Washington’s Doug Williams threw for four touchdown and a Super Bowl-record 340 yards when he led his team past John Elway’s Denver Broncos. Wilson’s numbers were much more modest Sunday night – two touchdowns and 340 yards – in leading his team past Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos.
Williams is part of HBCU football royalty, a former Grambling State star who played for legendary coach Eddie Robinson. Wilson played his college ball at North Carolina State and Wisconsin.
But he has strong ties to HBCUs beneath the surface.
Wilson’s grandfather Harrison B. Wilson graduated from Kentucky State, was a highly-successful basketball coach at Jackson State and later became president of Norfolk State. Russell’s grandmother Dr. Lucy Wilson graduated from South Carolina State.
A great-great grandmother, Elizabeth “Bettie” Price Ayers, graduated from Wilberforce University in 1901. An aunt, April Woodard, is a professor at Hampton University.
His connection to the past wasn’t lost after the game.
“It’s something I think about, to be the second African-American to win the Super Bowl,” he said. “That’s history right there, man. It’s something special and it’s real.”
Wilson’s father died of complications from diabetes in 2010. But the belief he instilled in his son lives on, which helps explain how a 5-foot-11 quarterback can win the Super Bowl in his second NFL season.
“He always used to tap me and say, ‘Russ, why not you? Why not us.’”
That’s the question, indeed.
Whether we’re products of HBCUs, PWCUs or no CUs…
Why not us?
There’s no denying that African Americans have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow. There’s also no doubt that integration helped lead to the gradual weakening of once-burgeoning black businesses and institutions.
Take HBCU football, for instance. The game used to be the main attraction, with talents such as Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Bob Hayes (FAMU), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Willie Lanier (Morgan State), etc. But nowadays, the vast majority of NFL-caliber prospects go elsewhere for college ball, leaving HBCUs better known for bands and halftime rather than stars and highlights.
“The HBCU halftime is part of the culture, and I love the bands,” Tennessee State’s Kadeem Edwards told Aljazeera America. “It fills me with pride. But, man, the football is more important to me. I don’t want the people to leave the game before the third quarter. Stay and watch us.”
Edwards was the only HBCU player selected for the 2014 Senior Bowl. He believes that HBCU football “is slowly dying” with diminishing crowds and fewer impactful recruits. South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson was the only HBCU player drafted in 2012 and only two HBCU players were drafted last year; as recently as 1996, 17 were drafted.
Former Arizona Cardinals star Aeneas Williams, who played at Southern, said mid-major schools and up-and-coming FBS schools have dented the influx as much as traditional powerhouses such as Alabama, Texas, Florida State, etc. He said HBCUs need to do a better job of marketing and promoting their legacy (while also upgrading their facilities).
“We need to be blowing the horns for our players who have the skill set to play at the next level,” he said. “Football can be the eyes for people to see into your university.”
Clearly, there’s no going back to the glory days, but there’s no reason HBCU football can’t be a quality product.
A number of players will continue to transfer from FCS schools, for a variety of reasons. And while former Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – who will line up for Denver in the Super Bowl – is the only first-round draft pick in the NFL, other HBCU players have reached the league via the undrafted free agent route.
It’s understandable that Edwards is frustrated by fans who barely pay attention during the game and leave after halftime. But continuing to compete is the best way to change that behavior.
Complaining isn’t the answer.
Howard alum David Oliver is more than just an Olympic hurdler and 2013 world champion. He’s also a man who understands the importance of helping the generation behind him.
That’s why he hosted the David Oliver Classic, an elite high school invitational meet held last weekend in Winston-Salem, N.C. About 100 schools and more than 1,000 athletes were expected to participate in a competition that may better than some of them will face in their respective state meets.
Unlike most prep indoor meets, which are split into classifications, there was no such split at Oliver’s meet.
Oliver was on-onsite to interact with athletes and coaches because he wants to help the sport grow, particularly at the youth level. Even as he moves forward in his career, he’s looking back to help those coming up.
“I just think back to when I first started competing at 17, not really knowing what to do with the sport,” he said in a video interview afterward. “… Now I can come in and talk to these kids and coaches. You never know who you might touch.”
The overwhelming majority of student-athletes at Howard and other HBCUs – just like the preponderance of their peers at predominantly white colleges and universities – will never cash a single paycheck for playing sports.
That’s why it’s vitally important to offer them a quality education and encourage them to take their academics as seriously as their athletics. They just might end up in a state legislature and broadcast booth, like former Howard quarterback Jay Walker.
Or they could work their way through the business side of sports. They could go from law school to a sports agency to an NFL team to NFL headquarters, before being picked to run a FBS athletic program.
Like former Stanford athlete Ray Anderson.
Currently completing his eighth season as the NFL’s executive vice president of football operation, Anderson will start his new gig – Arizona State’s vice president for athletics – after the Super Bowl. He joins a very short list.
According to the most recent report from The Insitute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport, of the 120 athletic directors at FBS schools, only nine were African-American as October 2012.
