Former player remembers old times at UH
This is the first of a three-part series highlighting UH’s first black athlete
The decision to integrate the UH athletics program by signing Warren McVea as the school’s first black football player in 1964 didn’t come down to a move by an athletic director, a vote by the school’s coaches or a protest.
Rather, it came as a result of a football coach who understood the difference between winning and losing was having great players, no matter their race.
When Bill Yeoman, 80, who compiled a 160-108-8 record with the Cougars from 1962-86, took over the program, the team hadn’t won more than six games in the previous five seasons. Yeoman had an idea for what the program needed.
"I wanted some players," Yeoman said Tuesday. "I came from Michigan State and we were blessed by some youngsters who could really play.
"If we had to compete against Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Florida State, you were going to do it with players – guys who had speed."
During a time when segregation still held its grip on Texas society, the state’s largest programs didn’t have much to do with black football players – talented or not. Doing so would have set a major precedent.
Sports historian Richard Pennington wrote in his essay "Racial Integration of College Football in Texas (from Invisible Texans)" that blacks had to settle for playing at predominantly black schools, Texas Southern and Prairie View A’M, or out-of-state black schools such as Grambling State and Jackson State.
Yeoman had a plan to snag a standout for his program, and he made his intentions known to then-Athletics Director Harry Fouke prior to the 1964 season.
"I just walked in and told Harry, ‘Say Harry, we’re going to go and recruit Warren McVea,’" Yeoman said. "That was it."
Those who saw McVea would probably argue that he was Texas’ top high school running back in the ’60s, if not the nation. McVea, who starred at integrated San Antonio Brackenridge High, was "purportedly able to run crooked faster than most players could run straight," Pennington said.According to the San Antonio Express-News, he racked up 315 points and 46 touchdowns as a senior in 1963, which was a single-season record for the University Interscholastic League’s largest class.
McVea was the type of impact player Yeoman wanted for his squad, but McVea, who was heavily recruited by schools such as Southern Cal, Missouri and Nebraska, knew little about UH until its coaches began contacting him.
"They sent an informal guy down there to see if I was interested," said McVea, 61, who lives in Houston. "They didn’t come right at me to try and recruit me right away because I had already kind of committed to going to the Pac-10 or somewhere in the Big Eight (the current Big 12 Conference).
"When I found that they wanted to recruit me, I had never heard of the University of Houston."
The "informal" guy sometimes would be offensive coordinator Chuck Fairbanks or assistant coaches Tom Boisture or Carroll Schultz. There were also days when Yeoman would visit.
Yeoman’s biggest obstacle to signing McVea was getting through to his mother, Mattie McVea.
"Mrs. McVea had to be, I think, assured that the guy that was going to be dealing with her son was someone who she could at least trust," Yeoman said. "So, I made myself available to her whenever she wanted.
"She was a very, very pleasant woman. There wasn’t any question that kid wasn’t going to go anywhere where his mother didn’t want him to go."
Warren McVea had probably heard the usual spin from other coaches, but he said Yeoman "was kind of different."
"When he would come to see me, he would never talk," McVea said. "He would just look at you and smile, and he would never say a whole lot because he was eyeing the situation to find out a little loophole where he could get his foot in the door.
"Finally, he found out that my mother was a Christian, and that’s what kind of hit it off because he was (Christian) too. That’s how they became good friends. When she found out that both of them were Christians, she kind of changed her mind about me coming to play for him."
Soon after, McVea and Yeoman became joined at the hip as civil rights pioneers. McVea committed to play for UH, and Yeoman received the impact player he coveted.
"I would say he was one of the top five runners in the United States," Yeoman said.
Yeoman also said that he had found a player who could withstand the hostile environments and other pressures the Cougars would face when playing schools from the Deep South such as Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn.
"If you’re going to go over to the Southeastern Conference and play over there, you’re going to have to have someone who understood what was at stake and could respond to it," Yeoman said. "Warren could do it."