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An Opportunity to Flourish

An Opportunity to Flourish
Unable to offer ‘red carpet’ treatment to recruits,
Bethune-Cookman football coach provides players with much more.
By Tim PovtakDAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
As a kid, Alvin Wyatt used to walk seven miles on Saturday mornings, for the chance to ride 90 minutes in the back of a boys-club pickup truck that would take him to Gainesville, where he would sell peanuts so he could marvel at the play of Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier.
As a kid, he shared a bed with four brothers, who shared a room with three sisters in the next bed, all waking up with various hands and feet, arms and legs, stretched across one another. Clothes were handed down. Shoes were repaired with duct tape. Socks were darned. Shirt collars were reversed and re-sewn when they wore out.
Wyatt grew up poor, but he never knew it. He never worried about what he didn’t have. He made do with what he did have — a lot of grit and determination.
It’s why he has done so well as the head football coach at Bethune-Cookman College, a small (2,300 students) private, predominantly Black institution. It’s why the Wildcats will do just fine this season, even flourish, despite a glaring lack of resources that other programs take for granted.
“We don’t have everything we want here, but we get everything we need to be successful,” Wyatt said last month, a few hours before his freshman players arrived on campus. “There are a lot of high school coaches who can’t believe what we get done here with what we have. But we’re underdogs most weeks, and that’s fine.”
Bethune-Cookman, which plays in the NCAA Division I-AA classification, will be going for its fifth consecutive winning season under Wyatt, who inherited a program that had gone 12 consecutive years without a winning season.
It is the smallest school, and the only one without state funding, in the nine-member Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. And it shows in many ways. At a time when in-state schools such as Florida Atlantic, Florida International and South Florida have started higher-profile, better-financed football programs, B-CC keeps plugging along, making lemonade from lemons.
The Wildcats don’t have an on-campus stadium like everyone else in the MEAC, playing at the well-worn, city-owned facility nearby. They had spring practice at a local high school while their field was being repaired.
Their football offices are in a double-wide trailer adjacent to the practice field. There is no office secretary to answer calls or take messages, no student assistants to run errands.
They have no football locker room, sharing showers and stalls with their other sports teams. The weight room was so small that only a third of the team could be inside it at one time.
Players who arrived early last month were greeted with the chore of dismantling and moving the weight room and all its contents down the street into a car dealership building the school had just purchased.
Everyone pitched in, and no one complained. It’s more like a family — like the family Wyatt grew up with — than a football team. There are no frills here, but no one is looking for any.
“I came here because of the family atmosphere,” says sophomore defensive lineman William Hudson, who turned down an offer from Memphis University to play at B-CC. “I was a little unsure of my talents, and didn’t want to get lost at a big school. It’s been perfect for me.”
Hudson, like many of the B-CC players, lives in the dormitory behind the practice facility. He has three roommates, which is cramped by state-school standards but a necessity at cash-strapped B-CC.
“When they are being recruited, if kids come here looking for big buildings, fancy amenities, we just tell them that this isn’t the place for them,” says Kirk Mastromatteo, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “We’ll pat them on the back and wish them good luck. But if they want a good education and a great chance to graduate while playing good football, then maybe they should stay.”
Many of the players at B-CC have relatives or friends who previously went to school here, or were guided here by B-CC alumni. Without some connection to the B-CC family, it’s tough to recruit a topflight player here. It’s the family that Wyatt sells.
“We had some recruits here, some junior college guys, who wanted to know when we were rolling out the red carpet for them,” Wyatt recalls. “I just told them, our carpet is green, or maroon. I couldn’t put anything out there that was appetizing to them — except a good education.”
Wyatt has no coaching tower on the practice field, no fancy office to impress, entertain or intimidate. What he has is a genuine love for the school where he played more than 30 years ago. There is nothing phony about his belief in his school and what it can offer.
He lives here — literally — in Bronson Hall, the dormitory where most of the football players live. He has lived in the same one-bedroom, first-floor apartment for 25 years. He uses the same hallways, the same recreation room, the same TV lounge as the players do.
“That’s why when I tell a mother that I’ll take good care of their son, I mean it. If something happens, I’m there. They touch the same hallways, the same showers I do,” he says. “I’m not hard to find.”
Wyatt has been on campus since the mid-’70s when he finished a brief NFL career. They offered him a part-time job in the athletic department with a $5,000 salary and a place to live. He never left.
His salary now is just $62,000, which is less than most of the assistant coaches at rival Florida A&M University. He has no television or radio show, just deep roots and love for his job.
When he and B-CC president Dr. Oswald Bronson together toured the University of Florida football complex last year, they saw how the other side of college football lives.
B-CC does have plans for a new gymnasium. The school wants to build a football locker room where the weight room used to be.
What they have today is considerably better than what they had five and 10 years ago. Even the double-wide looks pretty good to the guys who work in it.
“It used to be, we (coaches) didn’t even have a place to meet,” says Mastromatteo. “We’d be walking around with briefcases looking for a classroom. When we got that portable we’re in now, we thought it was the Taj Mahal.”
There is real optimism for this season. Junior Allen Suber from Tampa returns as the league’s best quarterback, setting his sights on being MEAC Player of the Year. Defensive back Rashean Mathis of Jacksonville and Tor-El Robinson of Delray Beach are legitimate All-America candidates.
The Wildcats opened the season with two-a-day practices last month without 16 players, including five potential starters, who had either academic or disciplinary problems since spring practice ended. They may miss the entire season.
“We don’t make excuses,” Wyatt says. “It’s like I tell our guys sometimes: ‘If I tell you that a grasshopper can plow, don’t ask me how. Just hook him up.'”  — This article first appeared in The
Orlando Sentinel.

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