By Tribune Staff
Interim Tennessee State University President Dr. Portia Shields appeared before the Sports Authority Monday and sounded more like a nostalgic public relations football historian than a college President concerned with the future of Tennessee State University. Shields is convinced the key thing TSU needs in an era of budget cuts and high unemployment is a revamping of its legendary Hale Stadium, affectionately known as “The Hole.” Shields invoked tradition, heritage, everything except the flag in her appeal for fiscal support to enable the 21st century Tigers football team to play two games (that’s two out of the four they have at home) at the Hole.
“The Hole is where all our football tradition resides,” Dr. Shields said. “This is a big part of history for TSU. I am coming to you to request that we be allowed to play two games at Hale Stadium, known as the Hole.” Dr. Shields also added a further reference to TSU’s past exploits, when she talked about the impact this might have for alumni returning to Nashville.
“When they (alumni) come back you know from a long time ago, they like to see it (the stadium) the way it was then. It looks horrible,” she continued. Well, it looks like most abandoned buildings, crumbling and in disrepair. But it would take at least one million dollars for just basic repairs, which would include a new scoreboard, sound systems and adding new restrooms. A total revamping would cost an estimated $27 million dollars, and that’s not even factoring in such things as cost overruns and inflation over the time of construction. This would also include adding 4,000 addtional seats. All this for a mere two games, neither of which include either the season-opening John Merritt Classic or Homecoming.
The funny thing is when TSU signed that lease to play at what was then Adelphi Stadium over a decade ago, the big selling point was how great it was for an HBCU school to be playing its home games in an NFL caliber facility. This was supposed to give TSU a recruiting advantage over its OVC rivals, and represent an elevation of Black college football. Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out that way. OVC games routinely draw under 20,000 (often closer to 10,000) with tons of TSU fans content to tailgate in the parking lot and never set foot inside LP Field.
It also doesn’t help that TSU’s days of domination are long gone. Last year’s disastrous campaign that ended with the school going winless in the OVC has just continued a long run of mediocre (to be kind) football. Whether they’re playing at LP Field, in the Hole, or on Mars won’t matter when fans lose hope in a season after a handful of games. TSU was the the victim earlier this month of back-to-back record-setting offensive performances from Murray State (600 + yards passing) and Air Force (792 yards total offense, 595 rushing). That puts far more of a damper on fan attendance than the site of home games.
But most importantly, a college’s first mission is education, not athletics. With Governor Bill Haslam planning to slash $20 million dollars from the educational budget for the fiscal year, the notion of putting more money into any TSU athletic program seems misguided. They just opened a new, $3.7 million dollar indoor practice facility in August. No other HBCU school has one. Not even Vanderbilt has built one for its football team (and they certainly have a lot more money on hand than TSU). While it affords a sense of pride and hopefully will help improve recruiting, it is rather disingenuous for Dr. Shields to now be requesting more money be poured into an athletic program.
Just in case anyone has forgotten, this summer TSU trimmed its list of majors from 67 to 61. Continued firing professors and administrators and she did this because, among other things, Dr. Shields said eliminating low-performing majors (programs where only a handful of students were pursuing majors) could save money. “It is in the interest of the students if we eliminate and consolidate programs and use the remaining funds to successfully promote and help the other majors,” were her words at the time. The same sentiments were used to justify further department and staff cuts. There are 26 other programs under review at TSU, among them history, art, chemistry, music and civil engineering. They’ve already merged undergraduate physics into the math/science department and are abolishing Africana Studies as a major.
If it were somehow possible to raise $27 million, it would certainly be better spent within the school on salvaging weak programs and making strong ones better. Putting it into rebuilding an old stadium you would only use part of the time seems sheer idiocy. Of course with the state of Tennessee currently undergoing 9.7% unemployment (and at least twice that high in the Black community) there probably aren’t a lot of people anxious or able to contribute money for any type of stadium rebuilding effort.
