
What has continued is Washington’s affection for Xavier.
“Xavier,” he said, “afforded me basically everything I accomplished in life.”