There’s a Football Revival Goin’ On
Within the last two years, five historically Black colleges have dusted the cobwebs off their football programs.
By Craig T. Greenlee
Strange as it might sound, football’s
recent revival at the smaller Black colleges is all about the bottom line. True, it is an expensive sport to maintain. That’s why schools dropped the sport in the first place. Football consumes a sizable chunk of the operating budget regardless of whether you’re a national champion like Oklahoma or as small as Allen University of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
Yet the game has an alluring upside as a main attraction and moneymaker. Those are the chief reasons behind football’s resurgence at those schools with student populations of 1,500 or less.
Within the last two years, five historically Black colleges have dusted the cobwebs off their football programs, most of which had been dormant for decades. Each school has its own unique game plan for its football future, and all are committed to making sure the sport remains a vital element of the college experience on their campuses.
Because of football, enrollment at Paul Quinn College (Texas), Lincoln University (Mo.), Edward Waters College (Fla.), Stillman College (Ala.) and Allen University (S.C.) has increased by more than 50 percent. In the case of Paul Quinn and Stillman colleges, the influx of football players has drastically changed the ratio of males to females on those campuses. Prior to football’s arrival, women outnumbered men 2-to-1, now the mix is 50-50.
But there’s also another plus. As these schools bring back football, incoming players who didn’t get football scholarships from the bigger schools now have more opportunities to attend college. Additionally, a larger number of students participate by joining the band or the cheerleading squad, two spin-off
benefits of football.
“Larger enrollment means more money for the school,” says Bob Smith, head football coach and assistant athletics director at Allen University. “Instead of this being a suitcase campus, the kids have a reason to stay here on the weekends. It is a drawing card.”
Rosemary Lewis, vice president for student affairs at Allen, agrees. Lewis anticipates that Allen’s enrollment (currently 542) will increase to 700 by the time the fall semester begins. “Football helps us recruit more students,” she says. “They want to know if we have football and that’s not surprising. Students want to attend a school that offers what other colleges offer.”
Campus football culture
There’s nothing quite like a Black college football game. The fierce but friendly rivalries and the pageantry of the marching bands transform an athletic contest into the main event on any given weekend.
“Bringing football back has been very positive,” says Theressa Ferguson, Lincoln athletics director. “I know that when I walk on this campus in August, everything will have a different feel. The football team will be practicing and so will the marching band and cheerleaders. That whole scenario produces a greater sense of pride, excitement and joy about our school.”
At any level of competition, the economic aspects of operating a football program can be daunting. None of the five schools has unlimited financial resources to devote to football, so they will have to make prudent decisions to ensure their programs are financially stable. Start-up costs can run as high as $250,000 to $300,000.
“Yes, it’s costly to put a program together,” Smith says. “But the way to make this work is to treat it like a business, so it can take care of itself. But at the same time, you can’t take money away from football and use it to pay for all the other programs.”
As a member of the NCAA Division III, Stillman College does not offer athletic scholarships. However, that doesn’t mean that money is not a prime concern. Richard Cosby, athletics director at Stillman, emphasizes that using a common-sense approach in spending matters and selecting coaches are critical steps in building a solid program.
“It’s important to keep things in perspective,” Cosby says. “You have to realize what has to be done to be competitive at your own level. So it means being reasonable in scheduling road games and having a good understanding of how to best spend funds for financial aid.
“As for choosing a football coach, you help your program by hiring someone who can work with kids, instill discipline and keep them in school. In building a good program, you need retention, not attrition.”
THE BENEDICT example
Restoring a college football program presents a supreme challenge for school administrators. But there’s ample proof the sport can make a successful comeback at a small Black college campus. Benedict College in South Carolina is a prime example.
Benedict dropped football in 1966, but resurrected the program six years ago. Since then, the program has exceeded expectations. Enrollment has jumped by 150 percent (from 1,200 to 3,000), and games played on campus at the 5,000-seat Bolden Stadium, routinely draw standing-only crowds of 7,000 to 8,000.
