I recently finished reading a book about the 1968 New York Jets on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s only Super Bowl title. A look at their roster shows that seven players hailed from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Another, Billy Joe, later became the second-winningest head coach who spent his entire coaching career at HBCUs after College Football Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson of Grambling. Flash ahead 50 years later, and only one Jet, running back Isaiah Crowell, came from an HBCU (Alabama State).
In 1968, three of those Jets—Emerson Boozer, Earl Christie and Johnny Sample—played for Maryland State, now known as the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. None of them would have been recruited by the University of Maryland-College Park, which did not have a black player until 1963. Offensive tackle Winston Hill played for Texas Southern University in Houston. The University of Texas did not have a black football player until 1969. Hill, who was in his sixth year in pro football, could not have played for the University of Houston, which did not have a black player on their team until 1965. Defensive end Verlon Biggs, who would play in a second Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins, played at Jackson State University (MS). The University of Mississippi would not have a black player until 1972. Defensive back Cornell Gordon played for North Carolina A&T. The University of North Carolina would not have a black player on their team until 1971.
I doubt that the men who played for the HBCUs before 1970 played to crowds or practiced at facilities that were anything close to what they might have seen at a flagship state university that regularly played in bowl games. If anyone told me that any of them were unfairly denied an opportunity to play at the big state school, I would agree completely. These men were fortunate in one sense: there were rival professional leagues from 1946 to 1949, and from 1960 through 1966. More teams were around to recognize the talents at the HBCUs—and two leagues sometimes meant two salary offers. The same was true when the former United States Football League (USFL) operated in the middle 1980s. Thirty-three players from HBCUs were selected in the first USFL territorial and league draft in 1983, many who were also drafted by teams in the NFL.
The current players at HBCUs deal with the worst of the past and present. They do not have the resources to upgrade facilities, are often excluded from participating in the championship playoffs due to low graduation rates, and must play “guarantee games,” that are “no-win scenarios,” against teams from the major conferences to raise revenues for their programs. At the same time, as Division 1 schools that may qualify to play in playoffs versus bowls, HBCUs may carry as many as 85 players on scholarship, though most would be on partial rides. These teams are allowed to offer as many as 63 full rides. That might mean more playing time, but also more risk of injury.
I cannot see how scholarship football can continue to be sustainable under these conditions at the HBCUs, though some, like Grambling and Jackson State have sent many players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after successful careers and would not want to walk away from their histories in scholarship varsity football. While some programs such as Alabama’s or Clemson’s have the stadiums and revenues that could help a school in need to fund their program through a guarantee game, most others do not. It is also fair for the fan bases of less advantaged major conference programs to ask why a winnable game needs to cost their university
Perhaps it is time for these schools to adopt a new model for competition that could preserve historic regional rivalries, possibly through a relationship with the NFL where stadiums could serve as neutral sites to take advantage of the fan bases the HBCUs already have. Imagine a Texas Southern-Southern University series with home and away games at Houston’s NRG Stadium and New Orlean’s Mercedes Benz Superdome that would fill both venues and attract sponsorships that could provide much-needed financial support. These games would draw good ratings in their best markets, provided that they were not scheduled at the same time as a high profile contest for the major college that is in the same television market.
The NFL should assume the lead from the larger college football programs and help to put the football programs at the HBCUs on a better footing. True the HBCUs could drop to a lower profile, but the contributions of schools such as Grambling and Jackson State to the NFL merit a return of serious thanks from the professional league. Especially since it’s the only pro game around.
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