Taking Students to the Fields and the Courts

A look at athletics at HBCUs

For decades, the best black college players could only be seen at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Jim Crow and segregation laws kept black athletes out of the top white college programs, but that didn’t stop them from receiving recognition. The old saying, “You can’t keep a good man down,” can also be attributed to the black athlete. Despite inferior athletic facilities, shoestring budgets, and little-to-no media exposure, black players at HBCUs succeeded against the odds that continue today.

Southwestern Athletic Conference (Division I-AA football, D-I other sports)

The SWAC’s ledger of alumni reads like a who’s who in college sports. Former stars now in professional halls of fame include: Mel Blount (Southern/Pittsburgh), Willie Brown (Grambling/Oakland), David “Deacon” Jones (Mississippi Valley State/L.A. Rams, San Diego, Washington), Walter Payton (Jackson State/Chicago), Lou Brock (Southern/St. Louis), and Willis Reed (Grambling/N.Y. Knicks). And with today’s current stars like Jerry Rice (MVSU/San Francisco, Oakland), Steve McNair (Alcorn St./Tennessee) and Shannon Sharpe (Savannah St./Baltimore, Denver), dynasties are created. But football in the SWAC is synonymous with one name—Eddie Robinson.

The former Grambling coach won the most games in NCAA history, with a 408-165-15-career record. Robinson sent more than 200 players into the NFL during his 57-year career. He established excellence and national recognition to a program that has continued today under the leadership
of Doug Williams, a protégé of Robinson and the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXII. Southern’s Rickie Weeks is following in the footsteps
of Brock.Weeks, the two-time NCAA batting champion, won several baseball player of the year awards in 2003, including the prestigious Dick Howser Trophy. Weeks was the second player selected in the 2003 Major League Baseball Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, and he was only a junior!

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (Division I-AA football, D-I other sports)

In 1978, Florida A&M University became the first HBCU to win a D-IAA football championship. But before FAMU made history, Morgan State was producing some of the most feared players ever to play in the NFL, such as hall of famers LeRoy Kelly (Cleveland) and Willie Lanier (Kansas City). Art Shell (Oakland), the first African American to be hired as a coach in the NFL, graduated from the University of Maryland Eastern
Shore. In 2003, FAMU officials voted to apply for entry as a D-I football program, making it the first HBCU to do so.

Football is not the only sport where athletes excelled. Althea Gibson, a product of FAMU, was the first black to win a single’s title at Wimbledon in 1957. In basketball, North Carolina A&T had a string of seven consecutive NCAA appearances in the 1980s, and Hampton’s first-round upset of Iowa State—which was ranked number two—in the 2001 NCAA Tournament really caught the nation’s attention. Hampton, which moved up from Division II CIAA in 1995, has proven that HBCUs can compete in
D-I athletics on all levels, with top programs in swimming, track, women’s volleyball, and sailing.

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (Division II)

Division II offers fewer scholarships, smaller athletic budgets, and less media exposure than D-I, but the competition is just as good.

The CIAA’s poster child for “you can make it anywhere” is Earl “the Pearl” Monroe (’67). Monroe was a star basketball player at Winston-Salem State during the Rams’ remarkable run under then-legendary coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines. Monroe still holds the Division II single season record for most points in a season (1,326 total and 41.5 points per game). He had a hall of fame career with the Baltimore Bullets and
New York Knicks, and he was voted one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players in 1996.

Basketball is king in the CIAA—the basketball tournament is the third largest in the country, behind only the ACC and SEC. However, other programs are prospering, too. St. Augustine College’s track program is world renown.
Track coach George Williams was selected as the 2004 Olympics track and field coach.

Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (Division II)

The SIAC claims more than 50 team and individual national championships since its inception in 1913. It is home to the longest running rivalry
in black college football—Morehouse and Tuskegee. The conference has over 300 former and current professional football players, including
John Stallworth (Pittsburgh), NFL hall of famer Larry Little (San Diego, Miami), and All-Pro Greg Lloyd (Pittsburgh).

The first black female to win a gold medal in any Olympic sport was Alice Coachman (Tuskegee, Albany State) in 1948. Edwin Moses (Morehouse) continued the tradition, undefeated for ten straight years (1976-86) in the 400-meter hurdles.


Tennessee State rewrote the history books with the likes of one of the greatest
athletes of all times—Wilma Rudolph. Labeled as “the fastest woman in the world,” Rudolph won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dash and
anchored the 400-medley relay-staffed, incidentally, with all TSU players—in the1960 Olympics.

Legendary basketball coach John McLendon, a student of James A. Naismith (the founder of basketball), led the Tigers to the NAIA men’s basketball crown in 1957, which was the first black school to do so. McLendon
invented the four-corner offense. Other independent HBCUs include Langston, Cheney State, Morris Brown, Edward Waters, Stillman, and Savannah State.

a long tradition of successful sports stars and athletic accomplishments, HBCUs have a lot to offer students in the athletic department. No matter what students are looking for in terms of available athletic programs, tournament records, scholarship opportunities, and coaching reputations, they can find it at an HBCU.
History proves that many of the best athletes started their careers at an HBCU.


This article was written by Bonitta Best

Bonitta Best is the sports editor of The Triangle Tribune, a weekly African American newspaper in Durham, North Carolina.

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