By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The Southern Heritage Classic began in Memphis back in 1990 as a contest to settle bragging rights between Historically Black Colleges and Universities Jackson State and Tennessee State.
The central meeting point for the two rivals has been the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Right next door to the football facility is the legendary Mid-South Coliseum. As thousands and thousands gather each year in the Bluff City, many reflect on the rich heritage of athletics in Memphis.
Names like Deion Sanders and Eddie George dominate conversations in 2021, but over the past 30 years the Southern Heritage Classic has served as the backdrop to historic figures like Larry Finch, Penny Hardaway, Jerry C. Johnson and Robert Newman.
The state of Tennessee has only one NCAA basketball national championship and Newman was the MVP of that team back in 1975. No, it wasn’t the Memphis Tigers nor the Tennessee Volunteers or even the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Neither TSU or East Tennessee State is the home of Tennessee’s only basketball National champion from the NCAA. The LeMoyne Owen College Magicians were victorious over Glassboro State 57-54 winning the 30-team tournament in Reading, Penn.
“It feels pretty great representing Memphis,” Newman said. “I’ve had the privilege of teaching and coaching for 36 years all over Memphis. The game of basketball is special in the inner city.
“My college coach promised me coming out of Hamilton High School,” he continued. “Out of the 100 scholarship offers, you want to go to a place that will give you a good education so you can live a good life. Coach Johnson was right.”
Newman and the Memphis basketball community paid tribute to Johnson earlier this year after the “sideline legend” passed away Jan. 24 at the age of 102.
It was Johnson who brought together Newman, Clint Jackson, Jerry McNeil, Larry Lewis, Willie Parr, David Phillips, Carol Richardson, Milton Stevens, Ernest Ross, Morris Atkins and Trey Gray to win the Division III National title.
That Magician squad went 27-5 that season and won the Volunteer State Athletic Conference. LeMoyne-Owen was the first HBCU to win the NCAA Division III title.
With the then Memphis State Tigers reaching the 1973 NCAA Division I championship game led by Memphians Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson, the Magicians’ title added to boost in race relations in the Bluff City.
Just 7 years removed from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Downtown Memphis, basketball players unknowing started to bridge many gaps socially.
Newman was a 1971 graduate of Hamilton High School and took his talents to TSU alongside Clint Jackson.
Newman was highly recruited helping the Wildcats win the 1971 City Championship over heated rivals the Melrose Golden Wildcats. Hamilton went 33-1 that season and of course the only defeat came courtesy of the Golden Wildcats in their fourth match-up.
“That loss stayed with me for 20 years,” Newman acknowledged. “That was 50 years ago and I eventually ended up teaching and coaching at Melrose.”
Newman’s career in education began in 1976 after he graduated from LeMoyne Owen. After working at Hillcrest High School, Newman took his talents to rival Melrose. Then after a return to his alma mater, Newman retired from Melrose in 2014.
Since retiring from education, Newman has been a part of the committee of the Martin Luther King Jr. Invitational Basketball Tournament played every November throughout Memphis featuring nearly 70 teams.
Just like in winning the National title, Clint Jackson worked alongside him with the tournament after he retired from Fairley High School, serving 13 years as principal.
“To be a part of it and be selected as the MVP for that tournament is special to me,” Newman said. “I have a lot of memorabilia around my house from 1975. That moment has allowed us to give back to our community.
“That win was very important,” he continued. “It’s like voting for the first time. It’s like when Jame Meredith going to Ole Miss or like those two black students being denied entry into the University of Alabama by George Wallace. What we were able to accomplish was a historical first.”
Coach Johnson was able to pull off the feat by bringing in seven players from transfer.
“We had a Division I team playing at a Division III school to be honest,” Newman noted. “We were good enough to play with anybody.”
When asked who would win during that time if Memphis State took on LeMoyne Owen, Newman said it would have been a good, tough game.
One thing Newman knows for sure, the 1975 championship team was a divine occurrence.
“Without a doubt, we were put together for a purpose,” he said. “We talk about it often because a few of my teammates live within 10 minutes of me today.
“We have college degrees, good professional lives and we gave back,” Newman added. “God had to look down on us bringing us back home from different schools. And the man who was in charge of it lived to be 102 years old. One of the greatest coaches to ever do it, winning more than 800 games. You know God smiled down on us.”
Newman said the second weekend in September belongs to football in Memphis but the phrase Southern Heritage gives a platform for his team’s story to be shared year after year.
“We’re one big family and it’s exciting giving people a chance to come out and learn about things like this,” he concluded. “The social aspect from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The Southern Heritage Classic is a special thing. I wish the young people know and realize what it is all about. It’s more than just a game.”