McVea Broke The Color Barrier In Texas Football
There were gasps all over the Shamrock Hilton. Did he just say that? These prominent black doctors, lawyers, and businessmen couldn’t believe it. Did this white football coach just say that?
“I’m prejudiced, all right,” Bill Yeoman said before glancing around the room, looking for reactions. He got some.
“All their eyes lit up,” Cougar head coach Bill Yeoman explained. “Until I said, ‘I’m prejudiced against bad football players.'”
After Yeoman’s first season at Houston, he realized the players he had were not great football players. To compete on the national stage, he would need to recruit black athletes. No one in the region was integrating their football teams and doing so would give Houston a competitive advantage.
With his decision made, Yeoman began putting the process into place in 1963. Just a year removed from the integration riots at Ole Miss, Yeoman and athletics director Harry Fouke knew they needed to handle the situation the right way. UH had been peacefully integrated during the summer of 1962 but the first black player in major Texas football was a big deal.
Yeoman turned to sports information director Ted Nance for help. Nance had built bridges all over the city and put Yeoman in contact with African-American community leaders and influential newspaper columnists. Most importantly, he helped point Yeoman towards the only guy that could handle the pressure of being the first black football player in the south.
His name was Warren McVea. Having scored 591 points for Brackenridge High School in San Antonio, McVea was the #1 high school recruit in Texas and, by most accounts, the entire country.
“People around here wanted to win,” Yeoman told author Robert D. Jacobus for his book, Houston Cougars in the 1960s. “And if they thought Warren could help us, they didn’t care what color he was.”
Getting In The Door
To get on McVea’s radar, Nance connected Yeoman with Lloyd Wells, a man known as The Judge. Wells was an influential columnist for the Forward Times and a mentor to young black men around the Houston area.
Wells was excited to help the Cougars make history as well as doing a favor for his friend Nance. It was Ted Nance that had opened the UH press box to black journalists, making Houston the first school to do so in the south.
Even in San Antonio, McVea was familiar with Wells, having met several other high school athletes he had mentored. Going one step further, Nance and Yeoman recruited Houston civic leader Quentin Mease to help in the recruiting effort.
Mease was in attendance when Yeoman broke the ice at the Shamrock Hotel and had taken a liking to the coach. But more importantly, at least for the recruitment of Warren, Mease’s in-laws lived down the street from and attended the same church as the McVea family.
Those family connections ended up shaping how the Cougars would recruit McVea. Yeoman made it a point to get to know Mrs. Mattie, Wondrous Warren’s mother. McVea was something of a mama’s boy, a fact Yeoman used to his advantage.
Years later, McVea said that Yeoman had “really focused on winning over my mother” and it had influenced his decision to attend UH.
“My mother thought the world of Coach Yeoman,” McVea told Jerry Wizig for his book, Eat Em Up Cougars. “Coach Yeoman promised my mama that he would always take care of her son. And he did just that.”
Recruiting Warren McVea
By early 1964, McVea had received 74 offers, including virtually every integrated school in the country (and many that weren’t). But few schools took the time to understand what made the superstar tick. Most programs that recruited McVea simply tried to ‘wow’ him with a one-off stunt.
Texas invited McVea on the field at the 1964 Cotton Bowl. UCLA sent Jackie Robinson to meet with the star running back while Missouri had former president Harry Truman send a letter.
In an apocryphal story, it was alleged that UH asked then-president Lyndon B. Johnson to reach out to McVea.
Cougar assistant coach Tom Boisture did most of the day-to-day recruiting work on McVea. It was Boisture that alerted Yeoman to the Mrs. Mattie angle.
“We figured out that he wanted to stay close to home,” Boisture recounted. “Being close to his mom was a big factor.”
Boisture put in the time to get to know Warren which, in turn, helped form a genuine connection between the two. Years later, McVea would tell Jacobus that he always felt close to Boisture.
Boisture and Lloyd Wells put others to work to help recruit McVea. Former UH basketball player Donnie Schverak played an integral part – he was McVea’s host when the recruit would come to Houston. It was never lost on McVea that UH didn’t just use other African-Americans to recruit him. By pairing him with Schverak, McVea said he felt included in the UH family.
David Lattin also helped out. The Worthing High basketball star was McVea’s contemporary and an athlete he respected. Wells had mentored Lattin and put the two athletes in contact. Lattin went on to win an NCAA Championship with Texas Western (now UTEP), the first team to win a title with an all-black starting lineup.
Cougars Close The Deal
In the end, it was the attention to detail that paid off for the Cougars. Yeoman also respected McVea’s faith and the role it played in his life.
“I had never seen a coach like Coach Yeoman,” McVea said years later. “He was also one of two coaches who picked up on the importance of religion to our family.”
Early on Saturday, July 11th, 1964, McVea called Yeoman at his UH office to share the news that he would sign with the Cougars. Yeoman grabbed Ted Nance and drove to San Antonio with the paperwork and to see the historic moment.
That afternoon around 3:30, Mrs. Mattie and his sisters gathered at the dining room table to watch Warren sign with the University of Houston. Yeoman and Nance were there to witness the simple signature forever changing the course of college football in the south. McVea was just 17 years old.
“I’ve never had so much pressure on me to land anyone as I have had put on me by McVea boosters,” a relieved Yeoman told the San Antonio Express-News as he sat at the McVea dining room. “Hundreds, maybe many hundreds, of Houstonians have called and written me asking that I make a strong bid to sign him.
I don’t think he’ll ever regret coming to the University of Houston. He will be welcomed by all.”
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