Columbia, S.C. — Tiger football opened its second season at Benedict College this fall, continuing a tradition of pep rallies and tailgate parties that were common on the campus twenty-nine years ago.
Football’s comeback last year boosted enrollment, rejuvenated alumni support and gave the city of Columbia, S.C. something about which to cheer, according to Benedict President David H. Swinton, who also acknowledged the positive media exposure generated by the athletic program. “That national, state and local exposure has a direct impact on students deciding where to go to college,” he said.
“This [club football] program allows us to be a more attractive institution for students looking for a well-rounded college experience.”
Benedict football also will have a positive effect on Columbia’s African-American community, said attorney and Columbia City Councilmember Luther Battiste. “The team had a very loyal following in the past, and reviving it gives African Americans a place where they can come together,” he said. “As the program grows, fans will invariably begin coming from out of town to attend the games here. It’s just very positive for both the community and the economy.”
A Factor in Enrollment Swinton said he has no doubt that football is the reason for a record enrollment growth last semester and a higher percentage of new male students at the 125-year-old college. “We are pretty sure that football is a major factor — for the second year in a row — in Benedict having the highest growth rate of any of the forty-one private Black United Negro College Fund colleges,” he said. “For the first time in modern history, we have more males than females enrolled.”
In the 1995-96 academic year, Benedict had 1,861 students. Of the 654 first-year students, 382 were men and 272 were women. This year, Benedict’s enrollment is up to 2,000 students.
Although getting an education was his primary reason for enrolling at Benedict, Andre Posey admits that part of the college’s attraction was the club football team. The twenty-year-old Columbia resident is the team’s punter and place kicker.
“Since it’s the first time in a long time that Benedict has had a team, I wanted to be a part of that,” said Posey, who hopes to become an architectural engineer. “My mom encouraged me to be a part of it since it is such a positive thing in the community.” Football has drawn a lot of alumni back to the campus, some of whom hadn’t been back in twenty years, Swinton said. They are coming to volunteer their time, the president said.
“Coming back and seeing all the other positive things Benedict is doing invigorates them,” he said. “For them, football was an important part of their college experience and they are glad to see these students have the same experience.”
Football also helps to raise money, Swinton said. “General contributions — not just for football — from alumni and corporations have been positively impacted. And as we build the program, we expect there will be more contributions.”
The Collapse of 1966
So, if football is so good for Benedict, then why did college trustees end the program? A collapsed stadium bleacher indirectly ended the program at the height of its popularity in 1966, recalls William “Red” Jackson, former Tiger coach. Jackson is now the trainer and an assistant coach for the new Tiger squad.
That year, Benedict played one of its biggest rivals, Florida A&M University. The stands were filled to capacity. The section holding the 100-member Florida A&M band collapsed. The cost to repair the stadium was inadvertently placed in the athletic department’s budget instead of capital improvements, Jackson said. It was the same year an accreditation committee came to review the school’s academic programs.
“Because of the mistake of putting that $250,000 repair in the athletic budget, it appeared that the school was spending too much on sports and not enough on academics,” Jackson said. “And the committee threatened the school’s accreditation because of that. in a knee jerk reaction to the criticism, the board voted to kill the program.”
The resurrection of the program brought Jackson out of retirement. “This has been missed in this area of South Carolina,” he said. “We can have something now that we can call our own. It provides a social atmosphere for the people of Columbia and gives them a larger sense of association. it is a unifying force in this community.”
Stepping Up the Program More than 7,000 people attended the college’s first home game held at C.A. Johnson High School’s Bolden Stadium. After losing its first two games on the road, the Tigers beat Methodist College’s junior varsity team, 22-18. The team, which finished last season with a 3-6 record, is not in a conference but will be eligible to join one in 1997.
“For the 1996-97 season, we’re stepping up our program,” said Benedict spokeswoman Kymm Hunter. “We’ll be playing tougher NCAA Division II schools like Johnson C. Smith University, Virginia Union University and Knoxville College. Last year, we played mainly junior colleges and military schools. This year, we’ll be playing four-year colleges with well-established programs.”p To field the new team, Benedict is spending $250,000 from the general fund, Swinton said.
Head Coach Harold Jackson has stressed the importance of winning for a home crowd that has been overwhelmingly supportive of football’s comeback. “There is so much spirit behind this thing,” said Jackson, a former NFL wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. That spirit, and an opportunity to grow a team from infancy, led to his decision to come to Columbia. “Every coach is out there for the challenge, and I this is definitely a challenge — starting a team from the ground up. Every coach wants to say they started something.”
But just to say he was the first to coach a revived team is not enough, he said. “People keep telling me that they don’t expect us to win, but just to be competitive,” he said. “But I expected to win. Once you start losing, it’s just like cancer — you can’t get rid of it. If we can keep this winning spirit we’ve got going we’ll be okay.”
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