Facing first-and-long (gone), Diggs takes Morgan snap

Ken Rosenthal

February 20, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

The hiring of a head football coach is a watershed moment for any university, a time of great anticipation and great expectations. Yet there was Morgan State athletic director Leonard Braxton yesterday, expounding on the meaning of "skepticism" as he introduced Ricky Diggs.

Now that's a novel approach -- lecturing critics before the curtain rises. Braxton, however, knows Morgan's latest football hiring won't be taken seriously, at least not at first. The school that gave us Leroy Kelly and Willie Lanier also has given us eight coaches in the past 18 years.

"I believe there are a lot of skeptics, a lot of people who believe we're just going through the motions," Braxton explains. "That's not true anymore. We're going about the business of building a top-notch athletic program. The only way we're going to be successful is if we unite."

Ah, unity -- that's more like it, Leonard. And the "pursuit of tradition" you speak of? Even better. In a way that phrase makes no sense; how can you pursue something that's supposedly there? But at the same time, it sums up the entire problem at Morgan, and the entire challenge facing Ricky Diggs.

Diggs, 37, represents a significant departure for a school that last produced a winning football season in 1979, a school that is an abysmal 10-71-1 since 1983, a school that has failed to keep pace recruiting in the post-segregation era.

Good players don't simply show up at Morgan as they once did, and the ones that come don't always stay. David Meggett was a quarterback and defensive back at Morgan. He transferred to Towson, and later became a running back and All-Pro kick returner for the Giants.

It is Diggs' job to restore dignity to a program that once was a national power among black colleges, first under Eddie Hurt (only three losing seasons from 1929-59), then under Earl Banks (a winning record every year from 1960-73).

Such lofty heights might no longer be attainable in Division I-AA, but Morgan plays in a weak conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic. Under the proper direction, there's no reason the Golden Bears can't at least be competitive, galvanizing Baltimore's black community once again.

Diggs, thankfully, is an outsider, not simply another retread. A tough-talking disciplinarian who previously was an assistant at Air Force, South Carolina and The Citadel, he has the right mindset for Morgan, a place haunted by its past, a place desperate for new ideas.

"Tradition lives on forever," says Diggs, who learned all about Morgan growing up in Harrisburg, Pa. "People sometimes forget about it when there isn't anything positive to look forward to. But once you establish a winning program, once you get things back on track, they remember how good things were."

The question now is whether Morgan can provide the support Diggs needs. Braxton thinks it can. Diggs "won't be able to come in and clean house," Braxton says, not with several assistants under contract as faculty. "But," Braxton adds, "he will have some choices to make."

He also should have more freedom in recruiting. Morgan offers nearly 50 scholarships in football, more than even Towson. But last year, its alumni-funded recruiting budget was less than $5,000. All those scholarships are useless when there's no money to find players.

Braxton recognizes the paradox, and he's encouraged the school is devising a recruiting budget for the first time. Still, he says it's obvious Morgan needs outside donations. "I'm asking the alumni to forget their grudges," he says, "and come in and help."

"I think they're on the right track," says Herb Brown, a 1951 graduate who is part of an alumni committee to help raise funds. "If we can start pumping some money into the program, that'll help them get back to prominence."

Meanwhile, the campus is reviving: "They talked about dormitories being fixed, now it's reality, now things are moving," football assistant Bubba Green says. And on the athletic front, Braxton's other recent hire, first-year men's basketball coach Michael Holmes, is 6-20 after an 0-14 start.

Diggs, Braxton says, is "coming at the right time. Morgan's about to take off. I've been here for 15 years, and this is the first time there's excitement. There's a difference. I can't put it in words. But the attitude permeates the campus.

"I think Dr. [Earl] Richardson has finally gotten his house in order," Braxton continues, referring to the Morgan president. "Now he's ready to approach athletics. We're the last piece out of place. We're his albatross, which has to be removed."

Now Leonard, about that skepticism . . .

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