Black History: from the Great Pumpkin to Ellen DeGeneres

“The fad started with the hippies. I saw them in Haight-Ashbury. Wearing a beard or a mustache or long hair doesn’t necessarily make anyone look like the scum I saw there but it gives an empathy for a movement that certainly is the direct opposite of what we strive for in college football.”
– Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame

February is Black History Month. Ellen DeGeneres kicked it off a couple days early with DeAndre Arnold as her featured guest. The high school senior from a small town near Houston Texas has been in the national news for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. School officials told him that if he didn’t cut his hair they would not allow him to participate in graduation. Arnold said no, dreadlocks are part of his Trinidadian heritage.

To show support for the student, who — depending on whose story you believe — may or may not have been suspended from attending class, DeGeneres introduced Alicia Keys who came onstage carrying a giant check for $20,000, payable to Arnold, as a scholarship contribution for his college education. (DeAndre Arnold obviously is a student of history, one of the few in his generation who wouldn’t need to ask “What’s a check?”)

Non-Black-History DigressionFive years earlier, on February 9, 1964, seventy-three-million Americans watched the Beatles make their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. On February 10, 1964 about half of teen-aged white boys in the U.S. showed up for school with hair combed down over their foreheads. By the end of the week, most of the other half had also adopted that hairstyle. School officials saw this as an insolent attack on authority. Thus began a new chapter in the endless conflict between schools and students about what is proper appearance and dress standards for high-schoolers.

Back in 1967, the Oregon State University football team became know as the Giant Killers after victories over highly-ranked opponents. Fans in the 1960s saw their beloved Beavers as a contender for the college football national championship. O.S.U.’s coach, Dee Andros, was affectionately known as the Great Pumpkin. As one writer put it, “He is 250 pounds on a 170-pound frame.” Andros played the role, dressing in orange and black and referring to himself in the third person as the “Great Punkin.”

Andros came across Fred Milton on campus on a February day in 1969. Milton, a linebacker standout on the 1967 team, had sat out the 1968 season with an injury and was planning his return in the coming season. Andros noted something different about Milton: his face sported a mustache and goatee. The Great Pumpkin summoned Milton to his office, where told him to shave, as team rules prohibited facial hair, even during the off season. Milton’s responded that the beard and mustache were part of his cultural heritage and he was keeping them. Andros kicked him off the team.

The fifty-seven member Black Student Union called for a boycott and staged a walkout. Four-thousand students attended a rally supporting the coach. A competing rally across campus on Milton’s behalf brought out a thousand.

Only two of the five black varsity football players turned out for spring practice. The athletic department was not able to recruit any black players that year. Eighteen black students registered for spring-term classes. Oregon State’s days as football powerhouse were over.

Fred Milton finished his college career at Utah State. He settled in Portland and worked for radical organizations like I.B.M. and Liberty Mutual Insurance. Milton died in 2011 at age sixty-two.

Dee Andros went on to become athletic director at Oregon State. He died at age seventy-nine in 2003 after several strokes.

Milton and Andros reportedly had become friends.

Climb into the time machine. Click here for Sports Illustrated‘s contemporaneous report on the Andros-Milton controversy and Negro athletes in collegiate sports.

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