Unlike the others, Anderson doesn’t have any prior experience as an administrator at the collegiate level. But Arizona State president Michael Crow had a ready explanation for the hire during Anderson’s introductory press conference on Jan. 9.
“I have no doubt Ray can be a significant contributor to whatever we need to do to advance whatever resouces we need to move Sun Devil athletics forward,” Crow said. “Here we have a person that has demonstrated that he can learn, adapt, solve problems and move forward in any circumstances he encounters.”
That could be a motto for our Howard students, athletes and non-athletes alike:
“Learn, adapt, solve and advance – regardless.”
Booze and college is often a touchy subject, considering our society’s problems with underage drinking, drunk driving, date rape, etc. But that sensitivity hasn’t stopped the University of Louisville from engaging in a creative fundraising project with a … um … “spirited” corporate partner.
The Cardinal Athletic Fund and Maker’s Mark Distillery are teaming up to raise $1 million toward the creation of an academic center for Louisville’s athletes. The company’s famous Kentucky bourbon is being packaged in a limited edition, “Year of the Cardinal” bottle.
Not available in stores, the 500 specially-designed bottles commemorate Louisville’s historic 2013 – a Sugar Bowl victory in football, College World Series appearance in baseball, national runner-up finish in women’s basketball and national championship in men’s basketball.
The one-of-a-kind bottle is available to Cardinal donors for $2,000, with all proceeds earmarked for the $14 million Academic Center. Once completed, the state-of-the-art facility will house tutor rooms, learning labs and group study areas.
Maker’s Mark and Louisville have a contract for three bottle in three years, but the “Year of the Cardinal” bottle doesn’t count against that total. Previous bottles featured the image of football coach Charlie Strong (who just left for Texas) and men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.
Bourbon and Kentucky go hand-in-hand, so maybe the partnership was a natural. But what product screams “Washington, D.C.!” and perhaps could be used by Howard athletics in a fundraising capacity? Where’s the local corporate partner willing to be the Bison’s Maker’s Mark?
The search is on…
“There’s a lot of pressure to win here,” Adams said recently. “Every time you come into the gym, you see all the banners and and all the tradition and success this team has had over the years. This isn’t a cakewalk to come here and coach at Howard. They demand success.”
The Bison are coming off three consecutive appearances in the MEAC Tournament championship game, two invitation to the WNIT (2011 and 2012) and two 20-plus win seasons. But Reid Geckeler didn’t leave much behind for Adams, a Northwestern University assistant coach for six seasons before coming to Howard. Eight of the 12 players are freshmen or sophomores.
Inexperience hasn’t stopped the Bison from winning three of their last four contests, though. The Bison are 6-9 overall entering tonight’s home game against Savannah State and 2-0 in the MEAC. Freshman guard Te’shya Heslip, who leads the team in scoring (15.3), rebounding (5.1) and assists (4.9) was named the conference rookie of the week on Nov. 18. Freshman forward Sydni Johnson – second on the team in field goal percentage (.405) – took the honor on Dec. 30.
The Bison were picked to finish fifth in the MEAC preseason poll – likely based on their past more than what they look like on paper. But with the conference schedule beginning in earnest tonight at 5: 30 p.m., they have a chance to live up to their reputation.
With construction underway on a pair of new residence halls on Fourth Street, and a new interdisciplinary research building on Georgia Avenue, it’s clear that Howard University is building for the future.
It’s also important to remember that those fine edifices are the result of visions in the past.
The same principles that apply to residential and academic structures apply to athletic facilities as well. Before holes are dug and foundations are laid, before the first brick or beam is put in place, someone has to SEE the finished product in their mind’s eye.
Then, with proper planning and execution, the project moves from image to reality.
Renovations to Burr Gymnasium were a great start for Howard’s athletic department. The new scoreboard at Greene Stadium is another nice step. But the Bison need more in order to reach our rightful place among MEAC and other HBCU contenders. We need to take a page from, say, Providence College, which has replaced and/or updated several outdated facilities over the last dozen years.
“In order to be a high-profile school that can recruit the best possible student-athletes from around the world, you need to have world-class facilities,” Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll told The Pawtucket Times. “There was a lot of pounding of rocks, but once the wheels started turning, people became excited and decided to jump onboard.”
Driscoll saw immediate benefits when the completely transformed Schneider Arena was unveiled. He said a couple of hockey recruits stopped by en route to visit Boston College and Boston University. But they committed to Providence on the spot once they saw the new facility.
“Facilities tell you that you’re committed to being a great athletic and academic institution, so it’s a really big deal,” Driscoll said.
Commitment starts at the top. And when Providence named a new president, a few years into Driscoll’s tenure, the athletics department got a major booster. Rev. Brian J. Shanley understood the importance of facilities and amenities, which made Driscoll’s job easier.
“You need the right people in place, such as trustees and a president you can work creatively with,” Driscoll said. “…If you get the right people on the bus, you can accomplish anything. I just get really happy about what everybody collectively has made happen.”
