FILE PHOTO: Central Florida Knights wide receiver Josh Reese (19) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Central Florida defeated Penn State 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

By Ron Wynn

Though HBCUs have long been a place where some of the greatest football players have performed prior to becoming pros, they certainly aren’t the powerhouses today they were in the pre-integration era. It would have been quite interesting to see what would have happened if some of the best squads led by Tennessee State University’s John Merritt, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson or Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither had been given the opportunity to face teams from the major conferences. 

But once the SEC, Big 10, ACC, Pac-10 and Big 12 started routinely recruiting top Black talent, HBCUs found themselves pushed to the background. Today, while SWAC and MEAC teams are allowed to compete in the NCAA basketball and baseball tournaments, they have no shot at getting into the Power Five controlled College Football Playoff. Whether its four teams or expanded to 12, those playoffs are restricted to the larger mainstream schools (in fairness no team from the Patriot League or Ivy League has a shot either, and neither do teams from other smaller conferences).

However in the last few months, HBCUs have started getting more attention. The hirings of such former All-Pro players as Deion Sanders and Eddie George as head coaches at Jackson State and Tennessee State was a big first step. A second has been ESPNU starting to air some selected HBCU games. A third is the resumption of the Black College Hall of Fame game, which is played in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

This year’s game was played this past Sunday between Tennessee State and Grambling, resuming a rivalry that once was among the most fierce in HBCU annals, but which hadn’t occurred before Sunday since 2002. The game was aired on the NFL Network, and while the 16-10 Grambling victory was far from an artistic triumph, it provided some valuable national exposure for both schools. It also alerted the millions watching that the Black College Hall of Fame was housed within the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Such HBCU legends as former Grambling and Washington football team star Doug Williams, former Grambling and Pro Bowl QB James “Shack” Harris and former Houston All-Pro and now Hall of Fame linebacker Robert Brazile were interviewed and talked about both the past and future of HBCU football.

In addition, two new developments were mentioned. The first is that this year there will be a special All-Star game for prospective pros from HBCUs played the week after the Super Bowl. It will be called the Legacy Bowl. While coaches haven’t yet been announced, the game will be aired on the NFL Network and provide a showcase for HBCU stars who might not have gotten the exposure they deserve during the season.

Also the NFL will hold a special combine just for HBCU players after the season, providing them with the same scrutiny, interviews and opportunity to perform before scouts and coaches that’s given those from the larger schools who appear at the combine held in Indianapolis. This may be the thing that prevents what happened last season, when players from HBCUs were widely ignored in the draft, a slight that both Williams and Brazile talked about in their interviews.

Now none of these new things will address a bigger problem for HBCUs, which is being given more voice and their problems paid more attention by the NCAA. But at least it’s a start and a recognition that there are good athletes and fine football being played at these schools. It’s not utopia, but it does indicate that there are those in the football and athletic establishment who understand the importance of HBCUs, and want to see them treated better.