TUSCALOOSA, Ala. | When Anthony Grant was weighing the opportunity to become a groundbreaking coach at Alabama, he talked to another pioneer figure on campus.
Wendell Hudson, the Crimson Tide's first black scholarship athlete and women's basketball coach, gave him a big thumbs-up. After all, after last year's election of President Barack Obama, then perhaps Alabama was ready for a black coach to lead the men's basketball team.
"We talked about his experiences here and the passion he has for this university, being the first African-American player to be recruited by the University of Alabama and his belief that this is the perfect time to come into this situation and make a difference," Grant said of Hudson. "When you look at what our country has experienced within this past year, the change that's taken place throughout our nation, it's not lost on me and it's extremely humbling.
"I look at it as I have a tremendous responsibility to honor the efforts, the sacrifices, the dedication of those that have come before me. And I'll be eternally grateful for that."
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He'll be the face of a program second only to football in prominence.
Athletic director Mal Moore cited Grant's track record, character and reputation in explaining his hire. Diversity didn't come up. While Grant addressed the race issue at his introductory news conference, he wasn't asked about his breakthrough status by reporters.
That in itself is a sign of progress for the prominent Deep South university that was criticized in some circles for choosing Mike Shula over Sylvester Croom as football coach in 2002. They had similar credentials, but Shula is white and Croom black.
The choice led civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to call for an investigation into the hiring practices at Alabama and the other Southeastern Conference schools, none of which had hired a black head football coach before Mississippi State later turned to Croom.
Alabama trustee John England said Moore, president Robert Witt and executive athletic director Dave Hart just sought "the best coach out there regardless of color."
"That's the important story, that the university sought the best and we were very fortunate to get him to come," said England, who is black. "I think it has historical significance, but it only has it just from looking at it from that historical perspective.
"It so happens that the best one out there that we could go after happened to be African-American, and we got him. I think that says a lot for the university, for the university community, for Coach Moore and for Dave Hart and for Bob Witt. They went out to get the best available and they got him. That's what's important."
Alabama didn't interview any other candidates.
Grant certainly did have impressive credentials after 12 seasons as an assistant under Billy Donovan with Marshall and Florida, and the last three years as Virginia Commonwealth head coach. He won 75 games, went to two NCAA tournaments and was 45-9 in Colonial Athletic Conference games with the Rams.
Grant's hiring was greeted with enthusiasm by Tide players, and not just because of his winning track record.
"I think a lot of people in our state have not seen this day coming," guard Andrew Steele said. "With everything that's happened recently, I think it's big that we'll have a black coach. I think that since most of our team is black, he'll be able to relate to us a lot easier."
Guard Mikhail Torrance's said: "That's huge. Since I got here, I've talked to Wendell Hudson a lot. It's a huge stepping stone, and I'm just glad to be part of it."
Steele hopes there won't be fans who make race an issue for Grant if there are tough times.
"Winning will cure everything," he said. "He is a proven winner. I think he's going to win a lot here, so I don't think that will have any effect."