On Thursday, Feb. 7, 1974, four days before Auburn’s first ever Black History Week, fourteen black athletes—all fourteen—staged a walkout of Auburn’s athletic dorm, threatened to not come back, quit their teams–the works. Because Auburn’s three black football players wanted to grow a mustache.
Shug said they totally could. He was totally fine with that. He just wouldn’t let them play football. Or live in the dorm. Or keep their scholarships.
“I don’t object to to your mustache,” he told the Plainsman reporter interviewing him about the whole thing. “But if I paid your way through school I would.”
He felt the same way about goatees and beards and excessive sideburns.
“It (facial hair) has nothing to do with ability. It has to do with submitting to discipline”—and Shug was hell bent on discipline.
Football wasn’t about winning. Football was about discipline. Shug said Mitzi Jackson (running back), Thom Gossom (split end), and Sullivan Walker (fullback) had to shave because discipline was at stake. And if discipline was at stake, the season was at stake. He actually suggested to the Plainsman that the stubble trouble (possibly resulting, in his mind, from unconsciously slacking on enforcement) was partially to blame for going 6-6 in 1973.
“Coach Jordan, he was in charge, man. There was no compromise in him,” Thom Gossom recalled. “He tried to handle as if it were only three football players, but when all the black athletes left, at least momentarily, it became a major crisis.”
To Shug, however, the “major crisis” was “grossly exaggerated,” especially regarding racial implications.
There were actually more white players in violation of the grooming policy than there were black when it first became an issue. Shug asked them to shave. They said they would. It wasn’t a racial thing.
But when the black basketball players and track guys packed their bags to show a solid front against perceived injustice—Shug, true to his word, had kicked the stubble makers off the team and yanked their scholarships—it certainly started looking like a racial thing, and it started making national headlines. Sports Illustrated. Jet Magazine. The Chicago Tribune. The New York Times.
The Associated Press ranked it one of the top five national stories the day it broke. The Plainsman’s phone rang off the hook with calls from NBC News.
It hit the fan when basketball star Eddie Johnson was quoted—he later said misquoted—in the Montgomery Advertiser as saying black athletes shouldn’t come to Auburn.
The revolution only lasted a few days. The walkout was on Thursday. Gossom and the gang found razors by the weekend. Jackson and Walker were allowed back in the dorm; Gossom lived off campus. Shug withdrew the scholarship cancellation request. Everyone was back in the winter exercise program. But according to Gossom, the damage had been done.
“The whole thing hurt Auburn,” he said. “They took a lot of bad press and it slowed down their efforts in recruiting black athletes.”
Oh well, Shug said.
He told the Atlanta Constitution that if a recruit cared more about a mustache than football “then we’ll have to tell him he’s better off somewhere else.”
And then this happened.
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