FEBRUARY 24, 1962- Mississippi State (22-1, 11-1 SEC) had just beaten LSU 58-48, clinching their 3rd SEC Title in 4 years. But that didn't mean we were headed to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to the "unwritten rule" preventing Mississippi teams from playing integrated schools. Students and head coach Babe McCarthy were getting frustrated, after watching our 1959 and 1961 SEC Title teams sit at home, absent a chance to play for the National Title.
The day after the victory over LSU, students posed a sit-in on President Colvard's lawn, showing support for the SEC Champs (ranked as high as #4 nationally) and their encouragement for their participation in the NCAA Tournament. Colvard continued to avoid the subject and succumbed to Mississippi's segregationalist leaders, later saying that he was "glad to have avoided a confrontation."
Kentucky - who Mississippi State beat 49-44 at Lexington- went in place of State, eventually losing to future runner-up Ohio State in the Elite 8 round.
In 1963, expectations were high, as State returned the majority of the roster including their 3 top scorers - seniors Leland Mitchell (16.7ppg), reigning SEC Player of the Year Red Stroud (15.9ppg), and Joe Dan Gold (13.1ppg).
State struggled through non-conference, dropping games at Virginia Tech, vs Houston, and at Memphis State. SEC play yielded an overtime loss to Alabama, and a blowout at Florida. The overall record was good, but 5 losses were somewhat disappointing after 1962's 24-1 record. Still, after a February 25th win over Tulane, State clinched at-worst a tie for the SEC Title, having won the head-to-head tiebreaker over Kentucky.
Many wondered if State would again be stuck at home with an SEC Title for the 4th time in 5 years. Babe McCarthy made his feelings known:
It makes me heartsick to think that these players, who just clinched no worse than a tie for their third straight Southeastern Conference championship, will have to put away their uniforms and not compete in the NCAA tournament. This is all I can say but I think everyone knows how I feel.
Again, the students showed their support. Another sit-in was staged on Colvard's lawn, and 2,000 students signed a petition to accept the NCAA invitation.
MARCH 2, 1963 - Fifteen minutes before the final game of the season - against ole miss at oxford - President Dean Colvard made his decision public.
It is my conclusion that as responsible members of the academic community and of the SEC we have no choice other than to go. I have decided that unless hindered by competent authority I shall send our basketball team to the NCAA competition.
State went on to defeat ole miss 75-72. The 2 weeks between the season finale and the NCAA Tournament were filled with tension. Letters with threats, insults, profanity, and racial slurs littered Colvard's desk. And as is well-known, the State basketball team had to sneak out of Mississippi, defying an injunction to stop them from participating. In the NCAA's, State lost to future National Champion Loyola in their first game.
But I can't help but wonder what might have happened if this stance was taken earlier. What if President Hilbun had taken the same stance in 1959 with our 24-1 team featuring Bailey Howell? Or perhaps if Colvard had taken his stance a year earlier with the 1962 squad who finished 24-1? Could we have won a National Championship? Both of those teams were statistically better teams than the 1963 team, and both were ranked in the top 5 nationally.
We'll never know. But in 1963, Colvard stood for what was right - for Mississippi State, the state of Mississippi, and civil rights. Even if it was a stance that should have happened earlier.