Let the Games Begin
HBCU coaches and administrators give their play-by-play accounts of the benefits of reviving college football programs
By Crystal L. Keels
It’s the pageantry, the precision, the rhythm and the music. It’s wave after wave of energetic flute, trumpet, tuba and drum players wearing colorful uniforms and executing intricate steps. It’s the dramatic dance moves and megawatt smiles of majorettes in short pleated skirts. It’s the drum major whose kinetic energy electrifies them all. And it’s all an important part of what football programs bring to historically Black colleges universities across the country.
“One thing washes the hand of the other,” says Tim Abney, director of athletics and head women’s basketball coach at Lincoln University of Missouri. After a 20-year absence, Lincoln’s football program was reinstated in 1999. “We are excited to have it back. It ties into the whole atmosphere and is such a big thing,” Abney says. “The enthusiasm it brings — the key word is tradition for HBCUs.”
For those HBCUs that were forced to phase football out — for financial reasons, primarily — and were then able to phase it back in, the difference between having and not having football on campus is remarkable.
The football program at Allen University (South Carolina) met its demise in 1968, but was resurrected in 2001. Benedict College (South Carolina) saw the return of its program in 1995, after a 29-year hiatus. Edward Waters College (Florida) watched its program dissolve in 1967, but rebuilt it in 2001. After decades-long gaps of time the football programs at St. Augustine’s (North Carolina), St. Paul’s College (Virginia), Shaw University (North Carolina), Stillman College (Alabama) and Paul Quinn College (Texas) are once again in play. And the Central State University (Ohio) program, which was disbanded in 1996, joins the ranks of those to be reinstated later this year.
“Enrollment has increased; school spirit is at an all-time high since I’ve been here (and there are) more positive attitudes among the student body,” explains Allen University athletic director/coach J. Ronald Sims. Sims, a former college athlete himself, says the decision to re-establish the football program was made before he came to Allen, a little over two years ago. He points out that the greatest challenge the football program poses is a financial one, but explains that a good football program yields several positives. Those benefits include the increased enrollment of quality students with good character who stay in school, Sims says, and students who — most importantly — graduate.
Indeed, some sociological studies have suggested certain correlations between successful athletic programs and higher graduation rates, for the athletes themselves — who actually benefit from eligibility requirements, team study halls, and other such mechanisms designed to keep them in school and on the field — as well as for the student population in general.
Generating School Spirit
Archie Cooley, football coach at Paul Quinn College, echoes similar sentiments and says it is clear to him how the restoration of the football program benefits the school. Football kicks off the entire year of athletic programs, he points out, and generates tremendous school spirit. He also explains that a winning team means even greater student enrollment, an even more enhanced educational program and significant benefits for everyone concerned.
“Students relate to football,” Cooley says. “It improves education (and attracts) a better student and a better student athlete.”
Cooley, who has coached in various capacities at a number of schools including Alcorn State, Tennessee State, Texas Southern University and Mississippi Valley State — where he counted NFL star Jerry Rice among his players — notes an 87 percent graduation rate at every school where he served as head coach.
He also explains the across-the-board allure of Black college football. Earlier in his coaching career, for example, at Mississippi Valley State with a student body of approximately 1,300 students, Cooley says it was necessary to move the team’s games to nearby Jackson, in order to accommodate enthusiastic crowds of more than 67,000 people. Even at $25 a ticket, Cooley says this small college was able to draw bigger crowds than some upper-division schools.
“Presidents like it,” Cooley says about the lucrative possibilities of the game, “because the money (it generates for the school) is unrestricted.” He adds that administrative commitment to the return of the sport is essential. “Get that kind of administration,” he says, “and you’re on your way.”
While the prior administration at Paul Quinn College brought football back to the Texas school after a 30-year stretch, Dr. Dwight Fennell, current president of Paul Quinn College, is also quite committed to the success of the reinstated program. Fennell outlines a number of benefits football brings, including what was an immediate increase in the enrollment of male students at Paul Quinn College. There are now more male students at Paul Quinn College than female, while before the program was reinstated the ratio of women to men was 2 to 1. He says as a result, campus social life has greatly improved and the program has also added incentives for the surrounding community. Community members and alumni, especially, he says, gravitate toward football sporting events.
