UL basketball coach Bob Marlin made a promise to the “Shipley Boys” Sunday afternoon. A few hours later, his Ragin’ Cajun team made good on that pledge.

He told a number of longtime Cajun coach Beryl Shipley’s former players, during a Sunday ceremony in which a bust of the late coach was unveiled at the Cajundome, that his team would play better than the last time they were on hand.

shipley_bustMarlin was referencing a 69-63 loss to Cal State Fullerton in last year’s middle game of the inaugural Beryl Shipley Classic. The Cajuns went 2-1 in that event, but it was that Saturday night game that featured the main ceremony honoring Shipley and which drew the biggest crowd of the coach’s former players.

About two hours after Shipley’s wife Dolores pulled the red cover off the bronze bust, unveiling the likeness crafted by local artist Delia Soper, Marlin’s young troops rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to down Oakland (Mich.) 90-79 in their season opener.

The cast was obviously different from the time that Shipley roamed courtside — in fact, this year’s UL team bears only token resemblance even to the squad that last played at the Cajundome less than nine months ago. But the keys to a second-half 53-37 scoring advantage were strikingly similar — hitting key shots and clamping down on the defensive end.

UL hit 73.1 percent from the field in the second half, making 19-of-26 shots, while holding Oakland to a 37.9 percentage after the Golden Grizzlies had hit 54 percent in the opening half. And don’t let the name fool you; Oakland has four starters back from last year’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament semifinalist, and the Grizzlies were in the NCAA Tournament in both 2010 and 2011.

“That’s another postseason team,” Marlin said of Oakland after the game.

A few hours earlier, Marlin was one of the speakers at the unveiling of the Shipley memorial and talked about his connection with the coach in the final year of his life. Marlin took over the post in late March of 2010 and Shipley died in April of the following year, but Marlin said he made several trips to the Shipley household in that year.

“We shared a special bond because we were in the same seat,” Marlin said. “Once I went over and Coach met me at the door and started talking about the tough times we were having. Dolores got him some paper, and he started diagramming offenses and defenses. I felt like I was in the principal’s office, but he was right, and we took some of that to heart.

That connection was part of the rekindling of a relationship between the school and Shipley, one that former assistant coach Tom Cox said had been missing for more than three decades.

“The fire of love between Coach and the university went out, and the ashes went cold for 35 years,” Cox said to the group on hand for the unveiling. “Our new president re-lit that fire, and thank God for him doing that.”

“We all hope we do something in our lives that helps and influences people,” said UL President E. Joseph Savoie. “Coach Shipley influenced a whole community. His commitment to his team, to the university and to the community created a movement of support that hasn’t happened many times in our history.

“This bust makes sure that for generations to come, people will know that Beryl Shipley is someone to be remembered, someone who made a difference, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

He also influenced Louisiana, making basketball relevant in a football state and eventually putting together a 296-129 record in his career from 1957-73, and guiding the Cajuns to the national Top 10 in each of his last three years — once in the college division and the final two in the university division (now known as Division I).

And he influenced the entire South, becoming one of the first coaches in the region to recruit African-American players during a time when that wasn’t popular among conferences and university families. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article credited him with helping break the color line in college athletics, and a documentary film currently in production and scheduled for a 2013 release delves deeply into that issue and the connections between that and UL’s NCAA-mandated program suspension from 1973-75.

The program has since risen, and Marlin is hoping this year’s new-look team — only three of the 11 players that saw action on Sunday were on last year’s squad — will make another addition to that legacy. If Sunday is any indication, it’s off to a good start.

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