Can HBCU Sports Make a Comeback?
When John Merritt, the late Tennessee State University football coach, addressed the Nashville Chamber of Commerce weekly luncheon one day in 1972, he made a surprising declaration.
“Integration is killin’ me,” he said.
Momentarily taken aback, the all-white audience recovered quickly and laughed uproariously. Merritt had to be kidding. Didn’t he? After all, here was the Black coach of arguably the best Black college football program in America complaining about…integration?
Merritt used the same line often in the early 1970s. But it was never meant as a laugh line. He was serious, and he was right. Integration was killing him and the other Black college athletic programs of that era.
Merritt died in 1983 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994. I thought about him recently while reading about how some of the nation’s best Black high school athletes have begun choosing, or at least considering, historically Black college programs instead of the traditional powerhouses.
A July 22 New York Times story, headlined “Black Lives Matter Protests Spawn Push for Athletes to Attend Historically Black College,” cited these examples: basketball stars Nate Tabor of Queens, New York, has chosen Norfolk State over St. John’s and Kenyan-born Makur Maker from West Hills, California, has selected Howard University over Kentucky and UCLA while football quarterback Daniel Ingram de-committed from the University of Cincinnati in his hometown to play at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff.
Then there was this Twitter message from Mikey Williams, a prized point guard from San Diego: “Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad.” The Times wrote that if Williams were to choose an HBCU (the acronym for Historically Black College and University), he would become “one of the highest-rated athletes to do so post-integration.”
As a young, raw sportswriter in Nashville in the early 1970s, my first assignment was covering Tennessee State, and I saw, firsthand, what Merritt meant about integration’s impact on his football team. In those early “post-integration” days, as the Times labeled the era, the golden years of Black college athletics were fading. Where once schools like Grambling, Southern, Florida A&M and others, recruited against one another for the best Black athletes in the South, now those same athletes were being courted by Alabama, Kentucky and even Ole Miss. It began slowly, one or two at a time. Once the floodgates opened, the Black schools didn’t have the resources to compete. And they still don’t.
Consider this: if you combine the 2018 recruiting expenses for men’s sports at four HBCUs — Howard, Tennessee State, Grambling and Prairie View A&M — that total is less than half a million dollars ($473,244). Compare that with $1.8 million at Duke, $2.8 million at Clemson and $3.3 million at Alabama. (Data from Department of Education.)
Those figures support former NBA star Dwayne Wade’s comments. Asked about Makur’s choice of Howard, Wade began by saying he loved Makur’s move and hopes others follow. Then he added this cautionary, but realistic, note. “…college basketball and everyone else has to do their job to make sure that the HBCUs are pulled up from the dirt,” he said. “Because that’s where they are now.”
Resources were no better in the pre-integration days. It was no-frills, for sure. Tennessee State’s teams bussed from Nashville to Houston or Baton Rouge. The recruiting budget primarily went to fill the tank of Merritt’s car so he could drive to Memphis and Mississippi to seek out players. There were no 5-star rankings; players didn’t text videos of their performances or create personal web pages. Merritt relied on Black high school coaches to tip him off. He just needed to get in the door ahead of someone from Jackson State or Alabama A&M. He had his pick of talent. (And he knew talent, too, like recognizing the potential of a high school basketball player named Ed Jones, dubbed “Too Tall” by a teammate once he got to Tennessee State.)
Outside the Black communities, these teams and their players were barely visible. Games weren’t telecast, and newspapers provided sparse coverage. Tennessee State’s basketball coach used to quip, “You had to turn all the way back to the hunting and fishing or sometimes even the obituaries to find a story about our games.” But while the general public beyond the Black communities might not have been acquainted with the teams and players, both the National Football League and the National Basketball Association were keenly aware. Pro scouts flocked to a Tennessee State-Grambling football game.
The high-water mark for HBCU football may have been the NFL draft in 1974 when 44 HBCU players were selected, including nine in the first round. Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones from Tennessee State was the first overall pick that year, and his teammate, Chicago Bears linebacker Waymond Bryant, was third. Three more Tennessee State players were second rounders. In the 46 drafts since then, only 12 players from HBCUs have been first-round picks. And in 2020, only one player from HBCU was chosen in the entire draft.
Basketball has a comparable history. Only one player from an HBCU is listed on an NBA roster as play resumes in the Orlando bubble this summer. By contrast, 14 HBCU products were in the NBA for the 1970–71 season, including Hall of Famers Earl (The Pearl) Monroe, Willis Reed, and Al Attles. In 2019, the Naismith Hall of Fame inducted the teams from Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State) that won three straight NAIA national championships from 1957 through 1959 and featured New York Knicks star Dick (Skull) Barnett.
All this raises the question: can Maker Makur and Nate Tabor begin to pull the HBCUs “up from the dirt,” to use Wade’s phrase? Or has that hole become too deep?
If there is a shift afoot, it will happen in basketball where the numbers are smaller and a few players can make a big difference. Maybe that’s what Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trail Blazers had in mind when he wrote this on Instagram: “All it takes is one person to change history … It changes college sports because you have a young Black kid who is at the top of his game who decided to go to a Black university.”
If Carmelo Anthony is right, if does take only one person to change history, maybe this will be the moment.