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Tuesday, April 16, 2002
 
Scouts aren't flocking to black colleges
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

An aging and abandoned barn once stood just a few miles down State Road 552, the twisting and careening two-lane blacktop that meanders through tiny Lorman, Miss., and into the heart of Alcorn State University.

Its wood battered and bleached, and its nails badly rusted by the decades of hot, wet weather, the creaky structure nonetheless was a landmark to those who regularly passed by it.

Painted in painstaking detail on the side of the sagging barn, in faded, yellow block letters, was this simplistic yet conspicuous warning: "Welcome to Hard Times, Miss."

Twenty years ago, when NFL scouts flocked to Alcorn in search of prospects like cornerback Roynell Young, the Philadelphia Eagles' first-round draft choice in 1980 who made the Pro Bowl squad in just his third NFL season, that cautionary note could not have been more misplaced.

Back then a scout could pull into Lorman in the evening, enjoy a heaping country breakfast complete with biscuits and gravy the next morning, wipe the grits from his shirt, then drive into Alcorn for the afternoon practice and quickly identify six or seven Braves seniors to recommend to his personnel director.

Except for a sudden frenzy seven springs ago, however, things have changed pretty dramatically in Lorman and at Alcorn State.

Former NFL quarterback Doug Williams is starting to bring talent back to Grambling State.
The barn is long gone. Unfortunately, so are the scouts, who for the most part seem to have forgotten the way to Alcorn State and some of the other traditionally black college football programs, which over the past 50 years provided 14 Hall of Fame performers for the league, have produced players.

"The scouts still come," Alcorn State coach Dr. Johnny Thomas said. "But they don't come quite as often. And they certainly don't stay as long. But that seems to be changing a little now. Maybe I'm just overly optimistic, but I think the cycle is coming back our way a little bit. I think we're on the map again. The league and the scouts are kind of rediscovering us, it seems."

Certainly that was the case seven years ago, when scouts came to cultivate first-hand assessments of quarterback Steve McNair. He went on to become the 1995 first-round pick of the then-Houston Oilers, moved into a starting job his third season, and is an emerging star.

Things are quiet again, though, this spring. The fickle pendulum has swung back once again and the Alcorn State roster from the past several seasons has not been rife with NFL-caliber talent. That was also the case, unfortunately, at most of the other traditionally black football programs.

"You could just see (the quality) diminishing," said veteran wideout Torrance Small, a former fifth-round draft pick from Alcorn State. "It's hard to spell out all the reasons, but the talent was dropping off when I was finishing up there (in 1992). This didn't just happen overnight."

The trend of the NFL drafts of the '90s and now the new millennium graphically indicate it is no longer necessary to dispatch legions of scouts to the historically black universities of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association or Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

There is the occasional high-round prospect but, the sad truth is, the return on the NFL's investment simply isn't what it used to be.

These were schools that turned out players like Lem Barney (Jackson State), Roosevelt Brown (Morgan State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore), Larry Little (Bethune-Cookman) and Mel Blount (Southern), among others.

But suddenly the talent faucet was turned off about a decade ago. There have been some leaks the past few years, but certainly nothing like the deluge of NFL talent that once poured from the black schools.

"You could see a decline in the programs my last couple years," said Detroit Lions defensive end Robert Porcher, a first-round pick from South Carolina State in 1992. "Instead of looking around at practice and thinking, 'Hey, there are three or four guys here who could play (in the NFL),' there instead was maybe one. And to me, a guy who benefited from playing at a black school, that was painful."

Just two years ago Jackson State had a pair of first-round choices, wide receiver Sylvester Morris (Kansas City) and cornerback Rashard Anderson (Carolina), but they were exceptions. Jackson State, which once produced three first-round picks in the same draft, and was perennially a "must-stop" school for scouts, had not enjoyed a No. 1 pick from 1993-1999.

Before the selections of Morris and Anderson in 2000, there had not been a first-round choice from any black school since 1996, when Pittsburgh took North Carolina A&T offensive tackle Jamain Stephens.

The last 10 drafts have included only nine first-rounders from the black schools, and three of those were in 1995. There were no first-rounders 1997-99. Some of the numbers can be explained by the reduction of the draft from 12 rounds to seven rounds, but that seems like a convenient excuse, and simply ignores the lack of depth at the black schools.

