March, 20 2023
HBCU football has provided a rich history of great teams, great players and great coaches.
By Jon Cooper
December 27, 1892, started out as a typical snowy day, two days after Christmas on the campus of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina.
By the end of the day, college football was changed forever.
What happened in between was students from Biddle College (now Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC) and Livingstone lining up to play football. They had no idea what would result from their game and certainly no intention of making history.
It was said that Biddle College needed two years to study the game of football, before suiting up to play, while Livingstone’s squad was formed that year. The game was informal, to say the least. Women in Livingston’s industrial department made their side’s uniforms (Biddle bought theirs), the players fastened cleats to the bottoms of their regular shoes to gain traction on the frozen, slippery ground and the teams had to chip in to buy a game ball.
Blackamericaweb.com described the game – as well as the first-ever controversy – as follows:
“The teams played two 45-minute halves on Livingstone's front lawn. W.J. Trent scored Livingstone's only touchdown on a fumble recovery. By then the snow had covered the field's markings and Biddle argued that the fumble was recovered out of bounds.
The official ruled in Biddle's favor, allowing them to keep the 5-0 lead that they had established early on and giving the visitors the victory.”
Much like when Princeton and Rutgers met in the first college football game, back on Nov. 6, 1989, Biddle-Livingstone opened a brand-new world! (The site of the game is still commemorated).
The game has come a long way. The change began with the formation of all-black colleges (the first recognized university was Cheyney University of Pennsylvania on Feb. 25, 1837).
All-black conferences would soon take shape, as much by necessity due to segregation and discrimination. The first all-black conference came about in 1912, when the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA, originally the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association) was established. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) followed in 1913. The Southwestern Athletic Conference was formed in 1920, the MEAC joined in 1970, and the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) was formed in 1981.
The term Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) was established in 1965 as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Today there are 101 schools under the HBCU umbrella.
Despite lesser resources compared to more notable D-I programs, HBCUs not only played but thrived!
They still do and continue to put on incredible displays of often-innovative football, which are played and coached by some of the best players and coaches to take the gridiron Anywhere.
A breakthrough came in 1968, when Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y., hosted the game between Grambling and Morgan State. It was the first game featuring two HBCUs to be held in New York City. The game, known as the Urban League Classic, is still being played. On Sept. 24, 1976, HBCU football went worldwide, as the Tigers and Bears played the first game overseas, playing in Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium. During the ‘80s, Robert Johnson’s BET helped spread the word, by broadcasting HBCU games, and this past year, ESPN put on some 39 games.
The 2021 season climaxed with a big-time, sponsored championship game, the Cricket Celebration Bowl, played between the South Carolina State Bulldogs, champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), and Jackson State Tigers, champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). The game was held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, in front of 48,653, and televised on a major network (ABC). The Bulldogs won the game, 31-10.
The Celebration Bowl adds to the legacy of great HBCU rivalry games, most prominently the game between SWAC rivals Grambling State and Southern. The game was named the Bayou Classic in 1974, but dates to 1932. Southern leads the series, 39-34, but it’s deadlocked at 24 since officially becoming the Bayou Classic in 1974.
The 2022 Cricket Celebration Bowl shone maybe the brightest national spotlight HBCUs have ever seen and, while a great deal of that spotlight was directed at JSU’s first-year head coach, Deion Sanders, the coverage couldn’t help but shed some light on the tradition and history of HBCU football and some of the remarkable teams and remarkable players coached by remarkable men.
In every sport there are always teams that set themselves apart, some reaching a legendary level. Here are a few powerhouses on the HBCU level.
- Morgan State (1943-49): Edward P. Hurt’s program was one of the first HBCU powers, as the Bears bringing home four titles in seven years, going 41-8-1 in that time. The ‘49 team was especially potent, outsourcing the opposition, 226-32. DL Len Ford, a future NFL Hall of Famer, who served in the Navy during WWII, led a stout defense that put up four shutouts and only once allowed more than seven points in a game.
- Southern (1948-50): Arnett “Ace” Mumford’s Jaguars were devastating in winning three straight titles, going 32-0-2 in that span, and recording 20 shutouts. Their average margin of victory was 28 points. His 1950 team similarly dominated, allowing 26 points in 11 games.
