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Brown, Polk Broke Down Barriers 40 Years Ago at Middle Tennessee State University
|Willie Brown (circa 1963)|
MURFREESBORO, Tenn.. –As Willie Brown arrived at Middle Tennessee State University 40 years ago, his talent never was questioned. As he left, his toughness wasn’t, either.
Brown and Arthur Polk, basketball players, were the first blacks to sign athletic scholarships with MTSU, in the spring of 1965. They were not allowed to compete until their sophomore year due to NCAA rules prohibiting freshmen from playing at the varsity level.
While Polk arrived in Murfreesboro from the more progressive Kansas City, Mo., Brown attended nearby Father Ryan, where he had broken color lines in the old Nashville Interscholastic League.
”Coming from the Midwest, I had gone to integrated schools from the second grade on,” Polk said. ”All the colleges I visited were integrated. I never knew MTSU wasn’t integrated until I arrived. I was operating completely in a state of ignorance.
”I considered Willie the braver of the two of us. He knew what he was getting into. He understood the implications of what he was doing. He’d done it before. He did it knowingly. If I’d known, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would not have wanted to go through that pressure.”
Brown died in a motorcycle accident on July 21, 1975, in Stamford, Conn., while working there as a police officer.
When Coach Ken Trickey, himself an MTSU alumnus, signed Brown and Polk ï¿½ and three more black players the following year, paving the way for an all-black starting lineup in 1967-68 ï¿½ making a social statement was the furthest thing from his mind. Improving his team’s status in the Ohio Valley Conference pecking order topped his list of his priorities.
”I played there four years, and at the time, we couldn’t get players as good as (those at) Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Morehead State,” Trickey said. ”Or at least, not white players. But I saw I could go get black kids who had the same abilities.
”When I took the job, I went in and asked the president, Dr. (Quill) Cope, who could I recruit. He said I could recruit anybody I wanted to.”
Brown, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, raised the team’s talent level immediately.
”He had everything then that the kids have now,” said Bobby Gardner, a senior on the 1966-67 team when Brown and Polk were sophomores. ”He had range, he was quick, fast, he could jump. He had great basketball savvy, court presence. He had it all. You know, there were a lot of guys that played back then that would have trouble getting on the floor now. But he could play now.”
Trickey knew he was lucky to have him.
”Willie was a great, great player,” Trickey said. ”There were a lot of schools interested in him, Minnesota for one. He was an unbelievable player, a big-time guard. He could have played anywhere.”
Going to MTSU, though, allowed him to be a trailblazer for a second time.
”The way he handled himself at Father Ryan, he didn’t talk much about it,” then-Ryan basketball coach Bill Derrick said. ”But he had the right kind of disposition and attitude to do what he did in the NIL.”
At Ryan, Brown played alongside Kenny Crump and Jesse Porter in the historic matchup between the Irish and Pearl ï¿½ the first game between one of the city’s all-black schools and a predominantly white school. Not only did he play in it, but he was the leading scorer in the contest and had the game-winning basket for Ryan.
”There may have been a few catcalls, but I don’t think there were any difficult times,” Derrick said. ”Anything wrong that was said, it didn’t seem to affect him a lot. He just concentrated on the game. He was kind of like Jackie Robinson. If he’d been a lesser person, a person with a chip on his shoulder, there could have been a problem. I guess they were pretty much cut from the same mold.”
With that experience under his belt, Brown set off for MTSU a year before Pearl’s Perry Wallace signed with Vanderbilt and became the first black Southeastern Conference basketball player.
”I’d worry about them,” Trickey said of Brown and Polk. ”Sometimes I’d be in a restaurant with them and I’d hear things being said. I’d try to protect them. But they weren’t real sensitive about it. They knew how things were.”
”You knew there were people who just didn’t like blacks,” said Derry Cochran, who arrived a year after Brown and Polk. ”But I thought they handled everything well.”
”We had had black athletes in the OVC before the SEC did,” Gardner said. ”I can’t think of a place we went that year that didn’t have black players. There was no trouble on the floor, no trouble within the team. They could play ï¿½ that took care of a lot of it. There was never any question whether they belonged.
”I remember one game early in the season, Willie got his lip busted pretty good. I’m a senior, looking at this young guy, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, what are you gonna do now; let’s see what happens.’ Well, he held a towel up to it for a couple of minutes, got right back out there, and stayed up for the next three years.
”That’s what you want to play with.”
As a junior, Brown led the OVC in scoring. He and Polk combined with younger teammates Tommy Brown, Ken Riley and Terry Scott to help the Blue Raiders become a more competitive program and set the stage for the construction of the Murphy Center.
”By their third year, it got pretty tough to get a seat in the old Alumni Gym,” Trickey said. ”The Murphy Center, to an extent, is a tribute to those kids.”