Omaha resident, former coach who changed college football being honored in Illinois’ Rose Bowl anniversary

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – This month featured a whirlwind of recognition for one Omaha man who made his mark in the sport of football outside the state of Nebraska.

One of the first tough decisions he faced as a coach dramatically changed the landscape of college football in the south.

“I had a good game,” said Bill Tate. “We played Stanford and ended up number one in the country.”

Tate, once an MVP of the famous Rose Bowl, was given his own day of recognition by the University of Illinois.

For Bill Tate, it was Feb. 7, 1952.

But it’s what he did as a college football coach that helped move mountains in the deep south.

“Nationally, Wake Forest had not been given credit for being the first school to recruit Black athletes,” said Tate.

In 1964, Tate was the new head coach of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Prior to the season, the University President had a question.

“The first thing he said to me is, ‘What do you think about recruiting black athletes?’ I said, ‘I’m all for it. I played with black athletes at Illinois. That doesn’t bother me.’”

This was in the early ‘60s.

“It was a trying time in America and not a lot of people were willing to be part of the solution,” said Bob Grant.

Grant had planned to play football for a northern school in Michigan State where he knew he would be more accepted.

Instead, the linebacker from a segregated North Carolina high school took a risk and he became one of three African-Americans to come to Wake Forest that year.

“I didn’t come here to be liked,” Grant said. “I came here on a mission and to help Coach Tate achieve — we are going to break the color line and they did.”

For away games, they were forced to eat at the hotel and couldn’t go to the movie theater. There was bullying and death threats to both the players and Coach Tate.

“That was not a pleasant experience,” said Tate.

But this November marks 57 years after Coach Tate made the decision to recruit African-Americans to Wake Forest.

“It was heartwarming,” he said.

The players also received Trailblazer Awards.

Bob Grant, who won a Super Bowl with the Colts, even took part in a famous Wake Forest tradition — riding on the back of a motorcycle with the mascot prior to kickoff.

“As the trophy said, they were trailblazers,” said Coach Tate. “There’s no doubt about it. Wake Forest was the ideal school to do this because it was a small school, it didn’t require a whole Board of Trustees to say, ‘I like this or don’t.’ It just took one person.”

Tate, who is now 90 years old, coached at Wake Forest for five years.

His star running back was Brian Piccolo.

Tate said his reason for leaving was that it didn’t pay very well. He moved to Omaha in the late ‘70s for a sales job.

Tate is being honored this weekend in Illinois for the 70th anniversary of its Rose Bowl victory.

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