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Jamie Vaught: Homer Rice helped break color barrier in UK football, wrote ‘textbook’ on leadership


(This is the second of a two-part column about Kentuckian Dr. Homer Rice who had an illustrious career in football coaching and athletic administration. He also recruited Greg Page of Middlesboro who became the first black football player to sign with UK.)

When Dr. Homer Rice was the athletics director at North Carolina from 1969 to 1976, one of his employees was a basketball coach named Dean Smith, who later retired in 1997 as college basketball’s winningest men’s coach in NCAA Division I.

Rice, who currently lives in Atlanta, said it was interesting that “Dean Smith was hung in effigy a year before I arrived at North Carolina.  Dean quickly put a program together to the top of the ACC and nationally. I will always remember the last two minutes of a game….if we were ahead, it was the four corner (offense). If we were behind, he used timeouts better than any coach in the business.  He never called timeouts during a game, saving them for the last two minutes if needed.  He was able to come up with something to win the game.”

Home Rice and wife Karen, attend a private screening of “Black in Blue” organized by Dana Greene (left) (Photo provided)

Then he left for Houston in 1976 and became the head football coach and athletics director for two years at Rice University, coaching All-American QB Tommy Kramer. He later joined NFL legend Paul Brown and became the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, a post he held for two years.

In 1980, he took a significant pay cut — $62,000 a year — to take the AD job at Georgia Tech where future UK head coach Bill Curry had been hired as the school’s new football coach a month earlier.

Asked how did he ended up at Georgia Tech, Rice said, “I had turned down Georgia Tech three times but Bobby Dodd (school’s ex-athletics director who had retired in 1976) called and begged me to come.  He stated, ‘They are so low at Georgia Tech that they may have to drop football. You are the only one in the country that can help us.’ I then told the (school) president, ‘If you let me put in the Student-Athlete Total Person Program (concept developed by Rice which has been implemented by many schools since then), I will come.’

“I was able to make up the $60,000 with a TV sports show and a football quarterback camp. I had coached my last year (with the Bengals) and was becoming an NFL general manager but the challenge to rebuild a dying program interested me to accept the position. I was also executive assistant to the president at Georgia Tech in addition to being the Director of Athletics for 17 years.

“Bill Curry was my football coach. He did a fantastic job taking a program on the bottom to the top.” Curry later moved on to Alabama and Kentucky.

After retiring as AD in 1997, Rice was asked to stay and teach a leadership class at Georgia Tech and his book, “Leadership Fitness” was used as textbook for the students. He also wrote “Lessons for Leaders,” a case study which tells the story of a five-year plan to build Georgia Tech athletics from the bottom to the top in the conference and nation. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Rice, it has been said the story of Georgia Tech athletics was the biggest turnaround in NCAA history.

Rice recently returned to Middlesboro to watch a private screening of “Black in Blue,” a documentary film about the four UK African-American football players who broke the color line in SEC during the mid-1960s, including ex-Middlesboro High School star Greg Page. Besides Page, the other black Wildcat players at the time were Nate Northington, Houston Hogg, and Wilbur Hackett. The notable film is directed by award-winning filmmaker and UK graduate Paul Wagner and produced by former Wildcat quarterback Paul Karem.

And it was then-UK offensive coordinator Rice with his strong Middlesboro connection who eventually brought Page to UK. He discussed his recruitment of Page in a chapter, titled “The Unknown Story of Greg Page,” in his “Leadership Fitness” book.

“Greg Page was one of the four African-American players who played at the University of Kentucky in 1966-67, but he also gained a claim to fame as the first African-American football player to be recruited to that university,” wrote Rice, who left UK after the 1965 season to take a similar post at Oklahoma.

Interestingly, during the 1964 season, Rice learned about Page’s football talent when his father-in-law was ill and spent time in a hospital in Middlesboro where Page’s mother was a nurse and took of him. Mrs. Page found out that Rice was coaching at UK and told him about her football-playing son. So Rice made numerous trips to Middlesboro and visited with Page. The Yellow Jackets’ star signed with Kentucky in the fall of 1965. Rice told Page that his signing with UK would be like Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers who became the first black major league baseball player.

Rice then left for Oklahoma to become an assistant under new Sooners boss Jim MacKenzie, who played at Kentucky under coach Bear Bryant.

As pointed out in “Leadership Fitness” book, Page later phoned Rice and asked if he could come to Oklahoma with Page explaining that he strangely had not been in touch with the Kentucky officials. Rice then checked with UK’s longtime athletics director Bernie Shively about the situation. Then-Kentucky coach Charlie Bradshaw said Page was coming to UK and Rice told the MHS standout to keep his commitment with the Wildcats.

Unfortunately, Page had a serious back injury during a preseason practice in 1967 and he passed away about a month later. And his roommate Northington became the first African-American to play football in the SEC.

In 2016, Rice and his wife, Karen, also attended the unveiling of the bronze statue featuring first black football players – Page, Northington, Hogg and Hackett — at UK and SEC, near the Kroger Field, as a special guest of Greg Page’s brother, Mel Page and family.

Needless to say, the well-respected Rice – who also was close friends with former NFL and UK gentleman coach Blanton Collier — remarkably has touched a lot of folks at many places with his successful leadership. As Bill Curry wrote the foreword in Rice’s book, Rice is continuing “his lifelong commitment to the development of positive leaders.”

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at  KySportsStyle@gmail.com.


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