It has been custom -- admittedly an all-too-frequent one in the last two decades -- for Morgan State to fill head coaching vacancies in football with a man who played and worked at a historically black college. A man who should know how to survive on the have-not side of the street.
One week into spring practice, the Golden Bears are learning to walk and talk the Ricky Diggs way, but it is Diggs who is making the biggest adjustment.
In his first head coaching job, Diggs, 37, is used to college football the way it is practiced at South Carolina and the Air Force Academy, two Division I-A programs never at a loss for coaches, facilities and funds. Morgan State has been at the bottom of the I-AA barrel for a decade, its limited resources falling far short of modest goals.
"I hope he has no illusions," said Leonard Braxton, the Morgan athletic director. "He has to avoid frustration over the pace at which things are getting done. Ricky does have more support than any other football coach that's ever been here."
Diggs is the first Morgan State boss with two full-time assistant coaches, but his frame of reference includes South Carolina, where he was one of nine full-time assistants, and most recently Air Force, where each of the nine assistants was in turn assigned a graduate assistant coach.
"I've never been in a program that didn't have chutes for the linemen to run through in practice, or boards," Diggs said. "There are no goal posts on our practice field. The weight room doesn't have enough space or equipment.
"All I can do is fight for what we need and be satisfied with what we get. Someone told me 'You've been given a gun, but no bullets.' I've got to find the bullets."
Diggs was reared on the "Hill" side of Harrisburg, Pa., and the thought of living close to his ailing 69-year-old father was part of the Morgan State lure. The notion of being a miracle worker also has its appeal.
The Morgan State litany is familiar. Once a small college power, the Golden Bears last had a winning record in 1979. In
the last eight years, only once have they won more than two games, and last year's team went 1-10, outscored 81-412. The hiring of Diggs was the ninth head coaching change since 1974.
"We're beginning to change attitudes around here, but that doesn't happen overnight," Diggs said. "The players didn't know how to work, they've never been pushed. We have to push them, and see who's going to quit and who's going to come back for more.
"We've got 65 players out, and not enough big guys. The big ones that are there are overweight. The weightlifting program hasn't been structured enough. When you aren't practicing, you have to be lifting. That's one of the many things we have to work on."
Diggs also wants to beef up the Golden Bears' academic performance. The current academic honor roll for athletes lists 12 football players with grade-point averages over 2.70, and five of them are freshmen.
In a recently released study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, listing graduation rates of athletes recruited in 1984, Morgan State's numbers were conspicuous by their absence. The college did not submit any. In recent years, football and other programs have suffered when players did not maintain their eligibility.
"The graduation rate has been terrible," Diggs said. "That hasn't been made important enough. A young man has to put his priorities in order. When everything falls in line, winning takes care of itself."
For Diggs, the priorities keep piling up.
He lives in an on-campus dormitory, and is in his office at Hill Field House at 7 a.m., diagramming plays for the multiple offense he's trying to install. His wife and three children remain in Colorado Springs, and next month they are preparing for a move to Howard County. Diggs has experience in fund-raising, and wants to get involved in that area.
"Look, this is easy compared to being an assistant coach," Diggs said. "You're at the mercy of the head coach, who might move on, get fired or die, and then you're out of a job. As long as your program progresses and you keep your nose clean, you can stay a head coach as long as you want."
Diggs hopes it is that simple.