It's going to be ugly on Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla.
Savannah State, coming off a 1-10 season in the tiny MEAC conference, is a 70 ½-point underdog to vaunted Florida State, ranked sixth in the country. The Tigers will put four freshman offensive linemen up against one of the best pass rushes in the nation. This, just seven days after Savannah State was obliterated in Stillwater, Okla., 84-0 at the hands of the 18th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Already this week a school that many didn't even know existed is now getting slammed by college football pundits nationwide. One expert even wrote that athletic director Sterling Steward, Jr., "ought to be ashamed of himself," scolding the AD for not holding out for more than the nearly $1 million the school received for essentially serving as a battering ram for both OSU and FSU. It's easy to call this game an outright shame, a travesty, and borderline dangerous considering one of the Tigers defenders got a concussion last week in the course of trying to slow down Mike Gundy's freight train of an offense.
But to rip this game is to fail to understand why playing it is so crucial to the school's survival.
Savannah State is an HBCU, or a historically black college or university, and in the blunt words of The Network Journal for black professionals, HBCUs are "endangered."
"Most are struggling financially and are having trouble luring potential students," the publication reads. "The financial difficulties affect the schools' ability to recruit and retain students – as well as stay competitive. And statistically, HBCUs are graduating students at lower four-year rates than regular, public-institutions."
Football can help. It might even be the only thing that can help, as the financial troubles are far more overwhelming than a 'Noles defensive line. Just last week, Morris Brown College in nearby Atlanta announced it was facing foreclosure. It's a difficult time for all colleges, but especially HBCUs. How difficult? The endowment for the top 10 historically white colleges is $141.1 billion, according to the National Association of College & University Business Officers. The endowment for the top 10 HBCUs is $1.5 billion. That's not an average; that's the combined endowment. And as you can guess, Savannah State is not in the top 10.
"For being a small school, we have to develop a plan to sustain our athletic program as a whole," Steward said by phone Thursday. "If the opportunity presented itself, we had to take that opportunity.”
Savannah State's total endowment is $4.2 million. That's it. So a $1 million payday (actually $860,000) for two games amounts to a quarter of the university's total endowment and nearly half of the annual football budget. "I have friends at the bigger schools," Steward says. "It's unfathomable what their budgets are compared to mine."
In that context, what the Tigers players are doing this month is incredible. If a group of several dozen students at any major school raised a quarter of their school's endowment in the span of eight days, they'd be feted by President Obama at the Lincoln Center (or at least by Anderson Cooper on CNN Heroes). "The Savannah States of the world taking big payouts in overmatched games are obviously not new, and aren't specific to black colleges," says Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine, a study of African-American fraternities and sororities. "But with HBCUs facing increasing threats to their funding, one million dollars is not something to sneeze at when looking to fund an athletic department.”
It was Steward who reached out to Florida State when West Virginia dropped off the Seminoles' schedule because of a move to the Big 12. Steward told Yahoo! Sports he took these games because both Oklahoma State and FSU have wide-open offenses instead of the more physical "ground-and-pound" attacks preferred by schools like Alabama.
He asked more than a dozen players if they wanted to play the games. They all said yes. The largest portion of the money from these dates, he says, will go right back into the football program. Considering the school is still paying for a renovation for a stadium that was nothing short of decrepit up until last year, there was a huge incentive to jump at the back-to-back paydays. With the right financial savvy, Steward can make the school a better place for all students – athletes and non-athletes alike. Don't underestimate the power of a winning football program in boosting the overall health of a school. Putting this money to work is Steward's opportunity and his job. We'll see if he does it.
Regardless of the final score Saturday, the players will have done their job – even if they aren't paid a dime. They will have helped make their campus better. That won't happen with a win on Saturday, but it will happen with money.
Yes, many small schools benefit from the payout that goes with September slaughters. Savannah State is not the first nor will it be the last to go through a thrash-for-cash. But because of its financial situation, and because of the special place HBCUs deserve in our nation's educational system, the Tigers' trials belong in a separate category. Because of what they are doing on these two Saturdays, students that come after them will have a better chance at a better college experience. And since a lot of those students can't afford expensive colleges and might not otherwise get a degree, that's a big deal. So no matter what the score ends up being on Saturday, don't ever say the 'Noles made the Tigers look bad. It's simply not true.
Yes, it's unlikely Savannah State will ever be a stalwart football program – especially in a world where the system favors a handful of superpowers and dozens of also-rans – but you never know what these Tigers' legacy will be.
After all, there was a college not too far from Savannah that was all-female until 1947, when it started a football program. In 1976, a new coach came in and took his team on the road to play powerhouses in Oklahoma (the Sooners) and Florida (the Miami Hurricanes). The final combined score in those two losses was 71-9.
The head coach was Bobby Bowden. The school was Florida State.
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