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Andy Katz | Correspondent | June 8, 2018

C.M. Newton was a consummate pro in college basketball

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C.M. Newton had recognized South Carolina’s defensive effort in a victory over his Vanderbilt team. 

He inquired who orchestrated the defense. He was told Tubby Smith, a young assistant on the Gamecocks’ staff during the late 1980s. Newton filed it away. 

John Pelphrey was heading to Vanderbilt out of his home state of Kentucky in 1988. He was going to play for Newton. But then Kentucky offered and he couldn’t turn down his dream to play for the Wildcats and in Rupp.

He called Newton and told him he couldn’t go. 

Newton didn’t hold a grudge. He understood. He played at Kentucky and won a national title in 1951. 

Newton remembered Pelphrey’s character and the way in which he carried himself. He filed that away, too.

Newton lost a game to Smith and a recruit in Pelphrey. And more than 30 years later, both men look at the man they beat and turned down as one of the most impactful and influential in their lives.

Newton, an iconic figure in college basketball, the SEC and the NCAA, passed away at age 88 on June 4 at his home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Life isn’t measured by wins and losses, but rather by how you can affect other people. Newton never stopped making an impression on the lives of those he touched. And by that definition for those who counted him as a trusted friend, ally and confidant, he was considered undefeated. 

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“I don’t think I’ve known a better man in college sports or even beyond,’’ said Smith, now the head coach at his alma mater High Point. “I don’t think there’s been a better person in athletics than C.M. Newton. In all athletics, not just basketball. He had the utmost respect from people.’’

Outside of Pelphrey’s father, he said, “Coach Newton is the most influential male in my life.’’

“He had class, integrity and was a high, high role model and mentor not just for me, but for everybody,’’ said Pelphrey, now an assistant at Alabama under Avery Johnson. “He had a profound impact on me.’’

That sentiment has been made by countless people over the past week. But these two men, like probably others, have had a constant thread in their careers — C.M. Newton looking out for them.

Smith said the South Carolina win over Vanderbilt showed, “you never know who is listening or watching.’’

That’s because it was Newton who recommended to Rick Pitino to hire Smith as an assistant. The two came in at the same time, Tubby as an assistant and Newton as the athletic director to resuscitate a program facing probation. 

And two years later, it was Newton who would help Smith land at Tulsa for his first head coaching job. 

When Vince Dooley was looking for a coach at Georgia, it was Newton who called Dooley, without Smith’s prodding, to hire him at a rival SEC school. 

And when Pitino left Kentucky in 1997 for the Boston Celtics, Newton chose Smith — making him the first African-American head men’s basketball coach at Kentucky. 

Smith said the move showed courage, not just because of the historic nature of the hire, but because he was also following Pitino after two Final Fours and a national title. Newton was no stranger to making history, integrating Alabama basketball when he was the head men’s basketball coach of the Tide in 1969 in signing Wendell Hudson, the first African-American player at Alabama. 

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“C.M. Newton saw the value in people,’’ said Smith. “He was more concerned with the content of your character than the color of your skin. He told me, ‘If you win, they won’t see color. Well, some will.’ But we won. We did an adequate job.

“They knew me from being an assistant there and he knew that I would fit in and be accepted,’’ said Smith. “He knew I could handle it if it went sideways.’’

Smith and Kentucky won the national championship in 1998 in his first season. Newton was the chair of the selection committee that season. So, he handed Smith the trophy. 

“It was so great,’’ said Smith. “Whether we won or lost, you could count on him always saying the right things. He was always going to protect you publicly.’’

Smith said Newton’s integrity was never in question and he was always concerned about the game, serving on countless committees in the NCAA, the NIT and USA Basketball. 

“His breed of administrator doesn’t exist now,’’ said Smith. “These guys played the game, most ADs then were football coaches or previous coaches. That’s where there has been a breakdown. He could always put everything in perspective. 

“He loved the game and the people and the players and coaches in the game,’’ said Smith. “He valued and loved what college sports and in particular basketball meant to the student-athlete and people who coached and taught and played the game.’’

And sure enough, even though Smith had a national championship, he would still seek advice from Newton when he went to Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis before his latest stop at High Point.

Pelphrey came full circle with Newton, living a half-mile away from him the past year in Tuscaloosa. 

“Normally, when you tell somebody no, they don’t turn around and help you,’’ said Pelphrey of his decision not to go and play for Newton at Vanderbilt. “That’s not the way the world is.’’

But Newton left a legacy as the head coach at Transylvania, Alabama, Vanderbilt and of course as the AD at Kentucky. He took his time to hire Pitino, re-routing the program. He said he told the team they would win a championship again. 

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Pelphrey was a third-year college student at Kentucky, a redshirt sophomore when Pitino arrived. He said Newton had a plan and kept everyone calm during the transition. 

“It was a great example of leadership,’’ said Pelphrey. “And boy did he get the right guy for the job.’’

And then, on April 7, 1992, the team dubbed The Unforgettables, who had nearly taken the Elite Eight game from Duke before Christian Laettner’s epic game-winner, were recognized in a way Pelphrey couldn’t have imagined. 

Pelphrey said he never dreamt he would ever be in the rafters at Rupp. Never. But then, at the end of the banquet that night at Rupp, Pelphrey noticed there were blue banners above him. He turned to teammate Deron Feldhaus and said, “Look up, I can’t.’’ 

“This man, who spent all this time recruiting me and I told him no, ends up coming to Kentucky and gives me the greatest honor I’ve ever received in athletics. He showed we mattered, the sacrifice, the resiliency and believing in us.’’

The jerseys for Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Sean Woods and Richie Farmer were all retired that night. 

Newton never stopped looking out and surprising Pelphrey. 

It was Newton who called then South Alabama AD Joe Gottfried to say hire Pelphrey. 

It was Newton who called then Arkansas AD Frank Broyles and said hire Pelphrey. 

“He set an unbelievable example of how to handle your business,’’ said Pelphrey. “The opportunities that have been afforded to me don’t come if he wasn’t who he was. It was an honor and privilege to be around him. I hope to pass along and be that helpful to others.’’

Newton was the ultimate in paying it forward. Smith and Pelphrey were just two of the many who touched him. He never forgot and made sure he was always there to help, mostly when they didn’t know he did. 

And it is those types of actions, the silent but powerful kind, that make him a man to be remembered. His kindness and care will forever be characteristics that define him more than any records.

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