Winston-Salem State’s football success should inspire HBCU change

The last time a Historically Black College or University football team played for an NCAA championship, Michael Jackson had the Number One album in the world, gas was $1.24 a gallon and Eddie Murphy was delirious.

Unfortunately the King of Pop is gone, gas costs body parts and Eddie is now making straight-to-DVD flicks, but Black College Football fans can celebrate again as Winston-Salem State made history Saturday night. Cruising to a 40-18 victory over West Texas A&M, the Rams earned a spot in the NCAA Division II national championship game, becoming the first HBCU since Central State in 1983 to make it to the title game. The Rams still have to play a powerful Valdosta (Ga.) State team next week, but WSSU has a lot to be proud of and has set an example that its HBCU family should try and follow.

The story of WSSU as a D2 title contender actually began in 2009, when the board of trustees admitted to a costly mistake. The school decided that a move to Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) was too costly to the school’s bottom line. Boldly, Winston-Salem State left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and returned to Division II and their native Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

The move seemed to make sense in terms of keeping the University safe financially, but all the Rams sports teams stood to lose a LOT of Division I caliber athletes in the process. Somehow, head coach Connell Maynor convinced some of those players to stay and 2 years after returning to Division II, WSSU is on the small schools’ big stage.

To understand the difference between Division I and Division II athletics is to know the football scholarship count. Schools in the Bowl Championship Series (formerly Division I-A) is allowed 85 scholarships. FCS is allowed 63. Division II is afforded a grand total of 36. Of course you need more than 36 players in college football, so a coach has to convince a kid to play football on financial aid status. Not an easy task.

An even tougher task is for HBCUs competing at a Division I level with, at best, Division II resources. As black colleges fight to stay relevant and successful in a desegregated world, money has to be watched very closely and athletic budgets can get hefty to say the least. HBCUs have to look closely at a move to Division II to save money – and arguably, face.

Division II became a dirty word for some after the MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference were granted D-I status at the turn of the 1980s, but it was a different ballgame then. Now you have bigger stadiums/arenas, corporate sponsors, wealthy donors and booster clubs -things HBCUs simply don’t have.

It might be time for black colleges to think long term viability and stability by saving money and a surefire way to do that is cut athletic budgets and move down a division. There’s no shame in Division II as WSSU and the women’s basketball national title team at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC have shown us in the last 9 months. The key is to be creative in hiring coaches and finding athletes willing to buy into educational and social experiences as well as athletics. It’s tough, but it can be done.

Just look at Winston-Salem State.

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