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Future clouds black colleges' golden past 100-year celebration also has extinction fear at head table

A decade ago, Willie Totten-to-Jerry Rice put Mississippi Valley State University and little Itta Bena, Miss., on the map.

As a pass-catch combination, Totten, the quarterback, and Rice, the receiver, were unstoppable. They scorched the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Division I-AA with an offensive fury that trashed record books along the way.

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Now, just a decade later, Mississippi Valley is working against the clock. State officials in Mississippi have proposed merging the historically black university with predominantly white Delta State University. In a matter of years, the school that produced Rice -- the NFL's all-time touchdown reception leader with the San Francisco 49ers -- could be wiped off the football map it graced so prominently a short while ago.

It is a sign of the troubled times.

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In what many observers predict will turn out to be a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Mississippi's system of higher education was unconstitutionally segregated. Supporters of historically black schools hope the ruling will lead to financial enhancements at the institutions, but others predict it will lead to the closure of black colleges to spur integration.

The same proposal that threatens Mississippi Valley also would make Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., part of Mississippi State University.

There is more. In Louisiana, a federal judge has ordered state officials to overhaul the higher education system to promote integration, a plan that many say endangers the future of the state's historically black schools, including Southern and Grambling State universities.

Against this sobering backdrop, the Sheridan Broadcasting Network celebrates 100 years of black college football tonight by honoring its all-time black college team at the Marriott Inner Harbor. Rice, who broke 18 Division I-AA records and scored 51 touchdowns in four seasons at Mississippi Valley, is on the team. Because of a prior commitment, though, he will be unable to attend.

"It blew me away when they told me [of the selection]," Rice said yesterday. "To be thought of in a class with those guys brings a smile across my face. I'm disappointed I won't get to see guys like Too Tall Jones."

It would be more disconcerting for Rice to see Valley State -- as he calls his alma mater -- disappear. But he's heard the threat before.

"They've been trying to close Valley State ever since I left," he said. "It's no surprise to me. I knew eventually they'd close it. A lot of people are going to be disappointed."

Everson Walls, who made the all-time team as a defensive back from Grambling, says this weekend's festivities in Baltimore should open some eyes.

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"With the things that are going on at historically black universities now, maybe this landmark occasion will help people realize they should not tamper with the situation," said Walls, who finished his 12th NFL season last year.

"I know I don't want the knowledge of the culture diluted. . . . It transcends football and sports. The experiences I had at Grambling can't be replaced."

Those problems notwithstanding, there is a feeling of revival at certain black colleges. There are people who believe the number of quality black athletes who attend black colleges is on the upswing after a post-integration slide away from them.

One of those people is Cardell Jones, athletic director and football coach at Alcorn State -- one of the schools targeted for merger.

"I truly think there is a renaissance in the making," Jones said. "A lot of your good, quality student-athletes are returning to predominantly black universities. We're so pleased and happy with this."

If Jones' optimism seems unreasonable given the cloud over his program, he has a rationale for survival.

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"I don't think it [the proposal] will come into fruition," he said. "It'll stay in court for a while. When it came out six or seven months ago, it didn't go over very well.

"We have the oldest black land grant in the country. There's a lot of legacy and tradition at the university. It'd be a travesty to all of a sudden erase all that tradition."

Reason for optimism

Jones' optimism is perhaps founded more in a pass-catch combination reminiscent of Totten-to-Rice. This one is McNair-to-Hinton. Jones recruited quarterback Steve McNair and wide receiver Marcus Hinton away from a slew of major universities two years ago.

McNair was recruited by several of those colleges as a defensive back -- he tied Terrell Buckley's state career record with 30 interceptions at Mount Olive (Miss.) High. But he wanted to play quarterback. When Jones offered him the chance, he chose Alcorn over the likes of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Florida State, Miami and Mississippi State.

In his first two college seasons, McNair threw for 6,436 yards, 53 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, leading an Alcorn revival that resulted in the SWAC championship last season. He was the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman and sophomore. He's also Offensive Player of the Year on this year's SBN All-American team, which will be honored tomorrow night.

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Hinton considered many of the same schools as McNair. Because he is 6 feet 6 and a good basketball player, he even

was recruited by North Carolina's Dean Smith. But he chose Alcorn as much for academics as athletics.

"I didn't want to go to a big school," Hinton said. "You don't have a one-on-one relationship with your professors there. You'd be just a number."

