- Full Court Press: Mississippi State University, the Press, and the Battle to Integrate College Basketball by Jason A. Peterson, and: The Road to Madness: How the 1973–74 Season Transformed College Basketball by J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts
Men's college basketball today, especially the incredibly popular NCAA postseason tournament, is a far cry from the slower, less televised, and whiter game that existed over four decades ago. The two books under review seek to expand our understanding of how this evolution took place by examining two critical periods in the sport's earlier history. Jason A. Peterson's study takes us back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when historically white universities in the Deep South fought to maintain their segregated classrooms and all-white athletic programs. Peterson recreates in great detail the fierce debate within the state of Mississippi over whether to permit its white college teams to compete against African American athletes, even in the NCAA championship tournament. The second book, by J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts, recreates the drama of the exciting 1974 college basketball season, which, they argue, helped convince the NCAA to enlarge the size and composition of its postseason tournament, thereby pushing the event further down the road toward today's iconic "March Madness."
Full Court Press is organized around the outstanding but mostly forgotten Mississippi State University (MSU) basketball teams that captured the Southeastern Conference (SEC) title four times from 1959 through 1963, temporarily disrupting the University of Kentucky's domination of the league. Difficult though it may be for contemporary sports fans to imagine, Mississippi State declined to participate in the NCAA tournament after the first three of these championship seasons, honoring the state's so-called "unwritten law." Peterson describes how this "law" was established after the Jones County Junior College football team challenged an integrated Compton Junior College squad in the so-called Little Rose Bowl in California in December 1955. Jones County's unprecedented violation of racial norms outraged segregationists back home, especially the editor of the Jackson Daily News, who denounced the contest as "a flagrant violation of the Southern way of life, a spineless surrender of the principles all true white Mississippians hold near and dear" (19). To head off retaliation by a furious legislature, the state's political leaders and university administrators quietly formulated an unofficial but binding policy to avoid any future deviations from athletic segregation. According to this "unwritten law," all Mississippi college athletic teams were prohibited from competing against an integrated opponent regardless of the event's location, with the clear understanding that any violation would result in draconian cuts to that institution's legislative appropriations and punitive action against its administrators.
For the next seven years, this Jim Crow policy controlled athletic activities in the state. In March 1963, however, five months after James Meredith integrated the University of [End Page 126] Mississippi despite a deadly riot, Mississippi State University directly challenged the unwritten law. When the Bulldogs clinched yet another SEC basketball title, President Dean W. Colvard defied tradition and authorized the team to compete in the NCAA Tournament. Despite a first-round loss to an integrated Loyola University of Chicago squad, the eventual champion, MSU's rejection of the unwritten law and its brief tournament appearance constituted a watershed moment in the state's sport history. As a result, over the following ten years, Mississippi's athletic teams would gradually embrace racial inclusion and slowly move into the mainstream of national collegiate sporting culture.
Although the book's central storyline follows the successes of Mississippi State's basketball teams, Peterson's main focus is on the larger debate within the state's press over the unwritten law and the implications of...