LEXINGTON, Ky. — C.M. Newton, an Adolph Rupp disciple, Naismith Hall of Fame member and legendary figure in the history of Kentucky athletics and the Southeastern Conference, died Monday at the age of 88.
Newton pitched for the Wildcats baseball team and won a national championship as a reserve guard for Rupp’s 1951 basketball team. He was basketball coach at Transylvania in Lexington — on Rupp’s recommendation — then at Alabama and Vanderbilt, winning SEC Coach of the Year six times.
In 1989, he was hired as athletic director at his alma mater, serving until 2000, and led Kentucky out of the darkness of NCAA probation. He entrusted Rick Pitino for that tall order and two decades later recommended current AD Mitch Barnhart should hire John Calipari, which the coach believes sealed that deal.
“C.M. Newton is a giant in the history of the University of Kentucky, the Southeastern Conference and in the sport of basketball,” Barnhart said Monday. “He returned to his alma mater when he was needed most and provided stability, leadership and growth for UK athletics for more than a decade. His coaching accomplishments and honors at Transylvania, Alabama and Vanderbilt speak for themselves.
“His contributions to the sport of basketball continue to this day, [but] most of all is the impact he had on thousands of people as a coach, mentor and friend. He understood what it meant to be a servant leader and will be dearly missed. Our condolences and best wishes go out to his wife, Nancy, his children Deborah, Tracy and Martin, and the family and friends.”
Four days before Newton’s death, Calipari posted a message on his personal website asking fans to pray for him and noting that “C.M. has always treated me as part of his family.” While their time at Kentucky did not intersect, Calipari always made it a point to find Newton and hug him after games at Alabama, where Newton has lived for several years.
That became a ritual of sorts for nearly every visiting coach in Tuscaloosa.
“He’s one of the most respected guys, I think, in the history of the Southeastern Conference,” former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy told the Montgomery Advertiser last year.
“Every time I see him,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin added, “it makes me understand how lucky I am that he’s still there. C.M. is one of the pioneers in our sport. He’s one of the guys that’s made it better, that’s made college basketball what it is today.”
Newton was a leader in integrating the SEC: He signed the first black scholarship athlete at Alabama in 1969, fielded the conference’s first all-black starting lineup there in 1973 and hired Kentucky’s first black men’s and women’s basketball coaches, Tubby Smith and Bernadette Mattox.
“We lost a wonderful person today,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “Coach Newton has been a mentor for me for a number of years and has guided my career from the first time I met him. He was a pioneer in a lot of areas, including having the courage to hire an African-American as coach at Kentucky and to recruit African-Americans at Alabama.
“He was a man that didn’t see color and was a genuine, caring man that we’ll mis dearly and that we loved early.”
He was a forward thinker in other big ways, too: Newton was chairman of the NCAA rules committee when college basketball began experimenting with the 3-point line and shot clock. He was president of USA Basketball when it was decided to allow pro players to participate and the “Dream Team” was built.
To those who knew him well, however, Newton’s legacy will be much larger than any single achievement in sports.
“We can talk all day about all that he did [at Kentucky] and what he had to do to get the program back on point, but I always come back to how he treated people,” wrote Calipari, who first met him as an assistant at Pittsburgh when Newton’s Vanderbilt team knocked him out of the NCAA Tournament. “I asked him how he was able to have the courage to go against the grain in Alabama at that time. He told me, ‘I saw people as people. And I wanted to win. I was trying to bring in the best players. I didn’t care if they were black, white, green or gold. I wanted to win.’
“What is popular isn’t always right and what is right isn’t always popular. That is something we can all learn from C.M.”
Calipari learned another important lesson from Newton in 1992, when Calipari’s Massachusetts team lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 — a result aided by a late technical foul call on Calipari for being out of the coach’s box.
After the game, “C.M. looked at me and said, ‘Cal, make sure you handle this the right way.’ In other words, I needed to take responsibility for what happened,” Calipari wrote. “That taught me that it’s important to take responsibility when you’re wrong and even when you are not.”