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New life at Morgan owes a debt to past

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the front cover of the Morgan State football media guide is inscribed the slogan for the 2002 season: Against All Odds.

It is the rallying cry for a team picked in preseason polls to finish last in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference based on a recent history of 22 consecutive losing seasons during which the Bears only twice neared so much as a .500 record.

So proud and successful during the long tenures of coaches Eddie Hurt and Earl Banks, Morgan's program had deteriorated to the point where the team was a perennial MEAC doormat.

But on Feb. 8, when the administration decided to promote offensive coordinator Donald Hill-Eley to become the school's 18th head coach, the atmosphere began to change.

Only two coaches were retained from the Stanley Mitchell regime. Hill-Eley, just 33 himself, selected energetic and qualified young assistants with whom the players could relate. Programs were initiated that reached out to the community and, on certain occasions, players were required to wear ties.

Hill-Eley, who served on the coaching staff of three CFL Grey Cup champions, and several aides brought professional experience that the Bears respected. During the search for a coach, the players actively campaigned for Hill-Eley.

"We were just waiting for the right leader," said senior running back/receiver T.J. Stallings (Randallstown High). "He was the perfect one. Once we knew our leader was in place, everybody became his own individual leader, picking each other up and not blaming anybody else when things went wrong."

Selfishness subsided. Unity increased. And the new head coach gave the team a focal point with the seasonal slogan and by emphasizing Morgan's overall history of excellence (372-306-33 entering '02) instead of its recent failures.

"It's just a matter of guys believing," said junior quarterback Lejominick Washington, who returned from an early injury to lead the Bears to victories over Howard and Delaware State that pushed them to .500 (4-4), the first time they've had such a record this late in season since 1981.

"Coach Hill was here last year, but he wasn't the head coach," said Washington. "He's our motivator who instilled this belief. And we were 0-3 at one point and tired of hearing that Morgan had so much talent, that it was almost there. It was time to win."

By defeating visiting Morris Brown today, the Bears would climb over .500 after nine games for the first time since 1979, the year of their last hurrah. Morgan was 9-1 during that regular season before losing to Alabama A&M; in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

A number of positives are adding up. For instance, Morgan had never retired a jersey until last week's homecoming weekend, when its four NFL Hall of Famers - Leroy Kelly, Roosevelt Brown, Willie Lanier and Len Ford - were so honored on the eve of the game. Considering its storied past, that oversight might have been difficult for some to fathom.

The three living members (Ford is deceased) addressed the team on the eve of the game and their pride in being former Bears was obvious.

"Most of us want to come here and see a team that is successful," Kelly said at the ceremony. "You don't want people picking you as their homecoming opponent. It may take awhile with a new coach, but I am impressed with what's happening now. I look for better things to come."

Generally, Morgan alumni have been lukewarm about football of late, said Dr. David Thomas, the athletic director.

"It's been slow," he said. "Historically, a lot of black colleges are hard-pressed for funds and Morgan's roots as a normal school did not exactly produce a lot of graduates who can reach into their pockets for a million dollars."

But there has been movement in this area with the appointment of Joe McIver as assistant athletic director for external operations, a sign that the administration is making a stronger effort for athletics.

"The university has stepped up in its commitment," said Thomas. "Five or six years ago, at a Morgan alumni association meeting in Los Angeles, Dr. [Earl] Richardson [university president] said the university was growing by leaps and bounds and now it is time to start working on the athletic program.

"Certainly, some things still need to be done that money would solve. For the kids, we need to move forward in terms of partnerships, trade-outs. We're trying to build that climate."

Already planned is a new surface for the Hughes Stadium field that turned into a quagmire after recent rains. A synthetic surface that Hill-Eley labeled "authentic grass" will be installed at a cost of $350,000 after this season.

Hill-Eley said backing from the Morgan community has to be earned. "We have to give these people a product they want to support," he said. "I'm like the old country grandmother. I have to make the bread before anyone can eat."

The product certainly couldn't have been less appealing since 1980, a span in which Morgan went 41-169. "We have to get this back to where the Bear is holding up his arm [in triumph]," said the coach.

Indications are that is exactly what is taking place. Morgan has recruited well and showed in early losses to Florida A&M; and Bethune-Cookman, the MEAC's current elite, that it could compete with the best.

Last week, the Bears had to stop Delaware State at its 3 to preserve a 35-28 overtime victory. "It just shows they're learning how to win," said Thomas. "In previous years that's a game they would have lost."

And the reasons keep coming back to Hill-Eley's ability to get his players to accept his philosophy and methods.

"His attitude is pervasive. It is being picked up by our students," said Thomas. "What Donald brings is a worldly kind of experience, youthful energy. When the search committee was looking for a coach, the kids spoke up for him. That was a strong reference."

"We still have to work hard," said Hill-Eley. "We can never look at anybody's record and take it for granted. Nobody wants to lose to Morgan State."

But, said Washington, "We now believe in the coaches and each other."

"Coach taking us back to history and letting us know where we came from and what we are - a winning program - was huge," said Stallings. "What he has taught us is how to be winners in life."

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