Football Sports

The former Cougar who tackled college football racism

Warren McVea streaks toward pay dirt after outrunning the Michigan State defense. | File photo/The Houstonian

Warren McVea accumulated 2,302 yards and 17 touchdowns in his three seasons as a Cougar. | File photo/The Houstonian

Not many people know why July 11, 1964 is one of the most important days in University of Houston history.

By signing Warren McVea, the Cougars became the first team of a predominantly white Texas university to sign an African-American football player.

Two years after the university’s official integration in 1962, UH spearheaded inclusion and acceptance by being the first major college in the South to integrate their athletic department.

Head Coach Bill Yeoman entered his fourth season with the Cougars after an underwhelming start to his tenure. In his first three seasons, the Cougars went just 11-18. After going 2-6-1 in the 1964 season, it was time for a change.

Robert D. Jacobus recounted in his book, “Houston Cougars in the 1960s,” Yeoman’s decision to include a black man on the roster.

“I was too stupid to realize people had a problem down here,” Yeoman said. “I wish I could say it was a conscious decision and I mulled it over and contemplated doing it, but I just didn’t pay any attention to it. I went to Athletic Director Harry Fouke and President (Philip) Hoffman and I told them I was going to recruit Warren McVea.”

The 5-foot-9 running back’s 86 career touchdowns for Brackenridge High School in San Antonio is still among the top in Texas’ high school football history. McVea capped off a season in which he averaged 10.2 yards per rush with a 215 rushing yard performance.

McVea became a heralded recruit, but potential racial tension and the Cougars’ back-to-back lackluster seasons did not make UH an appealing choice. An offer from the University of Missouri, endorsements from their alumni and President Harry Truman were waiting for McVea.

Together with prominent leaders of Houston’s black community, Yeoman and his staff made history by landing the coveted recruit against all odds.

I told them that I’m prejudiced,” Yeoman said in Sports Illustrated’s Nov. 9, 1964 issue. “I’m prejudiced against bad football players. If I didn’t think Warren McVea had more ability than any kid in the state, I wouldn’t want him.” 

Jacobus wrote that McVea was prepared for the game and the race.

“They wanted a back to integrate, not a lineman. Coach Yeoman was a speed guy, and I could run like the wind,” McVea said. “I had also been through integration before with Brackenridge High School.”

The transition was seamless despite McVea’s uncertainty on whether he would be accepted on campus. Jacobus found out from Yeoman why the UH community was so open to McVea.

“I think the reason we had so little backlash is that people around here wanted to win, and if they thought Warren could help us, they didn’t care what color he was,” Yeoman said.

McVea went on to accumulate 2,302 yards from scrimmage with 17 total touchdowns in his three seasons as a Cougar. He then opted to play professional football for five seasons.

It’s clear now that McVea and Yeoman’s bravery was the first step in making Cougar sports accessible to everyone.

“There’s only one place where Warren McVea has to prove himself,” Yeoman said. “And that’s on the football field.”

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