Diminishing Returns
In recent years, the number of first-round choices and prospects selected overall from the historically black colleges has diminished. Here's a look at how the black schools fared in the past eight drafts:
Year First round Total drafted
2001 0 5
2000 2 13
1999 0 9
1998 0 8
1997 0 12
1996 1 16
1995 3 17
1994 1 15
1993 1 13
1992 (a) 1 28
Note: (a) The last 12-round draft.

Last year's draft had just four players, a distressingly low number, selected from the traditionally black universities. The highest of those picks was Grambling State wide receiver Scotty Anderson. He was chosen by Detroit in the fifth round and after 147 other names already were off the master draft board.

Whatever signal of promise emanated from the 2000 draft, when 11 other players besides Anderson and Morris were chosen in later rounds, seems to have faded now.

The spigot isn't closed all the way yet, but this draft does not figure to be one that includes many prospects from traditional black schools. The highest choice probably will be either Tuskegee cornerback Roosevelt Williams or offensive guard Qasim Mitchell of North Carolina A&T. A late choice could be Grambling linebacker Robert Taylor.

Williams, who could not qualify academically for the scholarship offered him at Florida State, first enrolled at Savannah State and then moved to Tuskegee before settling into the college level. He has the kind of size teams covet at cornerback, has run some pedestrian 40 times, but might still be chosen in the second round. He is certainly no lower than a third-round projection. A massive in-line blocker, at 6-feet-5 and 335 pounds, Mitchell should be a middle-round choice.

Both players acknowledged last month they might have benefited from playing in a more high-profile program, but each insisted they would not trade their experiences at the black colleges for a loftier draft spot.

"If I was at Florida State, sure, more people would have known about me," Williams allowed. "But I probably would have left school after my first three years and gone into the draft. There are more pressures and probably more (temptations), too, at the bigger schools. I loved the time I spent at Tuskegee. And enough people found out about me that I had scouts coming in to see me. It wasn't like I turned invisible or something when I went there."

Mitchell emphasized that, this year aside, the talent level at black colleges is improving.

"Just in the time I was in school, you could see better players coming into the programs," he said. "The last couple years, the caliber of play got a lot better, a lot faster. They're recruiting some good people."

The consensus is that, for the first time since the late 1980s, the black colleges are attracting better players. That will, scouts feel, increase the number of players in the draft from those schools. That is not, however, the case yet. In three of the last four drafts, there have been fewer than 10 players selected from the black programs. And last spring's total of four is believed to be the lowest in 30-plus years.

"There are some interesting people at those schools, and that's good news for us, good to see they are beginning to attract and develop NFL prospects again," said one NFC personnel director. "It's been a down cycle at some of those schools, but I think they're bouncing back now. At least, I hope they are, because they've been good to us."

Twenty-five years ago, a scout could come here or go to Grambling and know he was going to track seven or eight (prospects) overall and usually a first-rounder. The last eight or 10 years, they come in, and they were finding guys you maybe take in the fifth round. But just let the schools turn out one or two first-rounders every year again and they'll beat a path to us.
Billy Joe, Florida A&M head coach

Still a survey by ESPN.com of nine NFL personnel directors in recent days indicated that only a handful of players from this year's Black College All-American team rate as "draftable." Yet coaches from the 42 black schools, scouts and even players say programs are on the upswing.

Certainly the overall reduction in scholarships has contributed to the supposed influx of better players at the black schools. And there is, several coaches noted, a new understanding of the legacy of those universities, not only in terms of their contributions to society at large but also to athletics.

"We're getting recruits," said Tennessee State coach James Reese, "who have an understanding for our legacy in the black colleges. There has been a period when, if you came to one of our schools, it was like you 'settled for' it, you know? That's not the case anymore."

Said defensive end Peppi Zellner of the Dallas Cowboys, a Fort Valley State product who was drafted by Dallas in the fourth round in '99: "I was proud to say I played at a black college. Maybe I didn't start out at one of those schools, but Fort Valley gave me the chance to get it together academically and on the playing field, and I'm grateful. I'd like to think I'm one of the guys who will force scouts to focus again on the black schools."

One need look no further than the proud program at Grambling, which features four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to trace the steady decline that marked the black colleges' plight in recent years.

