C.M. Newton saw the potential when he went to the University of Alabama as the freshman basketball team coach in 1964, a year after the school's historic and turbulent integration.
When he returned four years later as its head coach, Newton knew another type of integration was possible in Tuscaloosa. It had worked at Transylvania College in Kentucky, where Newton had coached after playing for the legendary Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky.
"It just coincided with the year that the high school associations merged. Up until they had separate tournaments and the whites had not played against the blacks in the state tournaments," Newton recalled this week. "It [recruiting black players] was a very natural thing for me to do.
"I think it was critical to the evolution of basketball in the South."
Not that Wendell Hudson's arrival in the fall of 1969 as the first African-American athlete in any sport at Alabama would have an immediate impact on the Crimson Tide basketball program. He became an All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, but it would take another five years for the team to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Even when that happened, it wasn't a big deal in Bear country.
"We won three straight [Southeastern Conference] championships in the mid-'70s, and people kind of ho-hummed it because he won two out of three national championships during that time," Newton said, referring to legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. "But we were able to generate a good following for our program."
Football remains king, still as much religion as sport, with NASCAR closing in. But what two Alabama college basketball teams did last weekend in this year's NCAA tournament and might do this week has certainly changed the landscape - at least temporarily.
With the victories over two No. 1 seeds - the Crimson Tide's 70-67 upset of Stanford and Alabama-Birmingham's 76-75 shocker over Kentucky, the No. 1-seeded team in the entire tournament - talk shows all over the state have found a new topic of conversation.
Yesterday afternoon, one caller after another to Eli Gold's talk show in Birmingham talked about hoops or, as it used to be called throughout the South, "thump." After finishing his soliloquy on the accomplishment of the local basketball teams, one caller was quick to add, "We still love football."
Said Gold, "But there's room for everything."
Those who've been a part of the sports culture in the state see the tide, so to speak, changing.
"I think the popularity has increased, there's no doubt about that," said former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, now a co-host of another daily radio show in Birmingham with former Auburn coach Sonny Smith. "It's not up with football, I wouldn't tell you that ... but it's definitely increased."
Said Hudson, who returned to his alma mater last fall as assistant athletic director: "The interest within the state has all of a sudden skyrocketed. If either team wins another game, I think it would be the highest it's ever been."
Alabama will play Syracuse tomorrow in the Phoenix Regional, and Alabama-Birmingham meets Kansas in the St. Louis Regional on Friday. This marks the first time in 18 years that two teams within the state have reached the Sweet 16. Getting farther has often been a problem.
Sanderson's teams made 10 trips to the tournament in an 11-year stretch, but never made it past the regional semifinals in six appearances (one of the appearances was officially vacated). Auburn made it to the Sweet 16 twice, reaching the Elite Eight once, in a five-year run under Smith, and later to the Sweet 16 once under Cliff Ellis. UAB had two Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight under Gene Bartow. Samford, South Alabama and Alabama State have also made the tournament.
Bartow, who gained a lot of attention after starting the program at UAB in 1977 after leaving UCLA, where he had succeeded the legendary John Wooden, called Sunday's win over Kentucky in Columbus, Ohio, "the most fascinating and exciting in UAB history."
That is saying a lot, since Bartow's 1980-81 team did nearly the same thing, knocking off second-seeded Kentucky in the second round before losing to eventual national champion Indiana in the Sweet 16. Bartow, who coached there 18 seasons before becoming the school's athletic director and turning the team over to his son, Murray, has become a big fan of current coach Mike Anderson.
"I think Mike Anderson is playing such an interesting and entertaining style that will help him in all areas - recruiting, interest in the program from the fans' standpoint," said Bartow, now a consultant for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. "It's hard to play against, especially when you have pretty good players."
Anderson, who is in his second season at UAB, is using home-grown talent, with nine members of his 16-man roster coming from in-state. (So is Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, who played for the Crimson Tide and has seven players from within the state on his roster.)