Winless Tigers tip of problematic iceberg

Originally Published: February 2, 2005
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Savannah State athletic director Tony O'Neal listened to the reporter on his cell phone for roughly 15 seconds before asking what amounted to a rhetorical question.

"Is this going to be a negative story?"

The country song says that nobody calls from Vegas just to say hello. No reporters call Savannah State just to say hello, either.

Division I winless seasons
1991-92 Prairie View 0-28
1917-18 Dartmouth 0-26
2004-05 Savannah State 0-25
1936-37 William&Mary 0-18
1954-55 The Citadel 0-17
1944-45 Baylor 0-17
1923-24 Northwestern 0-16
1931-32 VMI 0-14
1943-44 VMI 0-14
1926-27 Saint Louis 0-14
1936-37 Middle Tenn. 0-11
1916-17 Oregon 0-11
1933-34 American 0-10
1942-43 Tulsa 0-10
1909-10 Drake 0-10
-- ESPN Research. Includes teams prior to D-I formation
O'Neal's men's basketball team is 0-25 and free-falling toward just the second winless season in Division I in the last 50 years. The Tigers haven't so much as led a game at halftime, and have only been within single digits at the final horn twice. They're last in the Sagarin Ratings, last in stat guru Ken Pomeroy's ratings and, in a minor victory, 328th out of 330 teams in the RPI.

For statistical purposes, the NCAA ranks 326 non-provisional Division I schools. Entering Monday, Savannah State was 324th in free-throw percentage (.581), 325th in scoring margin (minus-24.0), scoring defense (81.4 points allowed) and field-goal percentage (.353), and dead last in assists (7.7).

In other words, there is nothing flukish about this. There are no compelling coulda-woulda-shoulda rationalizations for a handful of nailbiter losses. It's a legit 0-25.

Believe it or not, men's basketball is just one of the reasons first-year athletic director O'Neal has the hardest job since Sisyphus. It's not even the biggest reason, really. But we'll get to the laundry list of athletic travails at the neophyte D-I independent school later.

For now, it's basketball that tops the triage list at Savannah State. And it's basketball that has captured the lurid curiosity of Hoopsworld, as the Winless Watch wears on.

The Tigers, who are averaging 502 fans per home game, lost to Georgia Southern at home on Monday night 92-64, then to Florida A&M on Wednesday night 92-68 in Tallahassee. Monday's loss came after a 12-day January sabbatical that is just one of the bizarre elements of their schedule.

Savannah State crammed seven games into November and another nine into December. (In one eight-day stretch, the Tigers played road games in Jacksonville, Fla., Orangeburg, S.C., Charleston, S.C. and New Orleans. And they're not exactly flying charter.) Savannah State's last game is on Valentine's Day, three weeks before most teams end their season.

Frustration's also mounting. Georgia Southern defeated SSU by 26 on Jan. 19 in Statesboro (it was 51-29 at the half) in a game marked by one of the Savannah State players flipping off the Georgia Southern student section, according to the Savannah Morning News.

"They've been working hard," O'Neal said of his basketball team. "They're struggling, man. I want people to remember, we're not talking about pros. We're talking about kids."

He's right, of course. Kids who aren't at Savannah State with an eye on the NBA, who are playing for tuition and books, who are playing because they love wearing a uniform.

"They had all their players come over and shake the other coaches' hands," said Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford, whose Colonels have beaten Savannah State twice this year. "I respect them, and I respect Coach [Edward] Daniels as a coach and an individual. He's just in a tough situation."

That he is. So while we come not to praise the Tigers, we come not to bury them, either. Instead, we come to dispassionately record a season of historic significance -- and historic futility.

As referenced above, this kind of thing doesn't happen every year in Division-I college basketball. Not even every decade. Between 1955 and today, only one school has run the table in reverse: Prairie View A&M, in 1991-92.

Suffice to say, nobody was overly enthused to return calls for this story. Repeated attempts to speak with Daniels, his players, school president Carlton Brown and even the school's sports information director, Lee Pearson, were unsuccessful.

That left O'Neal, cold-called on his cell, as the reluctant spokesman.

"I'm not discouraged," he said. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and that's been my motto all my life. ... These kids just haven't gotten over the hump."

The entire athletic department is yet to get over the hump since Savannah State moved from Division II to D-I in 2002 -- a reach that appears to have exceeded the school's modest grasp. O'Neal just became the AD in late July 2004, and he's walked into a quagmire:

  • During the summer the basketball team forfeited its four victories from 2003-04 and lost its best player, Jamal Daniels, the coach's son. The reason? He never enrolled in classes for the spring semester of 2004. That's a fairly egregious move for any player; for the coach's son, it's off the charts.

    Jamal Daniels lived on campus in 2003-04, and former A.D. Hank Ford told the Savannah Morning News that the young man attended classes. The question of which classes Daniels might have attended and what work he did there, since he wasn't enrolled, goes unanswered. Daniels was declared ineligible.

    In a remarkable response, president Brown demoted not the coach/dad, but the athletic director. Ford eventually was fired by the university last fall. Edward Daniels got to keep his job, after being placed on two years' probation.

    "That situation was handled, and we've moved on," O'Neal said, though he stopped short of making any pronouncements on Daniels' future after this season.

  • In December, at least 11 members of the 2-8 Savannah State football team left the program. Shortly thereafter the Morning News reported that a former assistant coach, Jerome Pope, was the target of an NCAA investigation into selling and distributing steroids to players.

    The paper reported that NCAA investigators came to campus and met for two days with players, coaches and administrators, including an anonymous player who reportedly turned over a tape recording of the coach urging him to take steroids to recover from an injury. Law enforcement searched the Savannah State locker room for steroids the day before the Tigers' final game of the season.

    "It is still under investigation, and we're working with the NCAA right now," O'Neal said. "We're giving them everything they ask for."

    To make O'Neal's job more difficult, the tribulations don't stop with the "revenue" sports (though the football program produced roughly 10 times more expenses than revenues in the 2003-04 school year):

  • Last year the Savannah State women's basketball team set an NCAA record for fewest points in a half, scoring three in the first half of a 107-28 loss to Florida State.

  • The softball team was winless, and was outscored 166-0 in its last 20 games.

  • Baseball coach Jamie Rigdon, whose 279 victories are the most in school history, has sued three school administrators, including the president, for racial discrimination. (Rigdon is Caucasian; the defendants in the suit are African-American.)

    The turmoil has prompted some Savannah State alums to criticize the jump to Division I, a move that school president Brown championed. Alumnus and Claxton, Ga., City Councilman Jerome Woody wrote a letter to the Savannah Herald, a paper that covers the African-American community, that said in part:

    "These kids are students first and athletes second. To subject them to embarrassing losses night in and night out not for thirty but three pieces of silver is socially dangerous, humanly repugnant and psychologically stultifying. It is like the school is prostituting the student-athletes for publicity and financial crumbs."

    O'Neal believes that conference affiliation will go a long way toward alleviating the problems at Savannah State. He said the school has applied for membership in a conference he would not name, though he added that he thought Savannah State would fit best in either the MEAC, the Atlantic Sun or the Big South.

    "All of those are geographically sound, and they'd put us in a position to alleviate the kind of scheduling problems that happened this year," O'Neal said. "I just want our athletes to keep fighting and playing hard, and something good will happen.

    "We're going to get to the end of the tunnel. And when I get there and see the sunlight I'll say, 'OK, here it is.' And I'll feel better.

    "I know I keep saying that, but it is what it is, man."

    Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com

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