There’s an all-too-obvious degree of difficulty for black colleges to ascend to the mountaintop in the NCAA football playoffs.
Florida A&M is the first and only black school to ever win a national title in football. The fact that 34 years have passed since the Rattlers reigned is enough to tell anyone that “winning it all” in football is a seemingly next-to-impossible feat for any HBCU to accomplish.
But now, Winston-Salem State is on the verge of possibly writing a chapter of its own in the history books. The Rams made it to the NCAA Division II semifinals a year ago before losing to Wayne State (Mich.). After securing a heart-stopping 21-17 win over Indiana (Pa.) last week, they’re back for a return trip to college football’s version of the Final Four.
WSSU plays West Texas A&M on Saturday at Bowman Gray Stadium at 6:30 p.m. The winner earns a spot in the national championship game on Dec. 15 in Florence, Ala.
“Our sole focus right now is to win our next football game,” said Connell Maynor, Winston-Salem State’s coach. “We wanted to have the opportunity to return to the semifinals. We accomplished that, but we’re not finished. Our goal is to get to the national championship game and win it. That’s why we practice. That’s why we play.”
[pullquote]“Our sole focus right now is to win our next football game,” said Connell Maynor, Winston-Salem State’s coach. “We wanted to have the opportunity to return to the semifinals. We accomplished that, but we’re not finished. Our goal is to get to the national championship game and win it. That’s why we practice. That’s why we play.”[/pullquote]Maynor asserts that the number of available scholarships plays a huge role in any school’s ability to advance in the playoffs. At the Division II level, schools can award a maximum of 36 scholarships for football. The teams that routinely do well in the post-season tend to be those schools that have the financial wherewithal to fund the maximum or close to the maximum number of scholarships allowed.
Most HBCUs, Maynor explained, have anywhere from 19 to 25 scholarships for football. Winston-Salem State has 28 scholarships, which is a little higher than the norm for HBCUs.
“It’s all a matter of being fully vested (36 scholarships),” he said. “We’re not fully vested yet, but we’re trying to get there. Football teams have a long season. If you lose several key players, it’s hard to replace injured players and still compete at the highest level. In the top Division II programs, they have enough scholarships to offer so that their second-team players are just as good as the first-team players.
“Let’s say a school has 25 football scholarships. If that school can find a way to add 10 more scholarships, they can bring in 10 to 20 more players who are very good. That’s how you develop quality depth.”
Even so, it still seems to be a mystery as to what makes the football playoffs such a hard-to-handle proposition for HBCUs, who rarely get past the opening round. Black college teams have won national championships in other sports: Winston-Salem State (men’s basketball), St. Augustine’s (indoor track, outdoor track), Shaw University (men’s and women’s basketball) and Virginia Union (men’s basketball).
Why is football so different?
“It comes down to having superior depth on the interior line on both sides of the ball,” Maynor said. “Most teams have good people at the skill positions. But you’ve got to have the beef up front to win at the national level. If you have excellent back-up linemen, it makes a huge difference.”