Here’s hoping everybody at Howard – the president, trustees, alumni, faculty & students – sees the same vision and gets onboard. The Bison Express needs more passengers!
Coach Shaun Kupferberg’s initial season at Howard got off to a bad start and got worse. Match after match and week after week, his volleyball team ended on the wrong side of the score. The Lady Bison lost their first 22 matches before finally cracking the win column in their penultimate contest.
The season finale left them with a 1-23 record. But they went from one win last year to 21 this year, one of the biggest NCAA turnarounds in two decades.
Believe it or not, the foundation was laid last year. Progress was imperceptible from the outside, but coach Kupferberg saw steady improvement.
“Every single week we got better,” he said, basing his assessment on in-depth analysis of wonkish statistics that don’t show up in box scores. “They put in a lot of work and showed what kind of focus they had as players. To keep that focus while losing that many matches was impressive on their part.”
The Bison fell last week in the MEAC tournament semifinals – their deepest run since 2004 – to finish at 21-11. It marked the team’s best season since 1995 and showed how far the Bison have come since Kupferberg was named coach in July 2012.
Best of all, much of the success was achieved through holdovers. MEAC Rookie of the Year Katherine Broussard obviously stood out among Kupferberg’s initial recruiting class – the conference’s first-ever to earn national recognition – but four of the seven top players suffered through the 1-23 carnage last year.
“When we met some of the recruits he had coming in, we knew we had to start working in the spring,” junior setter Stephanie Shultis said. “We knew they were going to be really good. We just improved a lot from last season, working out and practicing together.”
One newcomer, junior libero Allyson Lods, transferred from Antelope Valley College (Lancaster, Calif.). She was sold after looking at Kupferberg’s track record in stints at Jacksonville University, Northwest University and Miami (Ohio) University.
“He talked to me about (Howard’s program) and explained the changes that were going to be made,” said Lods, a second-team all-MEAC performer. “You could tell he had a lot of experience building teams. When he takes over programs he does really well.”
Kupferberg was upfront when he interviewed for the job, telling officials that wins would be infrequent in his first year. But he believes Howard is a great institution and building a winning program shouldn’t be tough “because of the name and the quality of education,” he said. “I thought it was possible to turn it around quickly.”
The biggest challenge was changing the culture from one where losing was OK and expected, to one where contending for conference championships was the standard. Perhaps his biggest thrill this year was watching players who were sick and tired of losing during 1-23, having a chance to celebrate and enjoy the game again.
“The whole chemistry was different this year,” said junior middle blocker Assata Conway, who like Broussard and Shultis was named to the all-MEAC first team. “Last year we were more like playing because we had to, not because we wanted to. Winning does make everything a lot better.”
And there’s no need to worry about complacency, either, not with talented reserves pushing the starters… while both groups keep watch for the next wave of recruits.
Kupferberg doesn’t believe in guaranteed spots, whether you’re a highly-touted freshman or a returning all-conference player. One of the latter at Northwest was beat out by a freshman during spring practice. The all-conference player tried another position and won the same accolades at that spot, too.
“My job is to bring in the best possible talent,” he said. “The players job is to learn and compete. Everybody gets a ring. I keep friendships and my personal feelings for players separate from the competitive aspects of the program. Practices are intense and focus is intense and everyone knows they have a shot. No one is brought in here to sit the bench.”
But everyone has to hit the books. Six Bison were named to MEAC’s all-Academic team, including Conway and Shultis. A Howard education is one of Kupferberg’s biggest selling points. “I tell recruits they’re not going to be playing volleyball in 20 years,” he said. “They’ll need a good degree from a good place and a good education. They can have athletics and academics here.”
Kupferberg didn’t have any hesitation about taking the job. “Not really,” he said. “It is a little underfunded compared to other schools, so funding was probably the only reservation. I don’t have any paid assistants or anything like every other school in the conference. But it’s that whole ‘Hoosiers’ mentality where you deal with the players on the floor and you compete.”
It helps to have someone like Broussard, an outside hitter and three-time all-America in high school who won Louisiana’s Player of the Year as a senior. Kupferberg called her “a rock.”
“I definitely wasn’t expecting all of the awards,” said Broussard, who won MEAC Rookie of the Week accolades five times. “I also wasn’t expecting such a winning season, going from 1 to 21. That was a big surprise. But we all worked hard during preseason and throughout the season to get better.”
It actually started during 1-23.
But who’s counting?
Since leaving Howard University in 2006, after a standout career as a three-year starter, the Savannah, Ga., native was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the sixth round. He wasted no time in making an impact, starting 14 games as a rookie as the Colts went on to win the Super Bowl.
But Bethea’s contributions don’t end when he removes his helmet and shoulder pads. That’s why the Colts recently named him as their “Man of the Year.” It’s an honor bestowed for his “commitment to community service and his leadership on and off the field.”
Congratulations to one of Howard’s finest. We knew all along, and we’re glad to see we’re not alone.