Historically Black colleges have been fielding football teams since 1892 and in over 100 years of play, have produced some of the best athletes and coaches in the history of college football – in addition to some colorful traditions.
However, in the course of researching Black college football, we have often been put in the awkward position of having to explain to folks that there really are such entities as historically Black colleges and that, yes, they do have football teams. What's more discouraging is that a lot of the folks who have needed schooling on the subject are, well, people in the Black community. Surprisingly, a lot of people, especially outside of the South, are not aware of this precious history.
So, for the uninitiated – and those who may need re-initiating! – here is a Black college football primer:
A is for “Air,” the incomparable passer Steve McNair, who left Alcorn State with more records than Motown, and led the Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl.
B is for “bands.” A Black college football game without bands is like red beans without rice. Florida A&M band director Dr. William Foster is credited with starting the trend in the 1940's for what you see in most Black college bands today – quick-stepping, dancing with instruments, and that general get down-and-boogie showmanship. Foster may have started it, but don't expect that little fact to be acknowledged by the other Black college bands.
C is for “classics,” the Black college football version of the Negro Baseball League's barnstorming. Most classic games bring the experience of Black college football to big city markets. A more basic concept is delivering a piece of home to displaced Southern Blacks in places like, say, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Indianapolis.
D is for “Deacon,” as in Jones. Did somebody say sack? Jones invented the term because he hated all offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Jones explained: “I wanted to put them all in a bag and beat it with a baseball bat. That's a sack!” No argument here. Jones began his collegiate career in 1957 at South Carolina State, but finished at Mississippi Vocational, after the Orangeburg, S.C. police suggested he leave town, and take his civil rights activities with him, before HE got sacked.
E is for “Eddie,” as in Robinson, who retired as the winningest coach in college football history and the beacon for Black college football. Robinson retired after the 1998 season with a superlative 408-165-15 record, in 56 years at Grambling, the only program in which he ever coached.
F is for “four,” the number of conferences comprised entirely of Black college teams. They are: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC).
G is for “Grambling,” ofcourse. The G-Men put Black college football on the map behind the efforts of Robinson, school president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones ("Prez") and innovative sports information director Collie Nicholson, who, among many other accomplishments, learned just enough Japanese to successfully negotiate a contract for Grambling to meet Morgan State in Tokyo in 1976. That was the first regular season NCAA football game played outside of the United States.
H is for “Haley,” as in Alex. Before becoming a world-renowned author, Haley's roots were at Elizabeth City State, where he was a running back in the late 1930s.
I is for “integration,” the death knell for Black college football programs. Integration was great for the Black community as a whole, but Black college football programs started seeing a drain on their wealth of talent in the mid-60s as White schools began heavily recruiting Black prep stars. Black college programs have never fully recovered.
J is for “Jake,” as in Gaither. From a publicity standpoint, he was overshadowed by Eddie Robinson, but few would argue the greatness of this Florida A&M legend who retired in 1969 with the best winning percentage (.844) for all NCAA coaches with over 200 wins.
K is for “Ken,” as in Houston, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Prairie View defensive back. Houston once recalled the toughness and, uh, fairness of SWAC competition like this: “The referees would be cheating. You'd have to score 100 points to beat somebody 7-6.”
L is for “Livingstone,” host for the first Black college intercollegiate football game on Dec. 27, 1892. Their guests, Biddle University, came from just down the road in Charlotte. The team occupied half of the “colored” coach on their train ride to immortality in snowy Salisbury where Biddle won the game on a disputed touchdown. Biddle later changed its name to Johnson C. Smith.
M is for “Merritt,” as in John. The Tennessee State mentor chomped on opponents as much as he did his trademark stogie. In 21 years at TSU, he never had a losing record and is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
N is for “Nicks,” as in Billy. So, you think Prairie View has a sorry program? Well, in the 1950s and 1960s under Nicks, the Panthers were so feared, they became known as the “Black Notre Dame,” at times splitting their squad and playing two different games, and winning both, on the same day. Nicks guided the Panthers to five Black college national titles.
O is for “Oves,” as in Ralph. In 1942, the Lincoln (Pa.) University center became the first White player ever named to the Pittsburgh Courier's All-American team. He was described as “a brilliant player.”
P is for “Payton,” as in Walter. The NFL's all-time leading rusher starred with the Chicago Bears after an incredible career at Jackson State where, as a senior, he finished 14th in Heisman Trophy balloting, at the time the highest finish ever for a Black college player.
Q is for the “quality” of education at HBCUs, which graduate almost 30 percent of all Black collegiate students. One economist noted that HBCUs are a “higher education bargain,” and that “they appear to be doing the most with limited public dollars.”
R is for “run-and-shoot,” Coach Archie Cooley's innovative offense in which the Mississippi Valley Delta Devils didn't really run all that much, but quarterback Willie "Satellite" Totten was never shy about shooting passes to Jerry Rice. The 1984 Devils averaged a NCAA-record 640.1 yards per game, 496.8 yards passing on 55.8 attempts per game.
S is for “Stevenson,” as in “Big Ben,” the exceptional running back for Tuskegee who is considered the greatest all-around player in Black college football history. Stevenson was a seven-time(!) unanimous Black college All-American for Cleve Abbott's powerful teams in the 1920s.
T is for “Tank,” as in Younger, Grambling’s big, bruising running back who, in 1949, became the first Black college player to sign an NFL contract, after inking a $6,000 pact as a free agent with the Los Angeles Rams.
U is for “unbeatable,” which about describes former Southern University defensive back Mel Blount, who, during a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, so effectively executed the bump-and-run technique that the NFL changed its rules about downfield contact between receivers and defensive backs.
V is for “victories,” and no Black college football program has more than Grambling, right? Wrong. Tuskegee is the leader with over 585.
W is for “Willie,” as in Jeffries, who was successful at both Howard and South Carolina State. However, in 1979, he became the first African American to guide a Division 1 program when he was named head coach at Wichita State.
X is for “Xavier” University which hasn't had a football program since 1960, but academically, the school is second only to Howard in placing Black students in medical schools. In the past decade or so, 93 percent of Xavier alums that entered medical schools received their MDs.
Y is for the “Yam” Bowl, one of several non-NCAA sanctioned and now-defunct Black college bowl games. There was also the Prairie View Bowl, the Pelican Bowl, the Pecan Bowl, the Heritage Bowl, et.al.
Z is for “zero,” the number of losses and points given up in the 1942 season by Grambling. That group finished with an 8-0-0 record and became known as the “Un Team" – un-beaten, un-tied, un-scored on. They were the last NCAA team to accomplish that feat.