Historically black college football programs struggling to keep up

Tennessee State’s Kadeem Edwards is the only Senior Bowl player from an HBCU, despite a history of producing legends

MOBILE, Ala. — Kadeem Edwards has a quarrel with a certain tradition, and for that, he may get struck down by a lightning bolt thrown by the lords of historically black college and university (HBCU) football.

It is sacrilegious not to bow to the spectacle of the bands at an HBCU football game, but Edwards takes a deep breath and says something sacrilegious anyway. He wishes the bands and the halftime extravaganza did not reign over the game.

Edwards is a big fan of the music. He appreciates the skill and the thrill of a show. He understands the culture and the allure of the HBCU halftime show and the postgame pageantry. The bands draw a crowd.

But he wants black college football to be about more than the bands.

He wants it to be more about the football again.

Tennessee State’s Kadeem Edwards at Senior Bowl practice this week.
AP Photo/G.M. Andrews

“The first time I saw half the people in the stands leave after the halftime show by the band, it upset me,” said Edwards, a 6-foot-4, 309-pound offensive guard who played at Tennessee State University in Nashville. “It was a little disrespectful.”

He sighed and shook his head slowly side to side.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love Tennessee State,” he added. “The HBCU halftime is part of the culture, and I love the bands. 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 sitting in a dining hall on the battleship USS Alabama here this week for a dinner with the 110 college players invited to the Senior Bowl, an all-star game that is a showcase for NFL scouts. The galaxy of college football was featured at the dinner, with players from Tennessee, Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Notre Dame — you name it, the majordomo school was there.

But Edwards was the only player in the hall from an HBCU. When the players take the field for Saturday’s game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the fans and national television audience will recognize the helmets with an N for Nebraska or O for Oregon or the maize-colored stripes of Michigan.

They will mostly not recognize the red T for TSU.

What college football fans typically recognize with the HBCUs are the uproarious and audacious halftime shows put on by the bands. That culture is the identity now, more so than the football in some places, Edwards said. The high-stepping, high-hatted drum major is the big man on campus, not the quarterback.

It didn’t use to be that way. 

History of greatness

Once upon a time, it was football that ruled. The superstars who came out of the HBCUs are in college and pro football halls of fame — Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State, Walter Payton of Jackson State, Willie Lanier of Morgan State, Deacon Jones of Mississippi Valley State, Ed “Too Tall” Jones of Tennessee State, Mel Blount of Southern and on and on. “Bullet” Bob Hayes of Florida A&M has a Super Bowl ring from the Dallas Cowboys and an Olympic gold medal.

Former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Richard Dent, MVP of the 1986 Super Bowl, played at Tennessee State. Former Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, MVP of the 1988 Super Bowl, played at Grambling. Rice, as a wide receiver for the 49ers, was the 1989 Super Bowl MVP and is the NFL’s all-time leading receiver.

At next Sunday’s Super Bowl in New York, the Denver Broncos will feature former Tennessee State defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

But Edwards is among those who worry that the great tradition of HBCU football is fading.

“All the alumni and all the fans talk always talk about, what it used to be, what it used to be, what they used to have in football with the players,” Edwards said. “It is slowly dying. The crowds are going down. The traditions at HBCUs is slowly dying, and it is making HBCUs look bad with recruiting.”

When HBCU recruiting looks good, it is because players like Edwards have bloomed with care and coaching. He had poor grades on graduating from high school in Sanford, Fla., and the bigger schools that had recruited him — Marshall, Central Florida, New Mexico — snatched back their offers. Tennessee State coach Rod Reed, who was the defensive coordinator at TSU at the time and is now the head coach, saw an athletic offensive lineman who needed a year for his body to mature and to get himself together in the classroom.

Sure enough, Edwards bloomed. He was a three-time Ohio Valley Conference lineman and graduated with a 3.5 GPA in exercise science in December.

Phil Savage, the CEO of the Senior Bowl and a former general manager of the Cleveland Browns, said the coaching that Edwards received at Tennessee State was top shelf and he could have a long career in the NFL.

Savage has scouted HBCUs for more than 20 years. He has seen a slide in some programs, but he has also seen solid coaching and development of players, like Edwards.

“I think there has been so much instability in terms of the coaching staffs, in particular in the SWAC,” Savage said, referring to the Southwestern Athletic Conference. “If you go there, you don’t know what you are going to get for four years.”

In 2012 the NFL drafted just one player from an HBCU: South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson.

The HBCU football community was dismayed. HBCU football programs are generally not as strong as they were before desegregation and the opening of major college rosters to black high school players, but many believed having just one player drafted was absurd. In 2013 just two HBCU players were drafted. The perception of HBCU football reached a nadir.

As recently as 1996, 17 players from HBCUs were drafted. 

‘Makes me kind of sad’

What has happened, according to former Arizona Cardinals star and HBCU hero Aeneas Williams, is that the mid-major schools such as Louisiana Tech, Houston, Tulane and Memphis, as well Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams such as James Madison and Georgia Southern, have plucked good black players away from HBCU schools.

“The mid-major schools, the intermediary schools upgraded their programs and started recruiting those high school players that were going to the HBCUs,” said Williams, a St. Louis pastor who graduated from Southern and played 14 seasons in the NFL. “Then you have schools like Baylor and TCU who have upgraded their programs.”

There is also an issue of funding.

“The HBCUs can’t flash kids like the big schools can,” Edwards said. “The big schools have the great jerseys and facilities and things like that. I have seen some HBCUs who have nothing.”

Tennessee State has very good facilities, including an indoor practice facility and updated weight room. The Tigers play their games in one of the NFL’s best stadiums, LP Field, which doubles as home to the Tennessee Titans. Alabama State’s stadium sits majestically next to Interstate 85 in Montgomery. Many other HBCUs have kept up in the facilities arms race, and they offer the full 63 scholarships allowed at the FCS level.

But when a prominent school like Grambling has a player revolt like the one that happened in October over poor conditions in the football facility, HBCUs suffer from the public-relations fallout. After all, the legendary coach Eddie Robinson, who brought the to school national prominence, led Grambling. If Grambling took a dive, what was the future of the HBCU product?

“I think what the players did was a good stand for the Grambling program and a positive thing, a stepping stone, for HBCUs as a whole,” Edwards said. “We needed to start somewhere, and those players started it. It’s all about funding, and it is being able to let the players speak.”

“You can’t keep doing players wrong and coaches wrong and keeping bad facilities,” he added. “It’s good that you can get players, but can you maintain facilities? There was a lot of stuff that got neglected.”

Williams, the former Southern star who was the speaker at the Thursday-night Senior Bowl banquet, said HBCUs can regain some of their luster with more marketing and outreach. The decline, he said, can be reversed with some awareness and trumpeting of the legacy created by the Jerry Rices and Walter Paytons.

“We need to be blowing the horns for our players who have the skill set to play at the next level,” Williams said. “Football can be the eyes for people to see into your university.”

Those eyes, insists Edwards, need to get refocused on football, not just the bands.

“It makes me kind of sad — going to an HBCU, we would rarely have a home-field advantage,” he said. “I love the Titans stadium, (but) it was just too big. It’s hard to get a home crowd. People have all types of excuses for not going. Coach Reed is trying to rebuild it.”

“We need to get the crowds back.”

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