- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Robert Kent and Isaac Hilton already have defied the odds.
Kent, the Jackson State quarterback, and Hilton, a defensive end from Hampton, were the only representatives from historically black college football programs invited to participate in the NFL scouting combine. More than 250 players received invites.
If the road to the NFL is a tough battle for top-notch players at Ohio State and USC, imagine the odds for a player from a Division I-AA black college.
No national television exposure. Little chance at a Heisman campaign. Fewer scouts at games.
It has hardly been a recent decline in talent base for the football programs at historically black colleges and universities. As segregation laws were lifted in the 1960s and the last Division I-A schools translated the integration process onto the playing field in the 1970s, the talent typically confined to the black colleges and universities began to filter up to the big-time schools -- now accepting players of any race to help them win as many games as possible.
"Integration was great for society, but for black college football it was their death knell," said Michael Hurd, a black college football historian who wrote the book, "Black College Football, 1892-1992."
The statistics tell the tale. From 1971 to 1976, nine players from black college football programs, including three of the top 10 picks in 1971 and 1975, were chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. Nine players from black colleges have been selected in the first round in the 27 drafts since then.
The names of Walter Payton (Jackson State), Richard Dent (Tennessee State) and John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) -- three of the 17 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played at historically black colleges -- carry little cache with today's youth. And there are only a handful of active players -- Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Shannon Sharpe (Savannah State), Michael Strahan (Texas Southern) and Steve McNair (Alcorn State) -- who seem destined for enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.
"The black schools don't have the funds, the facilities or the TV deals to compete with the huge colleges and universities for these kids," said Dent, the former Chicago Bears defensive end who made a name as one of the game's great pass rushers in a career that spanned from 1983-1997.
Dent said he chose to play for Tennessee State because he wanted to attend an institution where African-Americans were the majority. "There was nothing like looking up in the stands and seeing all black people."
But Dent said he believes fewer blue-chip athletes share that ideal today. The historically black college is mismatched against the Division I-A university in an era where schools pour money into the construction of bigger and better facilities to lure top athletes.
Wednesday, February 24
You never see the top recruits mentioning Grambling or Southern anymore. It's harder to get into the heads of these athletes when they can't even compete with the budgets of the major schools as far as the number of mailings and advertising they do.
"Top football prospects just don't turn down major division I-A opportunities for a Grambling or a Jackson State," said Mike Farrell, the national football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Doug Williams was a big NFL name, and Grambling and he still couldn't do much due to the exposure factor and the fact that these schools can't offer the same financial package as the larger Division I-A schools can."
Williams, a former Grambling quarterback who was picked 17th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978, might have restored his alma mater to greatness when he replaced legendary coach Eddie Robinson following the 1997 season. Yet 40 victories over the past four seasons did little to command attention from the best high school players.
"The social and political changes that took place years ago provided open opportunities and the bottom line is that we can't provide these student-athletes with the material incentives they see at the larger universities," Grambling president Dr. Neari Warner said.
If a blue-chipper does make a trip to Grambling, La., he'll be forced to put the 22,000-seat Eddie G. Robinson Stadium up against Division I-A playing facilities that are more than four times its size. Ticket revenue alone for a single game at nearby LSU, with its 91,600-seat Tiger Stadium, surpasses revenue from an entire season at a black college.
Not only are their athletic departments dwarfed by the large Division I-A schools, the black colleges and universities themselves have endured rough financial times of late.
For the 2001-02 academic year, 20 of 51 black colleges reported deficits. Grambling's two-year probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Black Schools was just lifted in December. A loss of accreditation would have resulted in the loss of financial aid for the majority of the student body.
"There's always going to be a place for HBCU's," said Charlie Davis, the athletic director at North Carolina A&T, which will play its first game against a Division I-A opponent when it takes on Wake Forest in the 2004 season opener and makes $125,000 in the process. "But to think that we're going to get a top-level kid who's looking at us and Florida State -- that's kind of crazy."
Don't tell the coaches at black colleges they can't recruit a future NFL star -- or at least turn a project into a solid draft pick.
"Our task is to take a kid with potential and turn him into a possible prospect by year three," said Melvin Spears, a former Alcorn State quarterback and wide receiver who was named Grambling's head coach last week after Williams took a front-office job with the Buccaneers.
"We tell our guys if you are good enough, you can play in the NFL," said Spears, who notes that seven of his 26 recruits also received Division I-A offers. "They will discover you."
Hampton's Hilton agrees with the black college coaches.
"If you do what you have to do on the field, they will notice you," said Hilton, a 6-foot-3, 267-pound defensive lineman who impressed scouts with his 31 reps on the bench and a blazing 4.51 40-yard dash. "Toward the end, I had five or six scouts at our practices."
Still, Dent says he believes that over the years NFL scouts have done fewer and fewer in-person assessments of athletes at black colleges. To be fair, it's easier for scouts to pick and choose who they want to see in person after they're seen them on television.
"Television has become a very important part of college sports over the past eight to 10 years and that's really where we've gotten left behind," said Jackson State coach James Bell, a former defensive coordinator at Indiana and Wake Forest.
Then again, Jackson State's Kent, who threw for more than 11,000 yards in his college career, was invited to attend the combine despite the team's 2-10 season last year, its first losing season since 1984.
"It's unfortunate that these schools don't get that much exposure," said Jon Miller, senior vice president of programming for NBC, which has broadcast the Bayou Classic, the annual Thanksgiving weekend showdown between Grambling and Southern, for the past 15 years.
Although Miller has received offers to broadcast other games, it's not likely that regular-season matchups of black college teams will be broadcast anytime soon, unless a team jumps into the Division I-A ranks.
Florida A&M was approved by the NCAA last July to move to Division I-A football for this season and reportedly had contracts for regular-season games with Illinois, Oklahoma, Toledo and Virginia Tech. But the school's board of trustees voted Feb. 10 to back the school president's recommendation to delay the move.
Davis said North Carolina A&T conducted a feasibility study for a possible move to Division I-A, but has decided against it for now after learning that the program's budget would rise from $5.5 million to more than $10 million to accommodate for the requirements of additional scholarships and a larger coaching staff.
In the meantime, Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, an 11-school conference that includes Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T, recently required that its schools upgrade their video editing equipment so that they can better pitch their athletes to scouts with footage of the wide and tight angles that Division I-A programs use.
But recruiting a blue-chip prospect isn't the focus of black college football coaches these days. Most of them are just worried about staying competitive with the their rivals.
"The vast majority of our teams are black and I don't see that changing," said George Small, the head football coach at North Carolina A&T and a former NFL veteran who has coached at five historically black colleges. "But I'm not selling race when I go recruit an athlete. I want players of any race that will help me win."
Of his 17 recent signees to National Letters of Intent, 14 are black, two are Hispanic and one is white.
The mix of races is a testament to the fact that historically black colleges and universities have come a long way in four decades. Too bad that positive impact hasn't been felt in college football.
"More black athletes need to go and play football at black colleges," said Hilton, who worked his way to the combine despite the absence of a strength coach and working out in a weight room that would be classified as sub-par at a Division I-A school. "Black colleges teach you about morals and ethics. Kids say the best things about the big-time programs are the things that the boosters give them."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org