Ricky Diggs wants a yardstick to measure the progress of his first six months in charge of Morgan State football, and that's exactly what he'll get Saturday (1:30 p.m.) at Hughes Stadium, when the Golden Bears begin yet another new era against North Carolina A&T.
The Aggies from Greensboro return 19 starters from the best team in their program's history, including a huge defensive line and quarterback Connell Maynor, the 1990 Offensive Player of the Year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. North Carolina A&T was 9-2 a year ago, when it finished No. 20 in the final Division I-AA rankings, and the Aggies are favored to take their first title since the MEAC was formed in 1971.
"Playing A&T will give us a true reading of exactly how good we are," said Diggs, a 37-year-old who spent last season as an assistant at the U.S. Air Force Academy. "We might be able to beat a lesser opponent or someone from Division II right now, but I don't want to give our guys false hope. I want them to know what they're up against."
The biggest obstacle facing Diggs and his players is a recent history that has seen a once-proud program fall to 11 straight losing seasons.
Since 1979, Morgan State hasn't been able to win more than four games in a single year. Since 1984, the Golden Bears have gone 8-62-1, and three of those wins came in September 1989, a rare non-losing stretch that concluded with a 27-7 defeat of the aforementioned North Carolina A&T.
That win and one two weeks earlier over Bethune-Cookman represent Morgan State's only victories over Division I-AA competition since 1983. Since beating North Carolina A&T, Morgan State is 2-17, both of the wins coming over Cheyney State, a hapless Division II program.
The seventh coach to head the Golden Bears since that last winning season in 1979, Diggs has no illusions about the task he's taken on. Hired in February, Diggs came on like a drill instructor, criticizing his players' conditioning and habits in the spring. He appears to have gotten their attention, and since has softened his tone some.
"The players came back from the summer in pretty decent
shape," Diggs said. "Everyone is focused on the defense, and I'm happy with some of the veterans on offense, like Glenny Moore, James Ledbetter and Nathan Ayers."
In recent years, Morgan State changed often changed offenses week to week. Diggs has installed a set that includes facets of the run-and-shoot and wishbone. A senior from Dunbar, Ayers is the team's best running back, while Moore, a senior from Mervo, is a standout wide receiver. Ledbetter, 6 feet 5 and 260 pounds, anchors an experienced offensive line that was pushed around last year.
David Partin, last year's starter, has again won the quarterback job after not being in school last fall.
Assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Lawrence Cole has already dubbed his unit the "Crunch Bunch," but the returnees allowed 41.2 points a game in 1990 before a season-ending 2-0 victory in the mud at Cheyney State.
Morgan State will line up in a five-man front, and Cole said the emphasis will be on attacking the opposition, instead of reacting to it. Cornerbacks Eddie Hill and Horace Minnifield will be the biggest beneficiaries of any improvement up front, where Matthew Steeple, a sophomore from Northern High, is the top returnee.
Diggs and Cole are in the process of remaking Morgan State football, and the head coach said "no detail is too small." The orange helmets and shirts used recently have been mothballed, and Golden Bears fans will see the team in more traditional uniforms.
"That's my doing," Diggs said. "That's an appeal to the alumni. Hopefully they'll associate the new look with the teams they remembered."
Diggs isn't predicting when the same will be said about the Golden Bears' performance.