Matt Steeple is sick of the losses on the field and the controversy off it.
And unlike Morgan State football coach Ricky Diggs, who says he has been careful not to put too much pressure on the Bears to get off to a fast start, Steeple is approaching Saturday's
season opener against visiting Charleston Southern like a championship game.
"It's a chance for us to start all over again. A win is mandatory," said Steeple, a senior defensive end. "We've got to taste victory early, then get used to the taste. We can't start this season
like we ended last season."
Last season was a disaster, something the Bears have become accustomed to while failing to record a winning season since 1979. The Bears wound up 2-9, went winless in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, surrendered more points than any other Division I team in the country and forfeited their final game.
That marked the culmination of a player rebellion against Diggs, who survived the revolt and replaced five assistant coaches.
Entering his third season with a 3-19 record, Diggs talks about "turning the page" on last year. So far, Diggs has been associated with asmany controversies as victories at Morgan. In addition to the season-ending incident last fall, the past four months Diggs has been named in separate lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and breach of contract.
Diggs said his legal problems have not interfered with his preparation for the season. "Once I get my mind on football, I block everything else out. This is the job I'm here to do, and this is what I love. I'm tired of practicing. We're ready to start beating up on someone else."
Can the Bears erase their messy past? The task promises to be an arduous one. Their run-and-shoot offense features some dynamic senior talent, such as quarterback Orlando Persell, running back Tony Phillips and wide receiver Jesse Humphrey. But, with a line that returns only one starter, Morgan State's attack figures to struggle, at least early.
Defensively, even with a secondary that includes three freshmen and a linebacking unit that includes two sophomores, the Bears probably cannot sink any lower. Last year, they allowed 40.5 points and 382 yards a game, and finished last in the MEAC in rushing, passing and scoring defense.
Steeple, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound professional prospect, was the bright spot of that group. But even Steeple will not immediately be up to the form that helped him make a team-high 83 tackles and earned him a Division I-AA All-America preseason ranking in The Sporting News.
Steeple was held out of the first 10 days of practice while seeking medical clearance for a heart condition. He has had a murmur since his senior year at Northern High School, and after the death of NBA star Reggie Lewis, the Bears' coaching staff decided that Steeple should have his heart double-checked. He saw three doctors before getting clearance to resume playing last week.
"My only problem early on will be with long drives," said Steeple, who is 15 pounds over his playing weight.
Said Diggs: "He is in shape, but not football shape. We'll be spelling him Saturday. Getting him back is a big punch for our defense. I think Matt has a great future. He has an opportunity to play at the next level."
The Bears need to raise their defensive performance several levels if they are to move out of the MEAC cellar. Senior end Leonard Hart and senior nose guard Pierre Hubbard give them more experience up front, but other than senior cornerback Kelvin Bryson and junior linebacker Delwyn Garnett, Morgan State will look to first-year starters.
That inexperience extends to the offensive line,since four starters from last year are gone. Only senior center David Armstead is back.
"Armstead has shown great leadership, but we'll see what happens when we put them out there in the line of fire," Diggs said. "We know they're going to make mistakes."
The fewer mistakes the line makes, the more damage that proven players such as Persell, Phillips and Humphrey will do.
Phillips led the MEAC in all-purpose yardage last year (736 rushing, 208 receiving, 518 as a kickoff returner). Humphrey, the prime target in the Bears' four-wideout set, led the MEAC with 1,005 yards receiving. Persell completed 54.8 percent of his passes for 1,989 yards.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on them," Diggs said. "I don't want them to think the season is lost if we get off to a rough start. Win or lose, the main thing is we want to take the positives from each game with us.
"The losing attitude has been ingrained for so long. In my first year, we were bad on both sides of the ball. Last year, our `D offense came of age. This year, these guys are convinced they can be winners."
MORGAN STATE AT A GLANCE
Coach: Ricky Diggs (second year, 3-19)
Last year's record: 2-9
Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic, Division I-AA
Radio: WEAA (88.7 FM)
Top returning players: Jesse Humphrey, Sr., WR; David Armstead, Sr., C; Orlando Persell, Sr., QB; Tony Phillips, Sr., RB; Matthew Steeple, Sr., DE; Delwyn Garrett, Jr., LB; Kelvin Bryson, Sr., CB; Pierre Hubbard, Sr., NG; Thomas Perry, Sr., LB
Top newcomers: Shane Griffith, Fr., PK; Thad Singletary, Fr., CBJason Mitchell, Fr., FS; Anthony Freeman, Fr., SS; Ira Crawley, So., WR; Arthur Triggs, Fr., P
Strengths: The Bears have three of the top offensive players in the MEAC in Persell, Phillips and Humphrey, and with Steeple as its anchor, the defensive front should be solid.
Weaknesses: The Bears are extremely inexperienced on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary. The program has not enjoyed a winning season in 14 years, so losing has become a habit.
Key game: For a team like Morgan State, there is no time like the present. The Bears need to start winning now. That makes their biggest game on Saturday in their season opener against Charleston Southern.