- Florida A&M (1949-54): While Florida A&M may be best known for its marching band, “The Incomparable Marching 100,” Rattlers’ football has had its share of Saturday afternoon great performances. From 1949-54, FAMU, winners of 15 national championships, (second-most in FCS history), put the bite on the competition under legendary coach Jake Gaither. His teams won four National Championships in six years, going 46-8-2 in that span.
- Florida A&M (1957-62): After two years without a title – during which they actually went 15-2-1 – Gaither’s Rattlers ran off an even more impressive streak than their previous one, this one a six-year run, going 54-4, and taking home four titles. They were led by long-time AFL and NFL stars running back Hewritt Dixon and wide receiver Al Denson. In 1959, A&M outscored its competition 506-33, with only Southern coming within three TDs, and including a 97-0 beatdown of rival Bethune-Cookman in 1960. Gaither also didn’t wait long to get revenge against teams that did manage to beat him. He avenged ‘58 losses to Southern and Prairie View A&M in ‘59, then, after falling again to Southern in ‘60, blasted them, 46-0, the following season.
In addition, FAMU avenged the ‘62 loss to Jackson State in 1978, as part of Coach Rudy Hubbard’s second of back-to-back FCS crowns – additionally, in 1979, they’d take a big step forward for HBCUs by stunning Miami, 16-13.
- Tennessee State (1953-56): The Tigers ran off a string of three titles in four years, going 35-3-1 in that span. In 1956, TSU, then known as Tennessee A&I, outscored opponents, 394-64, with five shutouts. They capped the season with a thrilling 41-39 win over FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic – which began in 1921 and was considered the de facto black college championship, despite host Florida A&M almost always being granted a spot in the game.
- Grambling State (1972-77): Of course, Eddie Robinson would have his run of dominance. Between 1972 and ‘77, Robinson’s Tigers won four titles in six years, with a 60-13 overall record. That included blowout wins over Independents like Hawaii, and Temple and Oregon State of the Pac-8, and nearly knocking off then-No. 15 SMU, in 1983. These teams produced pros drafted in the first three-round, including QB Doug Williams, WR Sammy White, DL Gary Johnson, DE Mike St. Clair and DB James Hunter.
- Tennessee State (1962, ‘65-66; ‘70-73, ‘82-84): Three was a magic number for Tennessee State. The Tigers won back-to-back titles in 1965 and ‘66 under legendary Coach John Merritt, who’d first won with Jackson State in 1962. His TSU teams would go for three more again in the early ‘70s – getting them in four years with a 41-2 record and led by DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Then, in the ‘80s, the final run, saw the Tigers go 29-3-2 and reach the FCS playoffs. Those teams featured DE Richard Dent (NFL Hall of Famer), and RB Larry Kinnebrew (7 years in NFL), and saw TSU go on the road and upend Louisville in 1984. It also was bittersweet, as Merritt retired following ‘83 – he’d pass away shortly thereafter – but won to honor him under William Thomas.
- Walter Payton: “Sweetness” did it all for Jackson State. He chose JSU over Kansas State, because his older brother, Eddie, played there, then rushed for 3,600 career yards (6.1 yards per carry) and a school-record 65 touchdowns, including a school-single-season record 24 in 1973. He also set the SWAC single-game scoring record with 46 points (seven rushing TDs, two two-point conversions) and the JSU-record 279 yards in a 72-0 rout of Lane College on September 23, 1972. He was All-America and Black College Player of the Year in ‘73 and ‘74. The fourth overall pick of the Chicago Bears, he amassed 16,726 rushing yards in 12 seasons, leaving as the game’s all-time leading rusher. He was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Pro Football Hall in 1993. Payton, who passed away at 45 in 1999, was honored by having the award for the best offensive player in the FCS named for him. The NFL also named its man of the year after him.