History and tradition, both academic and athletic, are fine things. Far too many people don’t know the glorious legacy of Black college football, or realize that in the segregation era such schools as TSU, FAMU, Grambling and many others could easily hold their own against all-white powers from the SEC, Big 10 or Pac-10. But those days are gone. Today, Black colleges are keeping football alive through the dazzling visual and musical performances of its bands, and interaction of the fans rather than the caliber of play on the field with a few exceptions. That’s to be expected given that every year the big mainstream schools sweep in and take the top Black high school athletes, leaving only a few blue chippers for the small schools, HBCUs included. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some fine players at HBCUs, or that the football isn’t exciting and competitive. It just isn’t what it was in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and even part of the ‘70s, before the South fully integrated its colleges athletically.
If Dr. Shields can rally the community to raise $20 million,she must put that money into scholarships for students or improved pay for faculty and TSU staff. Those who are old enough to remember the Hole and the greatness of TSU athletics will not only understand, but cheer loudly because that way you’ll be doing the university a far greater favor.
If it is true that the College of Arts and Sciences has been gutted, that there is no longer a Department of Africana Studies, that TSU appears to have abandoned the motto “Students Matter Most”, and that there may not be a School of Nursing, then we may be farther down the road of razing the tradition of TSU than we think. Let’s hope not.
Returning to the “hole” is a fantasy for some 60 year olds and some alumni who have degrees, had professional employment, retired and now after educating their children at majority schools (many whom are lawyers, physicians, teachers, scientist, etc.) now wish to see $27 million dollars not go to education at TSU but for fixing up the “Hole” for 2 tailgate parties, a battle of the bands and 2 non important games. We wonder if they would feel the same if their grandchildren were attending Tennessee State University.
Those misguided alumni should leave their nostalgic and the “Hole” where its been all these years – be nostalgic about educating our young people, be nostalgic about educational programs that equal The University of Tennessee’s graduation rate of 65.4%, Tennessee Techs 56.9 % and UT Martin 55%.
Lets get real about education at Tennessee State University instead of destroying a great HBCU and driving our better students to The University of Tennessee, Tennessee Tech and UT Martin.
If we put $27 million in the “Hole” Tennessee State will never have students like we had in the past: Harvey Johnson, Jr., Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Howard Gentry, politician, Joe Johnson, Nashville jazz musician, Carl Rowan, journalist, Carla Thomas, singer, Leon Thomas, jazz singer, Harold Ford, Sr. former member of the U.S. Congress, John Ford former member of the Tennessee Senate, A C Wharton, Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee , Alvin V. Williams, cable Television and Film Producer, Entrepreneur, Lloyd “Fig” Newton – 1966 graduate, Retired Four Star General Xernona Clayton – 1952 graduate, retired Vice-President of Urban Affairs at Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., now President and CEO as well as creator of the Trumpet Awards Foundation and Trumpet Awards ceremonies, Dr. Levi Watkins – 1966 graduate, distinguished heart surgeon, creator of the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator (used to restart the heart) Amos Otis – 1965 graduate, President and CEO of SoBran, Inc., an engineering and environmental company in Virginia, State Senator Thelma Harper – 1978 graduate, Traci Otey Blunt – 1990 graduate, Senior Vice President for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at RJ Companies, former Deputy Communication Director for Hillary Clinton, Kevin Williams – 1983 graduate, Current President for General Motors, Canadian division Elaine Cato – 1990 graduate, inventor. Also Oprah Winfrey, Moses Gunn, Richard Dent, Edward Temple, Ralph Boston, Wilma Rudolph, Chandra Cheesborough and Anthony Mason.
Instead of talking about a tailgate party in the “Hole” for 2 games for the elderly, go back to bringing in more honor students like Tennessee State University had in prior years and be nostalgic with common sense. Not only do The University of Tennessee, Tennessee Tech and UT Martin get our best athletics, but they get our most intellectual students because they do not offer nostalgic of the past because they realize that education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.
And never forget that prior to 2005, great African American men lead Tennessee State University like Dr. W. S. Davis, President Emeritus of Tennessee State University, Dr. Frederick Stephen Humphries, President Emeritus of Tennessee State University and Dr. James A. Hefner, President Emeritus of Tennessee State University and this institution must return to that greatness – if anything is left to salvage – for “Students Mattered the Most”, under these great leaders.
Finally, TSU needs a permanent President that has the interest of students and the surrounding community, as the University of Memphis President has for the Orange Mound Community (the first African-American neighborhood in the United States to be built by African-Americans.)