Although the sport does generate revenue, Fennell concurs that the cost to keep these programs running is a major concern. Safety regulations, insurance requirements, replenishing supplies and, for those campuses without an on-site stadium, leasing stadiums to play in are among the factors that pressure the budgets of colleges that support football programs.
In anticipation of these kinds of costs, Ohio’s Central State University (CSU) is nearing its goal to raise $1.5 million to support the return of its highly touted and sorely missed football program.
Three-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) champions in the 1990s, the CSU football program was sacked in 1996 after a state audit revealed the school was $20 million in debt, and after its coach was sanctioned for eligibility errors, explains Kenneth Marshall, CSU sports information director, head of athletic training and facility manager. The football program was summarily cut. A later audit revealed a $2 million debt as opposed to the initial $20 million figure, but football was sidelined indefinitely while the school addressed its difficulties.
Since then, according to Marshall, Central State has undergone three “perfect state audits.” And since then college administrators have advocated for the return of football as a means to boost flagging student enrollment and get the school back on solid ground. CSU President John Garland has been working since 1998 to reinstate the program, according to a report in the Plain Dealer, and part of the president’s mission even then was to improve student morale.
Morale is indeed an issue, for alumni as well as for students. Marshall likens subsequent football-less CSU homecomings, which traditionally attracted scores of alumni, to a “bad party” where the food, the music, and the drinks are just not good and people are disappointed. The situation was improved, however, when a semi-pro team rented the CSU stadium and held a play-off game there that coincided with homecoming weekend. “That gave us something to center homecoming around,” Marshall says.
This fall the CSU football program returns to its own stadium with Coach Theo Lemon at the helm. Lemon, born in Massillon, Ohio, a city where, he explains, every baby boy born at the hospital is given a football, notes a “renewed energy” on the Central State campus as both enrollment and alumni support are increasing.
One of the main reasons for football’s return, Lemon says, is because of the alumni who “get a sense of pride, dignity and notoriety” from the CSU football legacy. “It meant something to them,” Lemon explains. “It is something they can’t let go of. It gives them a presence.”
Like the football program, Lemon, too, is returning to CSU where he was the defensive coordinator from 1985-1990. And like Lemon, former CSU football players are returning to assist in the revival of the sport. NFL offensive tackle Erik Williams, who played for a decade with the Dallas Cowboys and then with the Baltimore Ravens, is returning as an assistant coach and as a student. Williams plans to finish a degree in economics that he put on hold to play professionally. Like Williams, former CSU quarterback Henderson Mosley, who led the team to two of its three NAIA championships, is returning to complete his degree and to help coach Lemon rebuild the program.
Past players are vital to restarting the program and as part of his fund-raising efforts, Lemon is currently engaged in locating all former CSU football players — those who graduated as well as those who did not — to support the return of the sport.
Lemon’s focus as coach is more than just fund raising, however. He is interested in changing lives. He points out that football programs at historically Black colleges like Central State allow more athletes — those who might not have the opportunity to play at Division I schools, for instance — educational and athletic opportunities they would not have otherwise. He explains further that football is more than just a game for these young men; it is a process during which they can develop life skills like discipline, teamwork and a sense of responsibility that will serve them well in their lives, whether they continue to play professionally or not. “To return and help them restart this legacy is something I couldn’t turn down,” Lemon says.
And the band benefits, too. Depleted during the absence of football at Central State, marching band membership is now on the increase.
“There’s a good feeling on the (CSU) campus in anticipation of the program’s return,” Marshall says. “Alumni, local businesses, a lot of people remember the tradition of Central State football and they want to see us bring it back. The whole Miami Valley is interested in having it back.”
“The meat, heart and root of things is Black college football,” Lemon says. “There’s nothing like it.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com