Oh, it was a beautiful homecoming. The weather was as pretty as the queen, cool and crisp, and nobody minded a little wind. As people strolled from the stadium last Saturday they laughed and talked about how their unbeaten Wyoming had just manhandled San Jose State 16-7, which made it hard to get up a real working anger against those 14 black athletes Coach Lloyd Eaton threw off the team two weeks ago. Coach Eaton had shown those protesters he could win without them. Good riddance, and never mind a lot of talk about civil rights, because this is Wyoming, and out here we do things our way. Like Coach Eaton told those athletes: Boys, if you don't like the way we run things around here then you better go play at Grambling or Morgan State. Yes sir, and wasn't that victory over San Jose State just glorious?
"Yes, it was a glorious victory," said Bill Waterman, smiling thinly, "and now we shall see about the rest." Waterman is an NAACP lawyer out of Detroit, a short, rather round, quiet-spoken man, and he arrived in Laramie, Wyo. last week with the belief that the rights of a student should not be limited just because he is an athlete. His first move will be to seek an injunction against the University of Wyoming in federal court this week. "First we want to get the players reinstated," he said. "Then we'll go from there."
Eaton abruptly dropped the 14 black athletes from the team on Oct. 17, after, he says, they took part in a demonstration against Mormon racial policies, which exclude Negroes from the priesthood of the Mormon Church. Wyoming was to play Brigham Young University, which is run by the Mormons, the following afternoon. Eaton insists that his players act as individuals and not as factions, which he feels splits the team, and he became incensed when the Negro players appeared before him that morning as a group. "They came in together and they came wearing black armbands," he said. "It was simply a matter of discipline. Black or white, it didn't matter to me. They broke the rule and I told them they were no longer members of the team."
All his life Eaton has lived by the rules. He is a stern disciplinarian who can neither understand nor forgive a breakdown in team unity. As a boy he had to help his father scratch a living from a tiny ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. During the Depression he worked his way through college by sweeping floors for 25¢ an hour. Nobody gave him anything. Nothing came easy for him and he feels that nothing should come easy for those who play under him. Until now his iron discipline has worked and worked well. The last three years Wyoming has been the Western Athletic Conference champion; this year it has won six games, leads the nation in rushing defense and is ranked 16th. Next to two national parks, football—University of Wyoming football—is about the biggest thing in the state. And so, at the university, Eaton has perhaps more influence than Dr. William D. Carlson, the president. He certainly is more popular than Stanley K. Hathaway, the governor. And now he is convinced that he is the target of a Black Power plot.
"We've played Brigham Young for many years," Eaton said one day last week. "Why haven't we had a demonstration before? And we've had Negro players here since 1960. I'll tell you why. This is the first year the Black Student Alliance has been on campus. Now they're organized and ready to act. The WAC was picked because of Brigham Young. And we were picked as the trigger because of our rule against demonstrations. It all fits."
"The whole problem is that no one understands us," said Joe Williams, the Wyoming tailback and one of the team's three captains before he became one of the exiled 14. "If Eaton had, none of this would have happened. His story of a racial plot is ridiculous. We knew about the rule against protest and we went to him on that Friday morning only to see if we couldn't work something out. We felt very deeply about this, but we just wanted to talk to him. We wanted to see if we could wear black armbands in the game, or black socks, or black X's on our helmets. And if he had said no we had already agreed that we would be willing to protest with nothing but our black skins."
Both sides agree they met first in Eaton's office and that the coach took them into the field house. There they stop agreeing. Eaton claims he listened to them for 10 minutes and then told them that they were out.
"Like hell he gave us 10 minutes," said Williams. "He came in, sneered at us and yelled that we were off the squad. He said our very presence defied him. He said he has had some good Neeegro boys. Just like that."
"Then he said it was stupid for us to be protesting against a faith and a religion none of us knew about," said Willie Hysaw, an ex-receiver. "Talk about stupid! Do you know that Ted Williams [another of the 14] is a Mormon?"
When University President Carlson learned of the dismissals, he called the governor, who drove over from Cheyenne in a snowstorm. A board of trustees meeting was called hastily, and 18 hours later, early Saturday morning, the trustees announced that they were backing Eaton all the way.
Across the state support for Eaton poured in. The cowboy element was angry. When seven members of the faculty said they would resign unless the 14 were reinstated, the Touchdown Club in Casper said it was raising money to get the seven out of the state. The student senate came out in favor of a hearing on the issue—which caused the rest of the students to call for an impeachment of the senate. A faculty-student ad hoc committee was formed to investigate, and then was never heard from again. The school paper came out for the 14, and then Phil White, the editor, resigned. Carlson called a press conference, was backed into admitting, unintentionally, that at Wyoming football came first and civil rights second. When he realized what he had said, the press conference was over. One member of the state legislature said that if Eaton backed down, there would be trouble with the university budget next year. Eaton wasn't about to back down.
Meanwhile, at San Jose State the team voted to wear multicolored armbands against Wyoming in support of the 14, and groups at other WAC schools demanded that Wyoming be dropped from their schedules.
"It's building," said Bill Waterman. "All across the country. Building and building. This will be a new day for the college athlete, both black and white."
At Wyoming the Black Student Alliance said it would set up picket lines at the San Jose game. Governor Hathaway said he was ready to call out the National Guard. Everyone was in a panic. The university, in an official letter, which Waterman has, said it understood on good authority that 2,000 Black Panthers were headed for Laramie. "That's not only a lie," said Waterman, "it's criminal."
On Saturday, an hour before the game, Vernon Breazeale, the chief of the Laramie police force, watched as an orderly group of 134 pickets circled 200 feet from the stadium gate. "One thing I want these kids to understand," Breazeale said, "is that we are here to protect them, not to fight with them. Their fight is with the university, not with us. All the football players on the football team are good kids, both the black and white ones. Real gentlemen. I remember another coach we had here. He used to bring in ex-convicts to play. Real hoodlums. Always drunk, always in trouble. We used to club them over the head until the blood ran down the side of their mouths. I'm glad these kids today are different."
He watched as a black girl silently carried a sign that said: "Something is happening here, but you don't understand what it is, do you?"
"I guess that sign says it all," someone said.
"Yeah, I guess so," said Chief Breazeale.
Wyoming blacks, seeking a way of protest, say they just went to Eaton with a request.
But Eaton contends they knew his rule: players may only act singly, not as a faction.