THE BALLROOM AT THE WESTIN Galleria in Houston is filled with well-dressed young men on banquet chairs. All is quiet save for the voice of Texas Southern football coach Johnnie Cole. From the podium, Cole implores his Tigers to show good sportsmanship to rival Prairie View A&M the next day in the Labor Day Classic at Reliant Stadium. He rehashes the Oregon-Boise State postgame fracas that led to the suspension of Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount. Suddenly, a player yells, "He'll be playing here next year!" The room erupts in laughter, before a satisfied Cole says: "Now you're seeing the bigger picture!"
Welcome to Second Chance U., where a rocky past can be the first step on the road toward redemption. Hired by his alma mater to revive a program that had become the punching bag of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the 46-year-old Cole has imported 20 hard-luck transfers over the past two years, from football powers like Arkansas, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, Texas, Texas Tech, Arizona and Notre Dame. Some landed at this historically black college in Houston after being arrested or injured. Others had simply become homesick, slipped down the depth chart or fallen out of favor with coaches. But whatever their situation, Cole came calling with a chance for salvation-a chance to play for a man whose own history makes him less likely to judge theirs.
Yes, Johnnie Cole knows what it means to need a second chance, having endured NCAA scrutiny at three universities. Tennessee State and Alabama State-where he was an assistant under older brother L.C.-received three and five years' probation, respectively, for a variety of rules violations. Johnnie, who was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, finally landed his first head coaching job in 2005, at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. He revived the D2 program, improving the Dragons from 0-10 to 8-3 by his two years after being dismissed following academic and legal problems. "I'm sort of like an ambulance chaser second season. But that record was revised to 2-9 following NCAA sanctions for a "lack of institutional control" across the athletics department. Once again, Cole found himself surrounded by controversy, and once again he emerged with nothing charged against him. "I was able to bounce back and rebuild my reputation," says Cole. "If it weren't for Lane, I don't know if I'd be here now."
Texas Southern officials stand behind their coach, who they saw as the best man to bolster a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2000. "Coach Cole was an alum who had been a part of many programs that he turned around," says TSU athletic director Charles McClelland. "The university looked into all the issues and obviously felt comfortable in making the hire." But they're not so comfortable as to turn a blind eye. "Oversight is one of my highest priorities," McClelland says. "It's placed a huge amount of stress on Coach Cole, but we've dedicated extra attention and resources to doing quadruple checks on player eligibility." Smart move, given TSU's unusual approach to recruiting. A lot of lower-division schools look to poach FBS talent, but Texas Southern has taken it to a new level. When a potential Tiger pops up on Cole's radar-that is, when a former blue-chip kid is booted off a team or otherwise sees his college career derailed-Cole or someone from his staff reaches out to offer a helping hand, either directly or through their recruiting contacts. They're looking for kids like former Texas Tech defensive end Rashad Hunt, who'd been out of football for listening to the CB," Cole says. "Only I'm waiting to hear when so-and-so gets kicked off a team." Once in touch, Cole uses straight talk not so much to explain his past, but to seal the deal with parents or guardians, making the appealing case that he can change fortunes by adjusting attitudes. "I've eaten some of the worst meals in my life!" he says of in-home visits. "Cow feet, cow knuckles, whatever. But that's no problem because that's where I came from too. I tell players if they're coming here just for football, don't come, because I'm into developing kids."
Hunt says Texas Southern got him with daily calls and persistent efforts to solve his eligibility woes, a task other schools were unwilling to tackle. "They'd call every morning," says Hunt, who had given up football. "Then Coach Cole would call and say, Come on, man, you know you want to play."
Linebacker Curtis Thomas, a Texan who started as a true freshman at Minnesota but never felt comfortable in Minneapolis, says Cole's manner won him over too, even after Googling him and reading about Cole's previous problems: "He's a fighter," Thomas says, "and that's one thing I liked when I considered coming here."
