In college football, the big schools win and the small schools struggle.
That is a time-tested truism, exemplified by schools like Livingstone College in North Carolina. But other schools, like Langston University in Oklahoma, are seeing their struggles pay off. And Lane College in Tennessee is proving the exception to the rule.
Lane College shocked the Black college football universe with a stunning 9-1 season record in 1995, finishing second in the Sheridan Black College Football Poll.
With an enrollment of just 700 students, tiny Lane college, an NCAA Division II independent, had dominated teams in the bigger Division I-AA.
The seeds for Lane’s dramatic change were planted in 1993 when Dr. Wesley McClure became the school’s president. McClure is credited with masterminding the Dragons’ resurgence. The change became corn plete when McClure fired the athletic staff.
“When I came on board, the program was merely existing,” McClure said. “Our board of trustees gave me authority to give scholarships and to seek a higher level of competition than we had been playing. We hired a quality staff, raised the level of enthusiasm of alumni and supporters, and added some incentives for the players.”
One of the prime incentives for players is a chance to fly to two road games each year. McClure is convinced that it helps the players to reach their potential.
“They feel good about themselves and what they’re doing when they know they’re going to travel first class. Sure, Lane is a small school, but you can compete and win if you’re selective about the staff you hire and the students you recruit. We’re now on course to recruit good players who are also good students.”
LC’s program didn’t experience an immediate turn-around, but there as early as 1993 there were signs of progress. The Dragons were only 1-9, but they had broken a 36-game losing streak. The next year, the team was 3-8, but never lost by more than seven points. Then came 1995, the break-through year.
John Gore, current football coach, gets much applause for the 1995 finish. LC’s progress, however, started when McClure hired former Tennessee State defensive coordinator Craig Gilliam to lead the Dragons. Gilliam’s brother, “Jefferson Street” Joe, had played quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s.
Gilliam gave LC some much-needed recognition among high school coaches in Tennessee, and the college’s location also helped. LC is in Jackson TN, which is between Nashville and Memphis, the state’s two largest cities and fertile ground for recruiting. Gilliam stayed two seasons before leaving and Gore, one of his chief assistants, assumed command.
LC’s McClure is now seeking the balance between the demand to win football games and the need to fund academic programs.
Livingstone College has a rich football history. It played in the first Black college football game ever, in 1892 against Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University).
But its program had been trimmed so far that in early February, the media reported that Livingstone College was suspending football. Those reports were premature and inaccurate.
Instead of dropping football, Livingstone’s board of trustees cut scholarships by 35 percent and placed a one-year freeze on buying new equipment.
Clifton Huff, Livingstone athletic director, said the program was cut to reflect an enrollment of 720 students. “The size of our student body will reflect how much money we’ll put into the program.”
While Bears football is going through its own version of corporate downsizing, Huff hopes that cutbacks do not become the norm. The college wants to keep the program going while it steps up marketing and alumni support. “We’re going to look at athletics as a revenue producer more so than we have in the past,” Huff said.
A key part of the marketing plan calls for Livingstone to play more of its home games at night. Livingstone’s home — Salisbury, NC — is a small, industrial community where most people work on Saturday during the day. As a result, many potential fans can’t attend the games.
Huff said Livingstone could also boost attendance through its historic rivalry with Johnson C. Smith, 35 miles away in Charlotte. Annually, it’s “the game” for both schools and Livingstone would like to play their rival at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium. The stadium seats 24,000, twice the combined capacity of both schools’ stadiums.
Aggressive marketing will make a difference, but without alumni support it’s questionable how well Livingstone can compete against NCAA Division II foes.
“If alumni support increases, we can do more,” Huff said. “If we want to compete at a certain level, the alumni will have to make a difference. A lot of times, the major difference between the good and great programs is alumni support.”
Livingstone is 10-10 over the past two seasons and is showing signs it can get better. Huff said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears become contenders this year for the title in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
“We didn’t play anybody we couldn’t beat. Last year’s scores tell us that.”
At Langston University (OK), the football program operates on a philosophy of frugality that runs from the athletic director to team trainer.
Disposable items are rare. Cleats are recycled. Half rolls of tape aren’t tossed in the trash. Ripped jerseys are mended.
“We’ve stretched the dollar bill so much that you can’t tell who George Washington is anymore,” jokes Shelby Lauener, Langston’s athletic director. “We have to be real frugal because revenues are so limited and operating expenses are so high.”
Because of a small budget, Langston’s 2,500 students have seen their team through good times and bad times, Recent years have been good. In 1993, the Lions made the NAIA playoffs for the first time in 20 years, then followed up in 1994 with a second straight playoff appearance.
Langston, which competes in the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference, now faces its biggest fiscal challenge. Starting this year, the school — and the rest of the OIC — are switching from the NAIA to the NCAA Division II.
The change, Lauener said, “will be a dramatic transition for us. It’s going to cost us a lot financially, but our president (Dr. Ernest Holloway) is committed to it, so we’ll find a way to get the job done.”
Two areas that concern Lauener most are NCAA compliance issues and recruiting. In Langston’s case, the school will have to add more sports to comply with NCAA guidelines. Adding more sports means spending more money.
Recruiting, however, could be the most troublesome part of the transition to the NCAA. In the NAIA, it’s legal for alumni to personally contact recruits, and that’s the way the Lions are accustomed to getting most of their athletes.
In the NCAA, such contact is illegal. “In the NCAA, all recruiting has to be documented,” Lauener said.
“In the NAIA, it’s very personal with alumni being able to talk to kids. Now we can’t do that, so we’ll miss out because we can’t afford to fly people to our campus. … At our school, sports is not a business, it’s an activity.”
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