By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
NEW HAVEN — Now that the dust has cleared from Howard’s historic 43-40 win over FBS opponent UNLV this past Saturday night in Vegas, it’s time to look at what the victory may mean to the immediate and long term future of black college football.
Usually, the first week of the HBCU football schedule is filled with these so-called “money games” played by various schools. In other words, the Howard athletic program — a member of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) — was handed a $600,000 check by UNLV officials for what was supposed to be a royal ass whupping.
While Mike London’s crew pulled off “the upset of the century”, it wasn’t as much fun for many other HBCU’s this weekend. For example, Florida A&M visited Arkansas and lost 49-7, Mississippi Valley State traveled to North Dakota State and lost 72-7 and Alabama A&M fell to UAB 38-7 at Birmingham.
In fact, A&M’s loss to the Blazers was UAB’s first game since 2014. School officials had shut down the program at the end of that season for financial reasons. The Blazers then sat out the 2015 and 2016 seasons in order to rebuild their roster.
While those aforementioned losses and Howard’s upset was front page headlines, behind the scenes several HBCU teams were making their small breakthroughs on the field. Thursday night in Atlanta, Tennessee State, a member of the Ohio Valley Conference, defeated Georgia State of the Sun Belt Conference 17-10 in GSU’s home opener.
The victory was the Tigers’ first as an FCS team over an FBS opponent. Tennessee State had previously defeated Louisville in 1981 and in 1984 as an FBS independent squad. They later transitioned to an FCS team in the decade.
Fast forward now to Saturday afternoon. Division II Virginia State of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) went to Dick Price Stadium and defeated FCS opponent Norfolk State of the MEAC 14-10 in the Labor Day Classic.
The Trojans not only defeated their former head coach Latrell Scott, but they also were able to secure the victory over NSU for the first time since 2005. Later that Saturday, another Division II school was able to pull off an upset
Tuskegee of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) defeated FCS opponent Alabama State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) 14-6 in the Hornets’ home opener.
Back in 2012 when the first football contest at ASU Stadium was played, it was the same Golden Tigers that came to Montgomery and handed the Hornets a 27-25 loss to break in the facility.
So what do we make of all this?
Much ado about nothing?
Howard just caught UNLV on a bad day?
The Rebels took the Bison for granted?
Should we dismiss these wins and look more at the blowouts of North Carolina Central (66-7 to Duke), Grambling State (44-14 to Tulane), Hampton (59-0 to Ohio), and Jackson State (66-0 to TCU)?
I think it would be too dismissive to say this was “just another opening week” in black college football. I’m reminded of an interview I did with former CIAA commissioner Leon Kerry a few years ago.
Speaking on “The Batchelor Pad” with myself and show host L.A. Batchelor, Kerry was addressing the domination of the league by Winston-Salem State under then head coach Connell Maynor.
At the time, WSSU was transitioning from being an unsuccessful FBS independent program back into the CIAA. The scuttlebutt amongst the league coaches was that WSSU was fielding a “Division I team” in the CIAA.
Kerry dismissed the coaches’ claims as guys “whining and not willing to do the hard work”. He added that the only way schools improve on the field is to bump up their non-conference schedules and take it to another level in overall recruiting.
While the Rams have still been the dominant football school in the CIAA, other schools like Bowie State, Virginia Union, and the aforementioned Trojans of Virginia State have “stepped it up” like Kerry said.
In fact, the Bulldogs reached last year’s CIAA championship game against the Rams. Just three years ago, the Trojans upset WSSU 21-17 in the 2012 championship game. All three schools — as well as WSSU — have reached the Division II playoffs in the process.
One thing that remains clear regarding any level of college football, putting together and maintaining a strong program takes patience, hard work, and a little luck as well. That might be one of the best things that come out of the Bison’s victory.
In that vein, let’s peek at the coaching resume of the aforementioned Mr. London.
Before being hired at Howard, London served as a head coach at both the FCS and FBS level. A graduate of Richmond University, London was the head man at his alma mater and for the University of Virginia.
For Richmond, London captured 24 wins and led the Spiders to the FCS Championship in his first season. He helped 28 Spider players achieve all-conference honors in just two seasons.
At UVA, he used his strong recruiting skills and helped bring in four top-35 classes during his tenure in Charlottesville. London would eventually lead Virginia to an 8-5 season in 2011 and was named ACC Coach of the Year.
Now one win doesn’t mean that Howard fans can start singing Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” every Saturday night. Nor should they go out and reserve tickets for the FCS title game.
But you have to admit, it’s one helluva opening chapter.
The next page opens Saturday afternoon in Ohio when the Bison meets the Golden Flashes of Kent University. This is the same FBS school that was defeated at home last year by another MEAC school — North Carolina A&T.
As Saturday’s win at Vegas proved, anything is possible.