Grambling hasn't turned out a first-round selection since Doug Williams went to Tampa Bay in 1978, and that drought won't end this year, either.

But with Williams now in place as head coach at Grambling, the school has widened its recruiting base, begun to attract more talented players and should develop top draft choices again within the next couple seasons.

The decline of the black colleges in the draft was more than anything a reflection of integration in the South and the open recruiting policies that followed. When mainstream colleges opened their doors to minority athletes, the minority colleges suffered a marked dropoff in quality of play.

"There's no doubt," said former San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard, now consultant for the Atlanta Falcons said, "that integration in the Southern schools was the reason the black programs don't turn out the players they used to. Sure it had a drastic effect on the quality of their prospects. But I think it is slowly turning around now."

Unfortunately, the operative word there is "slow," given recent results.

Said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy: "Let's face it, 20-25 years ago, Charlie Ward would have been playing at Florida A&M and not Florida State. But the kids who once went to Grambling or Southern or Alcorn State are going to Tennessee, Georgia or Florida now. It's just a microcosm of society. There came a point when the big football schools had no choice but to recruit black players. And that drained the resources of black schools."

Billy Joe, the head coach at Florida A&M, said recently the old adage still holds true: If a player has NFL talent, the scouts will find him. But he acknowledged the talent evaluators don't dig quite as hard, turn over as many rocks as they once did, at the black schools. And the reason, he allowed, was simple.

"It is just a fact that we haven't had as many prospects as we once did," Joe said. "Twenty-five years ago, a scout could come here or go to Grambling and know he was going to track seven or eight (prospects) overall and usually a first-rounder. The last eight or 10 years, they come in, and they were finding guys you maybe take in the fifth round. But just let the schools turn out one or two first-rounders every year again and they'll beat a path to us."

Longtime league personnel director Ken Herock, who was chief talent assessor for four teams during his career in the league, bemoaned the demise of the black colleges when he apprised their situation.

"The kids they're able to attract now are the ones who have fallen through the cracks," he said. "You know, a player who might not qualify academically at a big school. Or a player who transfers in, or maybe a late-bloomer. That's just the cruel reality. I'd love to see them getting first-rounders, because their coaches work hard and those schools have been good to the NFL. But it's not happening yet."

In 1974, the black colleges provided four No. 1 picks, and there were five first-round choices in 1975, including Payton.

But since '75, there have been just 17 first-round selections from the black colleges. Of that group, only Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State, '85) has been to more than one Pro Bowl game.

Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe, in Knoxville for the on-campus workouts of Tennessee's top draft prospects a few years ago, noticed the annual Vols' team pictures on the wall. In the photographs from the 1970s, there were virtually no black players. For the 1980s and '90s, the black players represented the majority.

"Just walking along the wall and looking at those team pictures from year to year ... was like viewing the evolution of integration at Southern football schools," Donahoe said. "Nobody really ignored black schools. Certainly we didn't when I was in Pittsburgh. When we get a player like (linebacker) Earl Holmes from Florida A&M in the fourth round (in 1996), we're thrilled. We just were not getting many players like that for a while, that's all."

Beathard used four of his eight selections in '97 on players from black schools and cited that as a sign those colleges are nurturing prospects again. He noted that Grambling, where Doug Williams is now the coach, is a program making strides again.

A former Super Bowl most valuable player and a man who has been outspoken about the lack of black quarterbacks in the league, Williams allowed he does not like to talk about the decline in the caliber of play at black colleges, because he doesn't necessarily subscribe to the theory that the players were not as good.

Privately, many of his colleagues disagree.

It is chic, several said, to blame a lot of the ills on poor funding, lack of exposure or coaching that often was rudimentary at best. But, said Billy Joe, the facts are the facts. And the reality was that, over the last decade, the NFL could not identify viable prospects at the black colleges.

"There's no blame, because it's a fact of life," Joe said. "Would I rather have a plethora of high-round draft picks, like we used to have, but still have segregation? No way. We can't afford to step back in society. Everything comes with a price. And, yeah, we paid the price. But as long as the scouts still come into our place and look at our kids, and those players get a fair shake in the NFL (evaluation) process, then it's a small price to pay."

Len Pasquarelli is an ESPN.com senior writer.