- Doug Williams: A four-year starter (1973-77), Williams quarterbacked Robinson’s Grambling Tigers to a 36–7 record (an .837 winning percentage) and three SWAC titles. His senior year he led the NCAA in total yards from scrimmage (3,249), passing yards (3,286), touchdown passes (38), and yards per play (8.6), and finished fourth in Heisman voting. He’d become the first black quarterback to be drafted in the first round, (17th overall in 1978 by Tampa Bay). After nine years and a Super Bowl championship and MVP award, he’d come back to his alma mater and replace Robinson, leading the team to three SWAC titles. He’s currently senior advisor to the team president with the NFL’s Washington Commanders, Williams was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
- Steve McNair: McNair insisted on playing quarterback despite being recruited by major colleges and being asked to move to running back and, from 1991-94, took flight at Alcorn State. “Air McNair” set FCS records for career passing yards (16,283), accounted for more than 6,000 yards as a senior (5,377 passing, 904 rushing), with seven 500-yard passing games and a 527.2 yards per game average and led Alcorn State to a piece of the SWAC title. He won the Walter Payton Award and finished third in Heisman voting. He’d play 13 years in the NFL, winning MVP in 2003. McNair, who passed away in 2009, at age 36, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2020.
- Jerry Rice/Willie Totten: The greatest receiver in NFL history put up one of the greatest seasons in college football history. In 1984, Rice caught 103 passes for 1,682 yards and 27 touchdowns for Mississippi Valley State, as the “Delta Devils” put up an incredible 59 points per game (they scored 40 in nine games, 70 points in four of those!) on the way to a 9-2 season. Rice broke his own I-AA records for receptions and receiving yards and his 27 TD catches set the NCAA mark for all divisions. He’d finish ninth in the Heisman balloting – at the time, the highest finish for an HBCU player. Of course, someone had to get the ball TO Rice and that was Totten. Known as “Satellite,” Totten had 324 completions for 4, 572 yards (14.1 yards per completion) and 56 TD passes in ‘84. Both Rice and Totten are in the College Football Hall of Fame, with Totten being voted in in 2005 and Rice joining him the next year.
- Junious “Buck” Buchanan: Grambling’s DT Buck Buchanan was downright scary. At 6-7, 270, he also ran a 10.2 100, and had great instincts in batting down passes at the line. He played on both the offensive and defensive lines. From 1959 to 1963, he starred for Eddie Robinson’s teams, including the 1960 team that earned a share of the SWAC Championship, and 1962, when he earned NAIA All-America status. Buchanan became the first African American player selected first overall in a pro football draft, by Kansas City in the 1963 AFL Draft. He played 13 years in the NFL and was elected to both the College Football, in 1996 and Pro Football Halls of Fame in 1990. In 1995, the FCS created the Buck Buchanan Award for the top defensive player.
Of course, these players barely scratch the surface of HBCU greats and only include College Football Hall of Famers.
As HBCUs fought for acceptance and recognition, it was impossible to ignore the greatness of some of the coaches, whose teams dominated for decades and created the fierce rivalries that continue today.
- Eddie Robinson: Eddie Robinson was 22 when he took over at Grambling – then Louisiana Normal – in 1941. He wouldn’t leave until 1997. Robinson became famous for being hands-on. He not only cut the field’s grass, taped up his players, made sandwiches for road games played in places where he knew his players would not be served at local establishments, and even wrote game stories for the newspapers. He needed one season to go from 1-5-1 to 9-0. In as close to a perfect season as possible, his ‘42 Tigers not only went 9-0, but did not allow a point! He finished 408-165-15, retiring in 1997, after as the winningest coach in college football history – he’s since been passed by John Gagliardi, coach of St. John’s of Minnesota – and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997. Robinson took Grambling to nine black college national championships and won 17 SWAC titles. He won the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) in 1982, the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award a decade later. The Eddie Robinson Award was established for the HBCU Player of the Year in 1994.
