Dwane Clodfelter remembered as civil rights pioneer in SD
By David Lias
On Monday, millions of Americans will take time, as they observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to reflect on the impact King had on promoting civil rights in the United States, particularly in the South.
Kim Clodfelter of Vermillion will no doubt be recalling the winning efforts of his father, Dwane Clodfelter, who unwittingly will go down in South Dakota history as not only one of the most unique coaches in the state, but also as a civil rights pioneer in his own right.
Dwayne “Cloddy” Clodfelter had one goal in mind – winning – when he convinced brothers Jimmy and Cliff Daniels of Brooklyn, NY, to come to South Dakota and play basketball for the University of South Dakota Coyotes.
It was a groundbreaking decision. The two men, both African-American, were the first minority athletes to compete at a collegiate level in the region, and perhaps in the nation.
“Cliff was two years older, and I believe he stayed out two years so he could play with his younger brother, Jimmy. I think it was a pretty courageous thing for Dad to do in 1954, to recruit minority athletes,” Kim Clodfelter said. “For example, the Southeast Conference didn’t start to become integrated until 1967 – Vanderbilt, I think, was the first school to bring in a black athlete, and I don’t think Kentucky had a black basketball player until 1970, so we’re talking about 16 years before, and we’re talking about nine years before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
Dwane Clodfelter’s efforts turned out to be the right decision for the coach, for the two brothers, for the basketball team, and for the university.
Less than four years after Coach Clodfelter made the decision to integrate his basketball team, the Coyotes won the national championship, 75-53, knocking off St. Michael’s College (VT) behind Jimmie Daniels’ 40 points. Jimmie Daniels became a first team Division II All-American while Cliff, who played an integral role on the 1958 championship team, established his place in Coyote lore with his clutch play in a 1956 upset at the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers, ironically, chose to integrate their program the following season.
“Dad was duly rewarded in 1958 when they won the Division II National Championship,” Kim Clodfelter said. “Gov. Foss flew the team from Evansville, IN, where they won the tournament, to Huron, to be honored at halftime of the State A championship game.”
A few days later, people from the university and the Vermillion community organized a special celebration to honor the champions.
“They had a banquet at the New Armory, which is now the Al Neuharth Center (on the USD campus), and they honored the team, and at the end, Dad was presented with a key to a brand new Buick,” Kim Clodfelter said. “I read an article that said Dad could hardly get the words, ‘thank you’ out. I don’t think a lot of people realized what that car meant to him. Even as USD’s basketball coach, he wasn’t paid a high salary.”
It was late 1954, during Clodfelter’s first season as head coach of the Coyotes, that a young Cliff Daniels contacted him about playing basketball for USD. Cliff and his brother Jimmie were currently enrolled in Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO.
Creighton Hoefer, in an article published in the Feb. 26, 2013 edition of The Volante, wrote that Jimmie Daniels said he and his brother experienced some racism in Missouri and wanted to find a better environment. The pair was initially unable to play for USD because of a tampering restriction at the time.
“My brother contacted Mr. Clodfelter and he indicated that he could not do anything for us at that particular time, being that we were enrolled at Lincoln University,” Daniels said in the Volante story. “He did say if we were to come to the university and once we arrived in Vermillion, he would be able to do something about (us playing).”
Jimmie Daniels said Clodfelter did not treat him or his brother differently than the other players when the two arrived on campus.
“Cloddy dealt with us basically the same as he dealt with any of our teammates,” Daniels said. “He did not go out of his way to make us exceptions. He in turn dealt with it very simply: We were teammates of the other guys and we had to live with them and they had to live with us. As a result of us playing together as a team we became very close.”
Hoefer notes in his story that at the time of their arrival in Vermillion, the Daniels brothers made up two-thirds of the entire African American student population at USD; just one other African American student was enrolled during that time. However, Jimmie said the predominantly white student body and community members accepted him and his brother.
“We didn’t have a great deal of problems,” he told Hoefer. “You have to bear in mind at that time there was a great deal of segregation taking place in the United States. We were black in an area that was not accustomed to having a great deal of contact with blacks. As far as the community and university students though, we had no problems as far as racial relations.”
The Daniels’ brothers were not welcomed so warmly on the road, specifically in segregated states such as Missouri and Kentucky.
Daniels said both brothers were aware of the risk surrounding Dwane Clodfelter’s unprecedented decision.
“I equate it as this; we knocked on the door, my brother and I, and Cloddy opened the door to come in,” Daniels told The Volante. “And you have to think Cloddy was a new coach, he was not a well-established coach and so Cloddy took a chance on us.
“But that was the type of person he was and my brother and I are just thankful he did,” Daniels said.
“My dad, who was a white, 36-year-old South Dakota native, wasn’t the only ally of minority students at USD in the fight for equality and opportunity,” Kim Clodfelter said. “USD’s entire student body and faculty played a noteworthy role in accepting and embracing the Daniels brothers. If the Daniels had met with racism on campus or in the Vermillion community, they would have left. Then Athletics Director Carl ‘Rube’ Hoy and then USD President I.D. Weeks also deserve credit for being color blind in affording minority students an opportunity for an excellent education at USD.”
Coach Clodfelter had already made an impact in the South Dakota sporting world before being hired to coach basketball at USD. The 1947 USD grad coached in high school ranks for 15 years at Alpena, Forestburg, Fedora, Centerville, Yankton and Huron. During that time, his teams never suffered a losing season. As a track coach, he guided teams to state Class A and B titles.
His tenure as USD’s basketball coach lasted until 1967. Besides winning the 1958 college-division national basketball title, his USD team won its last 20 games and was the first North Central Conference team to go unbeaten (12-0) in conference play.
Over the years, his USD teams also set the state record for consecutive home wins (34, 1956-59). In 13 seasons at USD (1954-55 season to 1966-67), Clodfelter’s record was 149-153. After that, he remained at USD as golf coach and assistant athletic director.
Clodfelter was inducted into the USD Athletic Hall of Fame in 1980. He passed away, at the age of 87, on April 23, 2006.
Kim Clodfelter firmly believes his father’s life is one worth remembering, and he hopes to capture the essence of the coach’s life by writing his biography. The book, entitled “Cloddy,” is still a work in progress.
“My dad was a character – he was colorful, funny,” Kim Clodfelter said. “A sportswriter once described dad as the biggest character he had ever covered. I’m hoping that someone, from California to Maine would like to read a good sports biography. I think I have good material.”
For more information about Coach Clodfelter’s legacy and the 1958 Coyote basketball team, please contact Kim Clodfelter at (608) 957-9350 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.