Gary Pinkel is no Lloyd Eaton.
Forty six years before the football players at the University of Missouri stopped engaging in team activities in protest to racial unrest, another group of men playing for their school did the same, only to very different results.
Back in the 1960s, the University of Wyoming was a bit of powerhouse program out of the Western Athletic Conference. Eaton was the coach of a team that had recently won three straight conference titles, and the 1969 season looked to be their chance to go undefeated. As a national program, he had black players from all over the nation on his team. But it was the late-60s, and the American conversation on race was still as raw as it had ever been.
BYU, a conference member, was feeling the brunt of racially discriminatory policies in the Church of Latter Day Saints, which owns and operates the school. Some black UTEP track team members refused to participate in a meet in Provo, Utah. Similar boycotts occurred at sporting events that year against BYU with Arizona State, San Jose State and the University of New Mexico in the spring of 1969.
But when a grad student named Willie Black challenged members at a meeting of the Black Student Alliance that fall to do something to combat the LDS church’s practice of not letting African-Americans into their priesthood, some of the football players in attendance took note. The group that became known as the Black 14 showed up to Eaton’s office, sporting black armbands in protest, to ask if they could do so in the next game. Before the matter could be discussed, Eaton kicked them off the team, calling them ungrateful and telling them they could go play for black schools or back on welfare. It was jarring not only racially, but personally.
“Once we went to Eaton and got kicked off the team, we were highly disillusioned,” Mel Hamilton, an offensive lineman for Wyoming then, said in a 2013 interview. “Highly disillusioned, that the white players would (not) come to our aid. Think, think now. Fourteen blacks, starters in most cases, was kicked off the team. There’s got to be eight starters that are white to comprise the rest of the team, on both sides of the ball. What if they would have said, ‘Coach, we support the blacks.’ What if anybody had protest(ed) on that team that was white? Would that have made a difference?
You know, sometimes you think that Lloyd was crazy enough to have said, ‘The hell with ya, I’ll cancel the season.’ And I think he would have cancelled the season.
MEL HAMILTON, former Wyoming football player on his coach Lloyd Eaton
Hamilton had left the team once for the Army after Eaton told him that he could not marry his white girlfriend, the mother of his child, while playing for Wyoming.
“But nobody tried. I think that’s what hurt. Nobody tried. ... We gave the guys that had wives and kids an opportunity to back out and nobody backed out. Everybody said they wanted to do it, and we had to do it. We were caught up in a moment of history with a social revolution happening outside of Wyoming,” Hamilton said. “So we — everybody’s out there doing their part. (Olympic sprinter John) Carloss. ... I personally couldn’t stand not doing anything.”
It was the 100th season of Wyoming football, and the series of events following that destroyed both the Cowboys program, and nearly the WAC as a whole. There were violent dust-ups at sporting events all over the conference, and many prominent football coaches publicly backed Eaton for his stance, including Alabama’s Bear Bryant. Even more recently, in Utah, there are those who praise Eaton’s swift, even if emotional decision.
“Out of respect for us, didn’t suit up his black football players that day,” Tommy Hudspeth, then-BYU coach told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2009, before the 40th anniversary of the game played with no black players. “Lloyd was a great gentleman, a great supporter of the conference.”
They beat BYU that Saturday, handily, but a federal trial and tons of national notoriety later, Eaton and the Cowboys had a terrible next season. Many of the Black 14 went on to play at other schools. One, Tony McGee went on to win a Super Bowl playing for Washington. There are various on-campus memorial celebrating the group that stood up for what they thought was right.
In 1978, the Mormon church changed its policy.
“He later went into recluse in Idaho,” Hamilton said of Eaton. “He died as a bitter man without football in his life. I’ve always considered myself to be a fair person. I must give Eaton the kudos about being a coach. Being a good man is something different. But he knew how to organize football. I look back on it, and it’s kind of sad. Many lives were altered, and it could have been prevented but for one man. It’s kind of sad the way he died.”
Decades after what happened at Wyoming, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel made his decision to support his team look easy.
“To have a coach step up the way he did was very unheard of,” Hamilton said. “I sort of worry about his future because of what he did, but he must be a hell of a man to take that stance and support his players. I wish we had someone on our staff who would support us at the time.”