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UW’s First Black Football Coach Knew What he was Getting Into — and Came Anyway

Photo courtesy Rod Ritcherson

I sat down with Velma Ritcherson in the same house her and her husband, Lewis ‘Les’ Ritcherson, bought when they moved to Madison. They moved here so he could become the first ever black member of the athletics coaching staff of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She began her story of the move with a scene of her visiting the home of the athletic director at the time, Ivan Williamson.

“Mrs. Ivanson, you know, invited me in and so forth and took my coat, and she said, ‘Oh the first thing that you’re gonna have to do when you move to Wisconsin is buy you a winter coat.’ And I said, ‘But this is my winter coat.’ and she said, ‘This little coat is too light,’” Ms. Ritcherson said.

This would be the first of many changes Velma and her family would have to endure during their move from Waco, Texas to Madison, Wisconsin in 1966.

Les Ritcherson. Photo courtesy Rod Ritcherson.

In Waco, Les Ritcherson was an extremely accomplished high school football coach. He coached the A.J. Moore High School football team, an all-black football team at the time, to multiple state titles with a highly successful overall record. The younger of his two sons, Rod Ritcherson, described to me how his father was often more than just a coach to his players as well.

“My dad was a father figure to many, many players. Today, those grown players who have gone on to be successful in their lives, they still stay in contact with my dad and continue to thank him for everything that he did for them as a coach and as a father figure to them to help them excel years later,” he said.

Les Ritcherson was the coach every student athlete hopes for when they join a team. A man who pushed his players to perform better than they believed they could in both sports and school, he was just as dedicated to winning games as he was to ensuring the scholastic success of his players.

Velma told me a bit about this as she recounted a common interaction Les would have with his athletes. “One of the ‘musts’ that my husband had was ‘I don’t care what time we get back from the game, the important thing is in the morning you are to be in class that next day,’ and the players would say, ‘Well Coach, we just got back at 3:30 this morning.’ He would say, ‘You are to be in class.’ That was the education part of him: education is primary,” she said.

This dedication to both education and sports made Les a prime candidate for any college athletic department. However, this was the ‘60s. The vast majority of major campuses around the country had yet to see a single black person in any administrative role, and in many places active segregation was still in full effect. UW-Madison was no different.

So when Les got the call from the athletic department of UW inviting him to consider a coaching position there, it was not a decision he made lightly, or alone.

Photo courtesy Rod Ritcherson

“It was a decision that he made after many discussions with the family… he talked with his former high school coach, he talked with his former college coach, he talked with our pastor,” Velma said. “This was not a fast decision. Not, ‘oh yeah, if the University of Wisconsin calls me, I’m going.’ No.”

The Ritcherson family knew that if Les took this job coaching at the University, it would not be as simple as moving to work a new job. They would become a family of pioneers, leaving a community in which they were connected, successful, and surrounded by people similar to them to live in a cold town with only a few black families. However, Les and his family made that decision knowing that their commitment to this endeavor would help to open doors for future people of color in Madison.

When I asked Velma how their family was able to weather moving to such a new and unfriendly environment, she said, “Keep in mind what your purpose is, we’re here and we either move out of here… or we stand here. You’ve got to take what’s being offered to you if you can handle it.”

This mentality was important because when they did decide to take the opportunity to lead black involvement in UW-Madison and make the move, the city was not very welcoming. Lewis II, the oldest son of the Ritcherson family, joined UW-Madison as a student athlete on the football team the same year his father became an assistant coach. He described to me how, as a black player, he was not afforded the same opportunities to play and grow as the white players.

“If I made a mistake it was a big deal. I started the first game, and I remember I threw an interception and after that I didn’t play anymore,” Lewis II said. “The next game, the other quarterback threw six interceptions. I start warming up after the third one, and the fourth, and I was just standing there. After the fifth I just sit back down. He threw six. Then the next game the quarterback they put in threw three. I didn’t get back in anymore, so it was kind of funky. I don’t have good memories of playing there.”

He went on to tell me how his father had a very similar experience. “Sometimes he would walk into a meeting, and before it started they’d have had a secret meeting without him being there. Writing names on the board of players they wanted to try to get rid of. Of course I was one,” Lewis II said. “But see, they couldn’t do anything to me, I had good grades so they couldn’t go that route.”

The entire family had similar stories. Rod was one of only two black students at Memorial High School at the time, and told me a story of how a teacher would often leave him out of events whose only requirements were good grades, when his grades were all As and Bs. Velma told me how she was often the only black woman in the room when she worked at the UW Extension.

UW Coaching staff circa 1966. Photo courtesy Rod Ritcherson.

Despite the cold atmosphere of Madison, the family made it. Velma Ritcherson went on to become a pillar of education, community, and empowerment for men and women of color in the Madison area. Lewis II went back to Texas and became a successful football coach himself, helping student athletes achieve their athletic and educational goals much as his father did. Rod stayed in Madison, becoming one of the biggest names in advertising and marketing in the city, as well as contributing and participating heavily in community and art organizations. And Les himself, after a few years dealing with the difficulty of being a racial pioneer in sports, took an even more active role in the integration of UW when he became Assistant to the Chancellor for Affirmative Action.

He was breaking barriers for both himself and others in that office, where Velma and Rod told me that he was one of the first black administrators at UW. “He was able to make inroads into making sure that hiring practices gave equal consideration to all people who were qualified to hold various positions including, of course, persons of color,” Rod said.

The Ritcherson family succeeded in their endeavor during a time when Madison, and most of the nation, was not rooting for them. They were able to do so because the Ritchersons are a resilient family. Rod told me, “Because of my upbringing I knew that I could compete in any setting. So I made up my mind that I’m in this, because of my dad’s success and because of his advancement in his profession.”