A pioneer, Hudson broke coaching color-barrier in 1971

By Will Kennedy

How does one go through life having achieved something big while receiving virtually no recognition for it? Former Macalester football Coach Don Hudson could tell you: focus on the things that are more important.Hudson, who served as the Scots’ head coach from 1971-1975, was the first black coach at a predominantly white college in the United States, and until this year, almost nobody knew. Last Saturday, after 35 years, Hudson was recognized by Macalester College and the city of St. Paul at an honorary lunch and later during halftime of the Mac football game.

Hudson’s family and many of his former players came from all over the country to the ceremony in his honor, but in the end, Hudson said, what he valued the most about this day, was realizing the effect he had on many of the young men he coached.

“Some of the things I was saying got through to them,” he said, laughing.

Hudson coached during lean years at Macalester, when the team was in the midst of a 50-game losing streak and the prospect of more than 30 players on the roster would have been a dream come true. “We worked as hard as any team in the league,” Hudson said. But at the end of the day, despite having some future NFL players on the squad, the Scots almost always found themselves outmanned and outscored. It was in these less-than-ideal conditions that Hudson tried to make an impact on his players, and according to his former players who attended the ceremony, he did.

“Never say die,” Frank Adams ’76 recalled. “That’s been instilled in us all this time.”

Seeing Hudson’s former athletes hugging him, congratulating him, and cheering with him as they watched their old team play, his importance to these men, now long since graduated, is plain.

But what of Hudson’s impact away from his players? What has his effect been on other minority coaches and what is his legacy as a pioneer? Any story, no matter how remarkable, will never inspire on a large scale if nobody knows about it, and that’s one of the sad things about this one.

Indeed, Hudson himself was unaware that he had broken the college head coaching color-barrier on Jan. 3, 1972 when Macalester officially appointed him. As his wife Connie Hudson recalls, “at the time, he was just thrilled to be a head coach,” she said.

Soon after taking the position, Hudson began to get some information suggesting that he might be breaking new ground. But by that point he had players to coach and film to review and whatever his place in history, Hudson laughed, “it wasn’t going to help him win any games.”

Hudson sat on this hunch until his son-in-law Eric Parris did the research and made Hudson’s legacy public.

When Macalester celebrated Don Hudson Day, the former coach got his due, but Hudson says, a lot of the obstacles he faced still exist in collegiate athletics.

Examining the situation of coaching in the United States today and reflecting on his place, Hudson states that at colleges, especially at Division I schools, African American coaches still have trouble finding a job.

“As a group,” he said, “we have not made a dent in that club, and that’s terrible.”

Now that the Hudson story is broken, it is receiving attention in Minnesota and Colorado-where Hudson has lived since taking a job as the Athletic Director at Smoky Hills High School in 1982-but little has been made of the discovery in the national media. Still, Hudson’s story may do something, 35 years after the fact, to further spur the movement of black coaches into positions at predominantly white colleges; the movement he began unknowingly in 1972.

There is no doubt that Hudson holds a position in sports history that is more significant than many recognize, but when asked what he wants to be remembered for, Hudson’s answer is simple.

“I want to be remembered, win-lose or draw, as a good football coach,” he said. “Somebody who knew his football, treated his players fair, and was good for the game.”

His players never seemed to have forgotten, and hopefully after Saturday, at least the rest of Minnesota and Macalester knows too.