Cole believes the tightly knit black-college atmosphere provides a welcome alternative to the sometimes-alienating experience of being a minority on a predominately white campus. Even drug and alcohol problems are just obstacles to hurdle on the way to building better citizens who already happen to be fine football players. "We make sure they see counselors," he says. "I get them to church and expose them to spirituality, and afterward they can choose what they want. When I tell the parents that, they say, Hey, this is probably where my son should have played in the first place, instead of going where it's more about business."
His players seem to have similar thoughts. "We've all bought into Coach Cole's system of preparing yourself spiritually, mentally and physically," says defensive back Lance Tillison, who'd served a threegame suspension at Iowa following a DUI but says he transferred on his own rather than gain 30 pounds to move to linebacker. Wide receiver Ricky Dixon, who came to TSU after tiring of sitting on the LSU bench, is another acolyte: "I want to look back and say, Remember when Texas Southern was bad? Remember when we turned it around?"
Signs of hope abound. The Tigers are clearly than before Cole arrived, energizing the better campus. Last year, students approved, by a wide margin, a $300,000 athletics fee to fund a facilities remodeling. And the school recently struck a deal with MLS' Houston Dynamo to share a 22,000seat stadium that is scheduled to open in 2011. It is heartening news for the SWAC, which once produced Nflstars like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Steve McNair and Michael Strahan, but no longer churns out much NFL talent at all. "I'm an image guy," says Cole. "I'm trying to create an atmosphere here so when FBS players come they won't feel like they're falling all the way down."
Still, Texas Southern is no quick fix. The Tigers went 4-8 last season, including an 83-10 beat-down by Arkansas State. This fall they started off 0-2, including a 58-0 drubbing by Louisiana-Monroe. Cole, an optimist by necessity, says morale is buoyed by the knowledge that everyone is not playing to their potential. "Our problems are correctable," he says. "Some players haven't played in over two years and are still getting the rust off."
Challenges are not limited to game day. Sloppy practices still put Cole into a state that leads to profanity-laced staff meetings that show why he earned the moniker Cole Blooded. School administrators experienced Cole's wrath the day before the season opener. For the second straight year, the Tigers roster was in limbo because the certification office was slow in approving transfer paperwork. After an afternoon of polite requests for updates, Cole stormed the office demanding answers. He's only about 5'10" and 165 pounds, but when he raised his voice people down the hall stepped out of their offices in alarm. Later, Cole asked, "Do you think Bob Stoops is getting ready for his big game still talking about certifications? I think I can do Bob Stoops' job. I don't think he could do this one."
He means it. Despite his apparent football-first focus, Cole's team rules are based on professionalism. Players must keep their hair short and faces clean-shaven and wear collared shirts and slacks to team events. No cornrows or dreadlocks, no grills, earrings or saggy pants. "The grooming thing kind of bugs me, but maybe once we start winning he'll loosen up," says linebacker Jonathan Demps, who was suspended from Florida in 2007 for violating team rules. Don't count on Cole changing his code. "How they look has a correlation on the field in terms of whether I can trust them to do what I ask. If there's a kid I can't change, I'll recognize it and eliminate them. If we get a kid on a second chance, we've got to make sure it's the right kid. protect the school's integrity."
Texas Southern might not have any surefire NFL prospects this season, but Scouts Inc. draft guru Todd McShay says these three players from historically black colleges-including one from the SWAC-have the best chance of getting drafted in 2010.
1. Florida A&M QB Curtis Pulley was a prep star who ran into legal woes. The former Kentucky Wildcat is a 6'4", 200-pound dual threat who accounted for 24 TDs last year. Scouts will watch when FAMU plays at Miami on Oct. 10, a game that may decide if he's a late-rounder or UFA.
2. At 5'8", 183, South Carolina State RB William Ford doesn't have pro size. But the 2008 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year has almost 4,000 rushing yards. He had only 50 yards combined in games against UCF and Clemson last year. His big chance this year comes Oct. 3 at South Carolina.
3. Southern QB Bryant Lee is a late-round long shot, but his versatility gives him a chance. Lee (6'2", 200) has 50 TD passes and 17 rushing scores. At the FBS' Louisiana this year, Lee tossed two nice deep TDs (26, 51 yards) to give Southern a 12-7 lead. The Jags lost 42-19, but Lee helped himself.