Most — but not all — of Don Hudson’s memories are good
Most of us will live a lifetime and never achieve legendary notoriety. Never in his wildest dreams did Don Hudson ever see himself as an historical footnote.
“There are a lot of people who are the first this or first that,” says Hudson, now in his seventies. “I know at one time I said that I didn’t want to be the first doing anything. But if it happens, you do it.”
It only took 35 years, but last weekend Hudson finally was recognized for his historic achievement: He was the first Black head football coach at a predominantly White U.S. college or university in the modern era, at Macalester College in December 1971.
The school and the City of St. Paul officially proclaimed October 6 “Don Hudson Day.” At least 20 of his players appeared with him during halftime ceremonies; family and friends later held a reception for him at a Minneapolis hotel.
“He was really happy,” reports his son, Stephen Hudson. “He was overwhelmed.” A couple of days before his special day, Don Hudson sat at Stephen’s dining room table telling stories, many humorous and some not so funny.
“I knew that I was the first Black head football coach in the state of Minnesota,” he said, “but I really didn’t know about the other [national historical first]. I was too busy trying to win a game.”
Prior to Macalester, Hudson was the first Black head football coach in the Minneapolis City Conference at now-defunct Central High School. He was an assistant coach at his alma mater, Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a Historically Black College. Bill McMoore, who he had met before, called to see if he was interested in the job; Hudson interviewed and was hired.
“I came that summer [of 1968] and went over to the school to meet with the athletic director,” said Hudson. When the new coach asked the AD about meeting his coaching staff, “He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t [get to meet them]. They all quit.’”
McMoore, Earl Bowman, Richard Green and Bruce Williams – four individuals who proved very invaluable to Hudson — scrounged the neighborhood for assistant coaches. “I really don’t know how I would have made it without them,” noted Hudson.
They found a Central graduate who had recently graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “He lived about two blocks from Central High School and was looking for a teaching job,” continued Hudson, referring to Eric Eversley, who was hired as a social studies teacher. Another young man also was hired.
Only 10 players — five Blacks and five Whites — showed up for opening practice. “We had a couple more the next day,” recalled Hudson. Then he noticed a kid walking down Fourth Avenue South who the players said had played last year. “I ran out the gate and chased him down. I asked him, ‘Where in the hell have you been? Are you going to play this year? I want you out here tomorrow morning.’”
The kid did as he was told. “He was Gary Hines,” Hudson said proudly of the famed Sounds of Blackness founder and director. “I coached him at Central and at Macalester. We have been very, very close ever since that day.”
Hudson’s time at Central came during the wind-down days of the tumultuous 1960s. “It was tense,” he said, recalling a time when a possible riot might take place during a game at Roosevelt.
“I called all the players together and told them, ‘If we go over to Roosevelt [and] a fight breaks out, and the White kids come after the Black kids, I want the White kids to form a circle around the Black kids. Now, if it’s [the] Black kids wanting to harm the White kids, all the Black kids on this team will form a circle around them. If we have to, we will fight our way off the field.’” Nothing occurred that day, “but the tension was there the entire game [a 13-7 Roosevelt win]. Police was everywhere.”
Bowman brought him to Macalester to direct the National Summer Youth Program for two summers. Then, Bowman and the school president asked if he was interested in teaching there.
“I like teaching in college,” Hudson, who also joined the football coaching staff as an assistant, said. Two years later, he applied for the head-coaching opening.
“I had the credentials at the time: 10 years of college coaching and six years of high school coaching. I had my master’s degree from Springfield [Mass.] College since 1959. I have done some things that other coaches hadn’t done. I was ready and prepared.”
As was the case at Central, Hudson had to assemble a coaching staff. “The assistant coaches all quit. One of them sued the university for reverse racial discrimination because I got the job.”
Hudson coached at Macalester for four seasons (1972-1975) before returning to his alma mater to coach football at Lincoln. “I was not fired at Macalester,” he said, setting the record straight. “I wanted to win, and the kids wanted to win, [but] it didn’t work. It didn’t make me a bad coach because we didn’t win [3-36], because I thought I was a pretty darn good coach.”
Hudson later moved to Colorado, where he ran into Eversley. “Eric became the principal in one of the richest school districts in Colorado. He calls me and says he needs an AD, and if I knew anyone who might be interested. I said, ‘Me.’
“For 10 years, I was the only Black [athletic director] in that school district, and one of the few in the entire state. I hired 105 coaches a year, had 22 varsity sports and 72 teams.”
He retired from that position in 1999.
Since he was a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., Hudson always wanted to coach football. His coaching career began in 1955: “I had some great kids who played for me. All of them weren’t pro football players, but they were great football players.”
However, he collected some bad memories as well, such as when the Central coaching staff quit. “If they loved the kids so much, two or three would’ve stayed,” he said. “But they all quit. If they had hired a White coach, would all of them have quit? We all know they wouldn’t have.”
At Maclester, an official approached one of Hudson’s assistants before a game and said, “How do you like coaching over here with all these n******?” “The coach never said a word about that comment until the season was over,” Hudson recalled. “That was probably one of the worst things that happened to me at Mac.”
Hudson is the proud father of six: Don Jr. and Karla, both doctors; Scott, a lawyer; Natalie, an appellate court judge; Kelly, a former local TV reporter who now works at FEMA; and Stephen, a successful businessman. He is also a grandfather of nine, the oldest a Duke graduate and the second oldest now a Notre Dame freshman.
“I didn’t raise any pro athletes,” said the patriarch.
Now retired, Hudson looks back with no regrets. He is, after all, a part of history. His advice to those who follow his lead? “You don’t have to take a back seat to anybody.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.