- Arnett “Ace” Mumford: Mumford was a peer of Robinson and a major rival to him. In fact, he was a thorn in Robinson’s side, as his Southern teams won the first five of six matchups against him and eight of the first nine. The intensity of the rivalry made the game so big it helped lead to the creation of the Bayou Classic, still an annual event. From 1924 to 1961, Mumford’s teams went 233-85-23 (179-61-13 at Southern) and won six black college national championships in four different decades, including winning one with Texas College and then with Southern. His 1948-50 teams put together a 38-game unbeaten streak and three-peated as black college national champions. He further made history in 1948, when his Jaguars beat D-I San Francisco State, 30-0, in the Fruit Bowl. The game not only completed a 12-0 season but marked the first major game for an HBCU against a primarily white school. Mumford, who passed away at 63 on April 28, 1962, was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001 after being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (1984), the Southern University Sports Hall of Fame (1988), the SWAC Hall of Fame (1992), the HBCU Heritage Museum.
- Alonzo “Jake” Gaither: An excellent debater and speaker, Alonzo “Jake” Gaither was known for wanting his players “Mo-bile, a-gile and hos-tile.” From 1945-69, Gaither’s Florida A&M teams were just that. They also were good. The Rattlers went 203-36-4 (an .844 winning percentage) with three undefeated teams in five years (1957, ‘59, ‘61), won 18 conference titles and six black college national championships and sent more than 40 players to the NFL. Gaither was named SIAC Coach of the Decade and the Walter Camp Man of the Year in 1974, and the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award in 1975, the same year he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1978, the Jake Gaither Trophy was named in his honor, and is given to the top black college football player.
- John Merritt: AKA “Big John,” Merritt’s teams combined for a 235-70-12 record in 31 years at Jackson State (63-37-5 from 1952-62) and Tennessee State (172-33-7 from 1963-83). He had 29 straight winning seasons and his squads won seven black national championships, four undefeated seasons, and four Midwest Athletic Association titles. In 1982 Tennessee State won the school’s first NCAA I-AA Playoff game, topping Eastern Illinois, 20-19, before losing to eventual champ Eastern Kentucky, 13-7. He had a knack for molding defensive linemen, as he helped produce future NFL stars Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Claude Humphrey, and Richard Dent. Merritt, who passed away at 57 on December 13, 1983, was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
- Marino Casem: Known as “The Godfather,” Casem went 159-93-8 over a 25-year career at Alabama State (1963, 2-8), Alcorn State (1964-1985, 139-70-8) and Southern (1987-88, 1992, 18-15), winning seven conference crowns and four black national championships. His Braves went back-to-back in 1968 and ‘69, while his ‘84 team went 9-0 and was the first black college to finish ranked No. 1 in I-AA. Casem, who passed away at 85 on April 25, 2020, at age 85, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
As with players, there are so many other amazing coaches that have worked their magic on the sidelines for HBCUs. Among them are Morgan State’s Earl Banks (College Football Hall of Fame class of 1992), Jackson State’s W.C. Gorden (Class of ‘08), Hampton’s Joe Taylor (Class of ‘19) and FAMU’s Rudy Hubbard (Class of ‘21) and others who belong and should someday make it, like Rod Broadway (North Carolina Central, Grambling) and “Buddy” Pough (South Carolina State).
Sanders, while in the Hall, as a player, of course (Class of ‘11), is not yet on the level of these legendary coaches – he probably learned some valuable lessons by matching wits with Pough in the Celebration Bowl – but he’s among the exciting new names among HBCU coaches. Included in that wave of new young coaches who are well-known and known as winners, like 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George (also in Sanders’ ‘11 HOF class), and Michigan star running back Tyrone Wheatley.
The buzz from these names, as well as from the televising of the Celebration Bowl is leading to a spike in popularity for HBCU football. Not only are fans noticing – HBCUs drew a crowd of 48,653 in 2021 – but so are high schoolers.
Cornerback Travis Hunter Jr., the No. 1 recruit nationally, transferred from Florida State, Sanders’ alma mater, to JSU, Sanders’ program, after having already turned away the likes of national champion Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and a host of other Power 5s. Others are sure to follow via NILs or the transfer portal.
Grambling’s and other SWAC schools’ revolutionary policy regarding NILs (Name, Image, Likeness) contracts for recruits also is a sweetener – one that is being closely watched by FBS and other FCS schools. But that’s a subject for another day.
It may be a long time coming, but HBCUs have good reason to believe that their day in the sun is coming…and soon!
For additional information on the Hall of Fame be sure to visit the College Football Hall of Fame and plan your visit