AT FIRST GLANCE, Don Hudson doesn’t look much like a football coach. He’s 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds, and his hair is closely cropped and white, handsomely framing his weathered face. On this day, as he sits in the dining room of his son’s Brooklyn Park home, tubes in his nose are connected to a mobile oxygen tank, a necessity after four decades of heavy cigarette smoking and a long-ago lung surgery. Still, the booming voice he once used to direct linemen and running backs remains strong, and the eyes that watched game films over and over again—“117 times once, after we lost 59-0,” he says—possess a brightness that seasons of defeat and obscurity could have erased.
Hudson is now 77, retired after years of coaching, teaching, and working as an administrator at various high schools and colleges in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado, and his slight stature belies both his legacy as a fearless high-school and college quarterback—and his outsized place in the history of college football: He may be the most significant American sports pioneer you’ve never heard of.
When the University of Minnesota opens its football season this fall, the Gophers—off-season legal matters notwithstanding—will take the field with a rejuvenated maroon-and-gold-tinted glow. A new coach, Tim Brewster, has brought energy and excitement to the program, and a new on-campus stadium is finally under construction. One of the most significant changes on the team may be among the least noticed: This season, the football team will employ six African-American assistant coaches, the most of any big-time program in the nation. For the U, that diversity might be considered progress. But for the nation, it’s a telling embarrassment: Six, after all, is the same number of black head coaches among all of the 119 programs in NCAA Division I-A college football. As Hudson says: “This is progress?’’
His incredulity is understandable. It was 35 years ago, after all, when Hudson was hired as the head coach at Macalester College. At the time, he was the first African American to direct a college football program in Minnesota. What nobody seemed to realize, however, was that he was also the first African-American head coach in football’s modern era at any predominantly white college.
In the 1960s, there were reasons—if inadequate ones—to explain the paucity of black football coaches. African-American players were just then beginning to break into major college football in significant numbers. The great Southern football powers remained all white, and the only black coaches—legends like Grambling’s Eddie Robinson—led programs at historically black colleges, among the few places they could get work.
Hudson desperately wanted a head-coaching job. He had spent a decade as an assistant coach—in the Kansas City public school system and at the historically black Lincoln University—and felt he knew as much about football as anyone. “Sometimes, I think that was my biggest drawback,” he says. “I thought I knew everything.’’ He finally got his shot in 1968, when he was offered the head-coaching job at Minneapolis Central High School, where he became the first black head football coach in the city league. Immediately, all of his white assistant coaches quit, and only 10 players attended his first practice—five black, five white.
By his second season, though, Hudson had managed to develop a winning team, success that led to an opportunity at Macalester College, long known for its progressive politics and its abysmal football program. Offered an assistant coaching position and teaching job, Hudson jumped at the chance, mostly because he had two teenaged children and a tuition break was part of his compensation. After Mac went 1-7-1 in 1971, Hudson’s boss, head coach Dick Borstad, resigned. With little fanfare and even less of a chance to win, Hudson was promoted to be the Scots’ head coach. “My opportunities to get a head-coaching job were terrible,’’ he says. “So when the Macalester job came, I just took it. I didn’t care what it was. I just knew I could build that program.’’
From the beginning, Hudson found himself a stranger in a strange land. When he attempted to recruit players in places like Silver Bay and Cloquet, coaches were known to drop jaws and clipboards when Hudson walked into their schools. He did successfully woo some African-American athletes from the Twin Cities, a move that drew a predictably depressing response from other teams’ fans. In 1975, the Mac student newspaper reported that fans at Gustavus Adolphus had taken to referring to Macalester as “BLACK-alester.”
The significance of his hiring went largely unnoticed, thanks in large measure to Mac’s inept public-relations apparatus. In the official press release announcing Hudson’s promotion, the school noted he was the first black head coach at a Minnesota college, but it failed to say that he was also the first at any mostly white school in the country. Incredibly, other schools would soon receive credit as the first to hire a black coach. In Oregon, Portland State University claimed that it made history when it hired Ron Stratten to be its head football coach in 1972. Less than a year later, Oberlin College in Ohio claimed it was the first to break the color barrier when it hired Cass Jackson to lead its football program—an announcement reported as fact in the New York Times.
In 1975, after four seasons at Mac, Hudson knew it was time to move on. His record at the school was a dismal 3-36. “It didn’t have a damn thing to do with my coaching or a damn thing to do with the kids,” he says. “We had some great players, but just didn’t have enough of them. One thing I learned: You don’t take a job where you don’t have a chance to win.”
Among former Mac players, there are conflicting opinions about whether Hudson received the full support of the Mac administration and athletic department during his tenure, though Hudson himself holds no bitterness toward the school. “I can’t blame Macalester,” he says. “We were, for the most part, outmanned.’’ That’s putting it lightly. During his four years at Mac, Hudson’s roster never grew beyond 35 players; they regularly faced teams that fielded more than 100. “He was under a higher level of scrutiny and pressure,’’ said former Mac lineman Gary Hines, who would go on to form and lead the Twin Cities musical group the Sounds of Blackness. “There was the situation of the new coach, the predicament of the program, and his ethnicity. It was the trifecta. He was a great coach in a horrible situation.’’
For years, Hudson accepted his place in college sports obscurity. But last year, while visiting with his son-in-law, Eric Parris, Hudson began telling stories. He told Parris that, despite what the New York Times said, he was the first black coach at a predominantly white institution, and he relayed his tales with a passion he had never expressed even with his own children. “I kept asking myself, ‘Did he realize what a big deal it was?’” Parris says.
Taking matters into his own hands, Parris contacted Macalester athletic director Travis Feezell, who is considering honoring Hudson at a Scots’ game this season. “He deserves the truth to be told and to be recognized,” says Kelly Hudson, 45, one of Hudson’s six children. “History needs to be set straight.” A simple ceremony, a plaque at Macalester, might be a step in the right direction. But Hudson isn’t counting on anything. “If it happened and people recognized me, I’d appreciate it,’’ he says. “But if it doesn’t happen, well, you know, I’m used to it.” MM
Jay Weiner is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He can be reached at email@example.com.