Black History Week
To celebrate Black History Month, Saturdays Feed My Soul has been sharing a daily profile of a prominent black icon in college football history each day this week.
We start with the great Eddie Robinson, the legendary head coach of Grambling State University in Louisiana, a historically black university. One of the youngest coaches in college football history, Robinson coached at Grambling for 56 years, and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: “We will be forever grateful for the more than 200 young men he developed at Grambling who starred in the NFL and those who later coached the next generation of NFL players.”
Fritz Pollard was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl for Brown University in 1916. Pollard was a 5’6” halfback with lightning speed who was often targeted after tackles to the point where his team mates painted their faces to confuse the opposition. He would go on to be the first black head coach coach and quarterback in the NFL for the Akron Pros.
The second black head coach in the NFL, Art Shell, would not be appointed until 1989, some 68 years later. Pollard also founded the first black owned investment firm and the first African-American tabloid newspaper, the New York Independent News.
In recruiting Darryl Hill in 1963, Maryland became the first (non all-black) southern school to recruit a black football player. Clemson and South Carolina threatened time leave the ACC as a result. By 1966, half of the ACC teams had black players on their roster. A gifted halfback who had caught passes from future Cowboy Roger Staubach at Navy, Hill describes himself as a “reluctant pioneer”.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun: "I, by far, had my best games in the South," Hill said. "When they shut my mother out at Clemson and wouldn't let her into the stadium, I set an ACC single-game pass-catching record that stood until Jermaine Lewis changed it 30 years later.”
Sam “Bam” Cunningham was a 6’3” 212lb running back who was part of an all-black backfield for USC, lining up with QB Jimmy Jones and fellow RB Clarence Davis. Cunningham made his debut on September 12th, 1970 against an all-white Alabama team coached by the legendary Bear Bryant. Bryant wanted to recruit black players for years but the administrators and fan base were vehemently against it. Cunningham shocked the Alabama crowd rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns as USC won 42-21.
Bryant told USC coach John McKay: “I can’t thank you enough for what you did for me today.” On the back of Cunningham’s amazing performance, Bryant was subsequently able to recruit black players and integrate the team. Santa Barbara Independent reports Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne as saying: “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Willie Jefferies became the first African American head coach of a Division 1-A (then equivalent to FBS) predominantly white college in 1979 when he took the top job at Wichita State University. Although there had been black head coaches in college football previously, Eddie Robinson being prime example, Jefferies' appointment at the Kansas based university was a big and long overdue step forward. He followed his four years at Wichita State with successfull spells at Howard University and his alma mater, South Carolina State whom he would lead to three black college national championships in two spells there. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Hernan Boone, who wrote his recommendation letter, was the coach on whom the film Remember The Titans was based. Boone said of Jefferies: "Without his leadership and example, there would not have been Remember the Titans or the advancement in race relations in sports that we have witnessed."