Coaching Pioneer Willie Jefferies Reflects on the Ernie Davis Era

More than 140 years after the abolition of slavery Blacks are still taking note of who is the first to make major breakthroughs in a number of areas of American life. Tony Dungy becoming the first Black head coach to win the Super Bowl in 2007 was one of the top stories of that game. These notations are symbolic of the tremendous obstacles Blacks have overcome throughout history. The release of the film “The Express” today is the most recent movie to celebrate the life a great athlete, Ernie Davis, who was the first Black man to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961.

As Davis began making a name for himself at Syracuse University in 1959, Willie Jefferies was graduating from South Carolina State University and starting what would become one of the most amazing head football coaching careers in history.

“I became the head coach of football at Granard High School (in South Carolina) in 1962, and Ernie winning the Heisman meant a great deal me. I talked to my players about it to let them know that there was no lid on what they could accomplish, both on the field and in life in America. After he won it, it gave them hope and they wanted to strive to accomplish greater heights and goals. And as a coach I remember thinking, ‘this might have a trickle down effect.’ This was a tough a time for African-Americans that were trying to strive for things. So this really was a breakthrough. It gave us a new hope as coaches and athletes.”

Although Davis lost his life to leukemia in 1963, his accomplishments proved to be a true milestone. In 1965, Mike Garrett became the second Black player to win the Heisman. But the fact remained that social issues were looked upon differently in the South as opposed to the rest of the country.

“In the early 1960s they were talking about integration, but my school (Granard High) didn’t until 1968 and most of South Carolina didn’t until shortly after that. So the timing of him winning it was very important. His being at Syracuse enhanced his chances of winning, because the sports writers and Heisman voters felt he was going against the best teams. They also felt that those schools had what they called at the time ‘well-trained coaches,’ which I completely disagree with.”

By 1973, Jefferies became the head coach for South Carolina State University and in 1979 became the first Black head coach of a Division I-A program (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision). He is also the only head coach to have coached games against sports icons Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama and Eddie Robinson of Grambling State University. He finished his career with three Black National Championships and seven MEAC Championships.

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