On Saturday Feb. 11th at 8:30pm MT, the CBS Sports Network will debut “The Black 14: Wyoming Football 1969” in celebration of black history month. The documentary covers the 14 African American University of Wyoming football players who were dismissed from the team by head coach Lloyd Eaton. The players wanted to wear black armbands during a game against Brigham Young University to protest the policies of the Mormon church that did not allow African American priests. With this documentary coming out we thought we would catch up with Wyoming graduate and former Cowboy sports beat writer Ryan Thorburn to get his thoughts. Ryan is currently the beat writer for the Oregon Ducks and has written three books about Wyoming athletics including one about the Black 14 entitled: Black 14: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Wyoming Football. You can give Ryan a follow on Twitter as well for periodic random Wyoming tidbits as well!
WyoNation: CBS Sports Network is airing a documentary on the Black 14 on February 11th. Were you interviewed for this documentary?
RT: I was contacted by the producer and provided him with some general background information, as well as some contact information for members of the Black 14. I was not formally interviewed by CBS Sports Network for the documentary.
WyoNation: For those who may not be familiar with this part of UW history, what is the basic synopsis of the story?
RT: The 1960s were the golden age of Wyoming football under head coach Lloyd Eaton, offensive assistant Paul Roach and defensive assistant Fritz Shurmur. The Cowboys beat Florida State in a Sun Bowl, played LSU in a Sugar Bowl and were nationally-ranked and rolling again in the fall of 1969.
Then on October 17 of that year, the 14 black players on the team walked into Eaton’s office to ask if they could wear black armbands against BYU to protest policies in the LDS Church they viewed as racist. Eaton ushered them into the bleachers of the Fieldhouse and told them they were all kicked off the team.
WyoNation: What was your main motivation to write a book about the Black 14?
RT: As a kid growing up in Casper, I used to ride with my grandparents or parents down and back to Wyoming games. I was a huge fan, even though the Pokes’ usually weren’t very good.
My dad used to tell stories about how Wyoming never lost a home game when he was a student in Laramie in the 1960s. He talked about great players like Jim Kiick and Mike Dirks and Vic Washington. I wanted to know what happened to the program.
The answer was often: “Well, the Black 14 incident,” without any explanation. So when the 40th anniversary was nearing, I decided to write a book about it.
WyoNation: This was an unfortunate event for the state of Wyoming and the University. How has the University dealt with this over the years?
RT: There are still some scars, but I think time has healed most of the wounds. With funding from the Associated Students of UW, a bronze sculpture by Guadalupe Barajas of Cheyenne was placed in the basement of the Wyoming Union honoring the Black 14. After my book on came out in 2009, I was invited to take part in a Black 14 panel discussion at UW, which included two players featured in my book, Mel Hamilton and John Griffin.
WyoNation: If these events did not take place, how much different would Wyoming football be today?
RT: It’s impossible to know for sure. There’s a chance Eaton could have stayed in Laramie and built a Nebraska-like dynasty. Or perhaps, like predecessors Bob Devaney and Bowden Wyatt, he would have left for a bigger job. The incident clearly sent the program into a downward spiral. Eaton had compiled a 54-20-2 record at Wyoming before dismissing the Black 14. He went 3-13 after that decision, stepping aside as coach following a 1-9 finish in 1970.The Cowboys had 11 losing seasons, three winning seasons and two 6-6 seasons from 1970 to 1986 before the Roach era. Wyoming is fortunate to have such a rich football history, which dates back to 1893 and continues with an impressive resurgence under Craig Bohl. The Black 14 is one chapter of that history everyone should read.