The thought of teaming with McNair played a role in the decision, too. After being redshirted his freshman year, Hinton caught 35 passes -- 11 for touchdowns -- last season. In a concession from Jones, Hinton also plays on Alcorn's basketball team.

It is not always that convenient for a black college coach to land a blue-chip player. At South Carolina State, Willie Jeffries knows that exposure influences a lot of recruits.

"The first thing they ask is: 'How many times are you on TV?' " said Jeffries, who spent five years at Wichita State as the first black coach at a Division I school. "We're not going to be on but once a year. The kids want to be on TV and play before 70,000 people."

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A year ago, Jeffries was unable to persuade quarterback Wally Richardson of Sumter, S.C., to follow in his father's S.C. State footsteps. Richardson went off to Penn State.

"His daddy was an All-America here at S.C. State," Jeffries said, "and Wally didn't want to go to school where his parents went. We thought it'd be an honor."

What hard times?

Even though he didn't get Richardson, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson says he isn't feeling the pinch of the predominantly white university. And he never has.

"When you say, 'Can we get the black athlete back?' I say we never lost them," Robinson said. "We've got the same kind of talent we've always had. We ain't [gone] anyplace.

"Some things people cry about, I'm not going to cry about. I believe we've been blessed. I think this is the greatest time ever in football for black and white schools. Any guy who wants to go to school can go to school. He doesn't have to have an athletic scholarship."

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The hard, cold reality of campus economics is forcing all schools -- black and white -- to make major adjustments. Robinson's answer to the threat of merger or closure is to work harder.

"I hate to see a school phased out," he said. "What will be, will be. You've got to face that. But you do everything you can to

keep it from happening. At the black schools, I think the coaches, athletic directors and presidents have to understand somebody has to go to fund-raising meetings, they have to learn how to get people into the stadium. Just having a team is not going to do it. You can win, and it won't do it."

Morgan State coach Ricky Diggs is another who says he sees the pendulum swinging back to the black colleges.

"I think there are more qualified players out there now," Diggs said. "Prop 48 is good for everybody. A lot of players come out with good academics, too, and it has filtered down to us. Guys who didn't get an opportunity to play college ball before now have the opportunity to play on this level. Every now and then, we get a blue-chipper."

Still, it is not as it once was, before integration, before the white universities cornered the best black athletes. Florida A&M; coach Ken Riley, who played at FAMU and then spent 15 NFL seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, was part of a golden era of black college football.

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"The black colleges will never be what they were in the days when Walter Payton, Doug Williams, Charlie Joiner and I played," Riley said.

"They're not getting the so-called blue-chip athletes like they were getting a long time ago. What's happening is, in the small black colleges, there's not one dominant team. It used to be Grambling and Southern. But, with integration, the talent is spread out, and there's more parity in the black colleges."

Facts and figures

What: Sheridan Broadcasting Network celebrates 100 years of Black College Football

Where: Marriott Inner Harbor

Tonight: Night of Champions banquet, 8 p.m., honoring the SBN All-time Black College Football Team. Invitation only.

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Tomorrow: 19th Annual Black College All-American Team banquet, 6:30 p.m. Invitation only.

All-time team

Sheridan Broadcasting Network's All-time Black College Football Team:

Offense

QB Doug Williams.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Grambling RB Walter Payton .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Jackson State RB Tank Younger .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . ..Grambling WR Jerry Rice .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Miss. Valley St. WR John Stallworth.. .. .. .. .. ... .. Ala. A&M; WR Charlie Joiner .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Grambling OL Art Shell .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Maryland State OL Rayfield Wright .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Ft. Valley St. OL Jackie Slater .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . Jackson State OL Larry Little .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Bethune-Cookman OL Ernie Barnes .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. N.C. Central

Defense

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DL Willie Davis.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Grambling DL Too Tall Jones.. .. .. .. .. .. .. Tenn. State DL Deacon Jones .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . S.Carolina St. DL L.C. Greenwood.. .. .. .. .. .. ... Ark. A&M; LB Robert Brazile .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Jackson State LB Harry Carson .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . S.Carolina St. LB Willie Lanier .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Morgan State

DB Mel Blount .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Southern DB Lem Barney .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Jackson State DB Donnie Shell .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . S.Carolina St. DB Everson Walls .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Grambling


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