October 17, 2009
Hampton University finally decided to get into the athletic hall of fame business, and frankly, it's surprising that it took this long. Prestigious school, rich athletic tradition, the whole nine yards.
Normally, these sorts of honors and announcements barely move the needle for anyone outside a university community. Their criteria, their ceremonies. Some inductees you've heard of, many not.
In HU's case, however, the inaugural class is curiously typical. Or typically curious. Or, if you've paid any attention to Pirate athletics through the years, maybe neither.
The 15-member class includes the fifth- and sixth-leading career scorers in men's basketball, but not the most successful football coach in school history.
The Nos. 2 and 3 career rushers in football are in, but not the leader. He wasn't nominated. The third-leading scorer in women's hoops is in, but not the NCAA sprint champion or the track coach who had a slew of individual NCAA champions and dozens of All-Americans. He wasn't nominated, either.
Oh, and in a stunning upset, the school prez made the cut.
Dr. Charles Wooding, the chairman of the hall's Board of Directors, called it "a class of distinction."
Which it is, but not as distinctive as it could be, and should be.
By definition, an inaugural hall of fame class ought to be the crème de la crème. You have a school's or an organization's entire history from which to draw.
All participants, all eras. A nod to history, a nod to excellence. The inaugural class is bigger than successive classes, too, because you want to make a splash, and because you have some catching up to do.
HU had history covered with Gideon Smith, the very successful football coach from 1921-40, and with Thomas R. Casey, a multi-sport star from the 1940s who later played professional football.
There's no arguing with Jackie Dolberry or Robert Screen or Rick Mahorn or Hank Ford or Reginald Doss, either. All occupied the top rung of achievement at HU and made plenty of conference, and national, noise.
That's why the absence of Joe Taylor from HU's first class is so striking.
All Taylor did was win more football games for Hampton than anyone ever, by a country mile. He coached the Pirates to seven NCAA playoff berths in 16 years. Four times his teams were crowned black-college national champs.
Taylor shepherded the football program from Division II to Division I-AA, when HU athletics transitioned to Division I in the mid-1990s.
As traditional HBCU powers Grambling and Florida A&M fell on leaner times, Hampton under Taylor fielded the nation's premier black-college program.
He also did the school a favor when he doubled as football coach and athletic director for two years after Zeke Avery stepped down in 2005.
In short, Taylor's accomplishments at least equal and probably surpass nearly anyone else on HU's short list.
So why didn't he make the cut for the inaugural class?
"Coach Taylor had an exemplary career while here," Wooding said. "But he is still coaching. I'm certain that at some point, he will be admitted. But we just couldn't bring in everybody this first year."
However, Screen, HU's monstrously successful tennis coach, remains active.
"He was the one that we brought in who's still active," Wooding said. "We didn't want to bring in everybody who's still active."
Technically, so are HU president William Harvey and former athletic director Dennis Thomas, now the commissioner of the MEAC.
No quarrel with either man making HU's athletic hall, either, though the school will soon run out of real estate to honor Harvey.
Harvey has been a central figure in athletics his entire tenure. Most notably, he was the driving force and Thomas his wing man in the department's move to Division I.
Wooding said that the dozen members of the selection committee seriously considered all nominees — approximately 50, by his recollection.
Still, Taylor's omission smells a lot like a snub. He abruptly left the school under bizarre circumstances just after Christmas 2007 following a staredown with Harvey.
Neither side has ever publicly discussed specifics. What's known is that Taylor spoke to officials at Western Carolina about its coaching vacancy, one of several times through the years that he explored other jobs.
Taylor chose not to pursue the opening, but shortly thereafter he was informed by HU officials that he was no longer the Pirates' coach. Assistant coach Jerry Holmes had been promoted to head coach.
Taylor quickly found a job at Florida A&M, which at the time was well into its own coaching search.
And just like that, one of the nation's more successful and visible coaches was gone — to a MEAC rival, no less.
Taylor's exclusion is the headlight in your eyeballs, though there are smaller puzzlers. Montrell Coley and Carl Painter, the second- and third-leading career rushers, were selected, but career leader Alonzo Coleman wasn't nominated.
Nor was former track coach John White, who coached 15 NCAA individual champions and whose athletes earned more than 180 All-America honors during the school's Division II/CIAA days.
Wooding is correct: Any omissions will be rectified over time; people not included now will make future classes.
But a school gets only one chance at an inaugural class. Worthy as it is, Hampton's first class still falls perceptibly short.
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Fairbank, read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit.
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