Future clouds black colleges' golden past 100-year celebration also has extinction fear at head table

February 19, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer Staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

A decade ago, Willie Totten-to-Jerry Rice put Mississippi Valley State University and little Itta Bena, Miss., on the map.

As a pass-catch combination, Totten, the quarterback, and Rice, the receiver, were unstoppable. They scorched the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Division I-AA with an offensive fury that trashed record books along the way.

Now, just a decade later, Mississippi Valley is working against the clock. State officials in Mississippi have proposed merging the historically black university with predominantly white Delta State University. In a matter of years, the school that produced Rice -- the NFL's all-time touchdown reception leader with the San Francisco 49ers -- could be wiped off the football map it graced so prominently a short while ago.

It is a sign of the troubled times.

In what many observers predict will turn out to be a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Mississippi's system of higher education was unconstitutionally segregated. Supporters of historically black schools hope the ruling will lead to financial enhancements at the institutions, but others predict it will lead to the closure of black colleges to spur integration.

The same proposal that threatens Mississippi Valley also would make Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., part of Mississippi State University.

There is more. In Louisiana, a federal judge has ordered state officials to overhaul the higher education system to promote integration, a plan that many say endangers the future of the state's historically black schools, including Southern and Grambling State universities.

Against this sobering backdrop, the Sheridan Broadcasting Network celebrates 100 years of black college football tonight by honoring its all-time black college team at the Marriott Inner Harbor. Rice, who broke 18 Division I-AA records and scored 51 touchdowns in four seasons at Mississippi Valley, is on the team. Because of a prior commitment, though, he will be unable to attend.

"It blew me away when they told me [of the selection]," Rice said yesterday. "To be thought of in a class with those guys brings a smile across my face. I'm disappointed I won't get to see guys like Too Tall Jones."

It would be more disconcerting for Rice to see Valley State -- as he calls his alma mater -- disappear. But he's heard the threat before.

"They've been trying to close Valley State ever since I left," he said. "It's no surprise to me. I knew eventually they'd close it. A lot of people are going to be disappointed."

Everson Walls, who made the all-time team as a defensive back from Grambling, says this weekend's festivities in Baltimore should open some eyes.

"With the things that are going on at historically black universities now, maybe this landmark occasion will help people realize they should not tamper with the situation," said Walls, who finished his 12th NFL season last year.

"I know I don't want the knowledge of the culture diluted. . . . It transcends football and sports. The experiences I had at Grambling can't be replaced."

Those problems notwithstanding, there is a feeling of revival at certain black colleges. There are people who believe the number of quality black athletes who attend black colleges is on the upswing after a post-integration slide away from them.

One of those people is Cardell Jones, athletic director and football coach at Alcorn State -- one of the schools targeted for merger.

"I truly think there is a renaissance in the making," Jones said. "A lot of your good, quality student-athletes are returning to predominantly black universities. We're so pleased and happy with this."

If Jones' optimism seems unreasonable given the cloud over his program, he has a rationale for survival.

"I don't think it [the proposal] will come into fruition," he said. "It'll stay in court for a while. When it came out six or seven months ago, it didn't go over very well.

"We have the oldest black land grant in the country. There's a lot of legacy and tradition at the university. It'd be a travesty to all of a sudden erase all that tradition."

Reason for optimism

Jones' optimism is perhaps founded more in a pass-catch combination reminiscent of Totten-to-Rice. This one is McNair-to-Hinton. Jones recruited quarterback Steve McNair and wide receiver Marcus Hinton away from a slew of major universities two years ago.

McNair was recruited by several of those colleges as a defensive back -- he tied Terrell Buckley's state career record with 30 interceptions at Mount Olive (Miss.) High. But he wanted to play quarterback. When Jones offered him the chance, he chose Alcorn over the likes of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Florida State, Miami and Mississippi State.

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