After a year to forget, Morgan State changes into forward gear

August 16, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

Now comes the hard part.

The Morgan State football team appeared at Hughes Stadium yesterday for its annual Media/Picture Day, and the Bears were the picture of contentment. Players and coaches posed for photographers, exchanged handshakes and jokes and generally said all of the optimistic things everyone usually says before a season begins.

With today's first, full-squad workout, not to mention the Sept. 4 season opener at home against Charleston Southern, the Bears are trying to think big. Their first step is to forget about last season, which may have been the lowest point in the fall of a once-proud program.

First, the numbers on the field: The Bears were 2-9, surrendered an average 44.4 points and failed to win a game in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the second time in the 1990s.

Then there was the controversy off the field. Before the season's final game, against Bethune-Cookman, 69 players signed a petition calling for the removal of head coach Ricky Diggs.

After the players threatened a sit-in at halftime, Morgan State officials forfeited the game. The university eventually backed Diggs, who later cleared the air with his players privately and fired five assistant coaches.

Yesterday, the Bears, 78 players strong, sounded like a team that is concentrating on playbooks instead of petitions.

"A lot of stuff happened, as everybody knows, but last season is over," senior defensive lineman Matthew Steeple said. "The whole purpose of this season is not to dwell on last year, but to learn from its mistakes. We've learned from those mistakes. And now, everybody is on the same page."

"I'm looking forward to this season with this team. I put all of that other stuff behind me," senior quarterback Orlando Persell said. "I don't think too many people, if any, are thinking about that."

"Turning that page from last year is what you constantly emphasize," Diggs said.

"Now, it's up to each individual player to put it behind him. As a coaching staff, all we're talking about is what's going to happen in 1993."

Diggs, entering his third season, will try to reverse the misfortunes that have befallen Morgan State for more than a decade.

The Bears have not had a winning season since 1979, and have won four games in the past three years. Diggs is the team's ninth head coach since 1974.

Under Diggs, the Bears have gone 3-19, including 1-11 in the MEAC. Blowouts have become routine.

The Bears' hopes have been raised by the return of 37 lettermen, the highest number in recent years at Morgan.

In the Bears' run-and-shoot offense, they include Persell and running back Tony Phillips.

Persell passed for 1,992 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Phillips, a junior, was named first-team All-MEAC after producing 1,467 all-purpose yards, 751 rushing.

But Morgan's offense already has absorbed a setback. Four of last year's starting linemen will not be back.

Center Franco Rocca transferred to Eastern Michigan, and tackle Jeffrey Myers and guards Andre Harris and Ernest Johnson are academically ineligible.

"I don't look at it as a setback," Diggs said. "It provides another opportunity for someone else to show what they can do. We're going to need some guys to step up and fill some holes. I feel very good about the nucleus and talent on this club. Where we're hurting is depth."

And defense, judging by last year's performance. The Bears gave up 382 yards a game and allowed more than 50 points five times. Their 444 points allowed was the highest in Division I.

Steeple was the unit's bright spot. He recorded 83 tackles and seven sacks, finished fifth in the conference in tackles and was chosen for the All-MEAC first team.

"A lot of us are gone after this year. I'm pretty much fed up with losing. We want to start something for the freshmen to build," Steeple said. "Eventually, we're going to start winning. And when we start, it will snowball, and we will continue to win. My whole purpose this year is to go out a winner."

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