NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As a record-setting superstar quarterback at Grambling State, Doug Williams enjoyed all the glory and fame that goes with being a shark swimming in a kiddie pool.
As a head coach at his alma mater, Williams lived in the underbelly. He saw downtrodden facilities and budgets squeezed for the very last dollar, universities trying as hard to survive as to compete.
He left his alma mater last season for a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Williams' heart and passion still lies with the plight of the HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). The first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl and win the game's MVP, Williams knows all about overcoming hurdles, but he has come to believe that HBCUs are too busy shouting into the wind about what they aren't instead of figuring out how to maximize what they are.
"You have to recognize who you're competing against," he said. "With talks of bowl games and NCAA Tournaments, we're not going to compete for that anymore. You can't say whether it's good or bad, because it is what it is. You can't change it so you may as well embrace who you are."
That, however, is not easy to do at universities exhausted from uphill battles.
At the NCAA Convention in Nashville, Tenn., in January, what started off as an inspirational look at the history of the HBCUs with comments from a who's who panel of former athletes instead turned into a vent session once the formal presentation ended. Frustration is palpable among HBCU athletic administrators, exhausted from trying to stretch a dollar and keep flailing programs alive with little to no help from the university, graduates or even the state. Some administrators stood up and called out NCAA President Myles Brand, demanding that the NCAA do more to help its struggling members, while others asked unanswerable questions about how they were to survive when the money just didn't come in.
They, like the panelists who talked about overcoming adversity and long odds, take pride in their resourcefulness in the face of no resources, and the pluck and moxie they employ to keep things going.
But pluck and moxie only gets you so far, particularly in a world ruled by dollars and cents. There is genuine and legitimate fear that the schools that count Walter Payton (Jackson State), Willis Reed (Grambling State) and Harry Carson (South Carolina State) among their alumni are in a battle they are no longer equipped to fight and that the proud programs of the past could disappear altogether.
According to the 2007 budget figures from the Office of Postsecondary Education, Delaware State has the deepest athletics pockets among all HBCUs. Out of 339 Division I institutions, its $17.2 million budget ranks 124th.
"For so long, it was about keeping up with the Joneses," Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner Duer Sharp said. "Well, we're not even in the Joneses' league anymore."
The Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) offers a glimmer of hope. In the latest RPI rankings, four MEAC schools rank under 200 (Hampton, at 142, is the best). No one in the SWAC boasts an RPI better than 220.
An HBCU hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001 when 15th-seeded Hampton shocked Iowa State.
"They've always been under-resourced, but frankly it's gotten worse comparatively than it has in the past," Brand said. "I think there's a real struggle going on to make sure they're healthy and well and can continue to educate people who want to be in those environments. That's a problem that goes well beyond athletics."
Since integration swung open the doors of higher education to everyone, enrollment at HBCUs has steadily dwindled and athletic programs have nosedived almost into oblivion. Given the chance to follow the money trail to better facilities and greater exposure, the best African-American athletes understandably don't choose HBCUs any longer.
We have to roll with the punches. We have to find a way to form our own championships, to be inclusive and make sure all of these schools start making money. The bottom line, we have to survive. That needs to be our goal.
There were pockets of hope. Alcorn State won an NCAA Tournament game in 1980, and Steve McNair infused hope in that same school's gridiron program in the early 1990s. But there has been no sustained excitement, nothing like the early years when the HBCUs regularly attracted the nation's talent.
Reed remembered growing up in Louisiana, working one summer in the same factory that employed his father. By the time the job ended, his hands were calloused and he was determined to find a different path. He wanted to be a teacher and a coach, never dreaming of a Hall of Fame career. He chose Grambling because it was close to home and because it was what he knew.
But those days, he believes are gone. There are few secrets in college recruiting, few hidden gems who get missed in the myriad of AAU tournaments. Rare is the truly talented player who takes the leap of faith to attend an HBCU.
"If you're good enough, eventually they'll find you," Reed said of big-time programs. "That's been proven over and over again. Wouldn't it make more sense to go some place and play than say sit behind a kid like Chris Paul? I think it would, but the parents, the coaches and the kids, they don't think that way anymore."
The athletes who do end up choosing HBCUs often wonder why they bothered. In an effort to really understand what's going on -- and not going on -- at his schools, Sharp regularly meets with the members of the SWAC Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
What he hears isn't good.
"A lot of our athletes are disgruntled," Sharp said. "They're frustrated by what they don't have, and many of them leave unhappy with the experience."
While many people shout at Brand to institute some sort of change, Sharp said the real blame lies with the individual institutions. His office constantly gets calls about sloppy fields or lousy facilities, but he is powerless to change them. He knows the schools are tapped out, that the basketball teams see almost none of the money they bring in from guaranteed games, that the NCAA Tournament opening-round game has almost solidified his member schools as one-and-done in March, and that the gate at football and basketball home games barely makes a dent in the overall expenses of each sport.
But he also believes that it is up to the schools to ask the state -- all of the SWAC schools are state institutions -- for help.
"It's a government issue," Sharp said. "But there has to be some correspondence and some conversation. The schools need to say, 'We need some help with this. We haven't been able to upgrade our facilities in a number of years and we need some state support.' You've got to have people in rooms having those conversations. Until we get that, nothing will change."
Williams, however, sees another direction worth considering. He points to the football rivalry games -- the New Orleans-based Bayou Classic between Southern and Jackson State that has blossomed into a four-day event over Thanksgiving -- as a perfect example of what HBCUs can and should be doing. The bowl money, the financial windfalls that fall into the already burgeoning BCS school pots, isn't an option. Final Four payouts aren't going to happen.
So instead Williams believes it is up to the HBCUs to grow what they have, to back the rivalries and make an almost internal championship among the member schools. Let the outside competitions -- the I-AA football playoffs, the NCAA tourney -- be an additional carrot, but turn the heart and soul of the HBCUs into the schools' strength and income source.
It is a hopeful, if not altogether easy plan to pull off, but to Williams the choice is simple.
"You can't say whether it's good or it's bad; it is what it is," he said. "We have to roll with the punches. We have to find a way to form our own championships, to be inclusive and make sure all of these schools start making money. The bottom line, we have to survive. That needs to be our goal."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.