But that’s not all. Thanks to football, Benedict is ready to build a $23 million athletic complex, which will include a new 10,000 capacity football stadium that’s expected to be finished in time for the start of the 2004 season. Competition-wise, Benedict has held its own in recent years, finishing 5-5 two years ago and 5-6 last year as a member of the NAIA.
“Football has played a key role in the growth that’s taken place on this campus,” says Willie Washington, Benedict athletics director. “We’ve got strong support from the president’s office on down. That’s why everything we’ve touched has worked so well.”
Whether football has a successful revival at these five schools remains to be seen. And in all likelihood, it will take at least another four years to fully determine if the sport will flourish like it did in years past.
Here’s a quick glance at the five new upstarts:
This fall, the Yellowjackets will play a football game for the first time since 1968. For Bob Smith, head football coach and assistant athletics director, opening day is sure to bring back memories. He played on Allen’s last varsity team 33 years ago after transferring from rival Benedict, which disbanded its squad two seasons before he arrived at Allen.
Allen University will compete in the NAIA’s lowest competitive level and play at least three games. “Once we get past the growing years, we’re hoping to move up to Division II,” Smith says. “We’re not bringing football back just to have a great athletic program. It’s about building character in the people we recruit. To help us get where we want to be, we need financial support to get us there. Folks will have to join forces, walking together hand-in-hand and with our pocketbooks,” Smith says.
Edward Waters College
Prior to starting up in 1999, EWC football had been out of circulation for 36 years. The Tigers played two club seasons; now they’re set to kick off 2001 as an NAIA independent with a rigorous 10-game schedule, which includes Division II opponents Tuskegee University, North Carolina Central University, and Livingstone and Lane colleges.
The college is putting together a $2.1 million endowment to help fund football. So far, the Tigers have $1.2 million in hand, but still need $900,000 to meet their August deadline.
“Football gives students, alumni, fans and corporate supporters something to rally around,” says James Day, EWC’s special assistant to the president and athletics director. “A year ago when we announced we would play NAIA, 125 young men enrolled in school on their own. We haven’t reached our goal on the endowment yet, but continue to push on. The interest off the endowment will sustain the program, so we’ll never have to worry about football running out of money again.”
Paul Quinn College
Football begins its second year at Paul Quinn College under coach Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley, who coached future NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice at Mississippi Valley State in the early 1980s. The last time PQC played football, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were making headlines for their gloved fist demonstration at the ’68 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Quinn athletics director Keith McKinnon is working with a bare-bones budget of $100,000 for a program that has three full-time coaches and several volunteer assistants. PQC played four games as a club team a year ago and has a seven-game schedule this season, competing in the NAIA’s lowest competitive level.
McKinnon isn’t certain what lies ahead. Yet, he’s keenly aware that folks in the Dallas area will have to adequately demonstrate their support in order for the program to grow.
“It’s too early to tell how things might turn out,” McKinnon says. “We’re not a football factory, not
trying to be Texas or Texas A&M. The local people are happy that football is coming. In the next three to five years, then we’ll really see. We’ll find out if they’re happy enough to come to the games. And we’ll find out if parents are happy enough to send their kids to play for Paul Quinn.”
The Blue Tigers finished 3-6 in the NAIA last year. They will move on to the NCAA as a Division II independent team this season. Lincoln dropped football in 1989 and brought it back 10 years later. Lincoln expects to draw well at the gate with games against in-state neighbors Central Missouri State, Washburn and Westminster. The schedule also includes Prairie View, Stillman, Lane and Langston. “Our focus is to develop a program that everybody can be proud of,” Ferguson says. “The trick is to compete at a high level without being financially strapped.”
Football returned to Stillman in 1999 after a 50-year leave of absence. At that time, Harry Truman was in his second term as president of the United States.
The Tigers of the 21st century might be too good for their own good. They finished 6-3 last season, and now they’ve encountered problems getting Division III teams to play them. As a result, Stillman’s schedule is loaded with Division II teams, including Black college rivals Miles, Morehouse and Lincoln.
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