Hard times for the SWAC?
Is lack of draftees due to talent loss, or changing landscape?
The Southwestern Athletic Conference has given the NFL Jerry Rice, the league’s all-time reception leader; Walter Payton, the No. 2 all-time rushing leader; Michael Strahan, the league’ single-season sack champion and Doug Williams, MVP of Super Bowl XXII. In three of the past four NFL drafts, the SWAC has given the league nothing.
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Bupkiss.
Have the SWAC and HBCUs lost their swagger? To get a handle on this, consider that Alabama had four players drafted in the first round this year, a number equal to players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities taken in the last two years – all four coming from the Mideastern Athletic Conference. The only player taken this year was Christian Thompson, a safety from South Carolina State selected in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens. Since 2005, only five SWAC players have been drafted.
The landscape of college football has changed so dramatically, it would appear to be unfair to today’s SWAC athletes to compare their situation to those of players three decades ago. Hampering contemporary players is too many options to play. There was a great concentration of talent in the old SWAC. Now kids who didn’t go to power conference Division I programs are going to other FCS schools or strong Division II programs and the draft has been truncated from 20 rounds in 1965 to seven, a format the NFL has used for several years.
Still the lack of draftees is staggering.
“It’s not like great players have stopped coming out of the SWAC, so it is a surprise to me,” said Michael Strahan, formerly of Texas Southern and now a FOX Sports analyst. “I know there are only seven rounds and maybe the guys were picked in later rounds before. I am stunned by that. One person out of seven rounds and 32 teams that is amazing to me.”
Strahan always sought out HBCU players when he played for the Giants. He’d look for a Donald Driver (Alcorn State) and Lewis Tillman (Jackson State) was already in New York when he got there. And then there was the pregame ritual that kept him grounded.
“I would pick up the Game Day magazine and look down the rosters and see where they went to school,” Strahan said. “I wanted to see if there was a guy from the SWAC or a black college and make sure I would look for him after the game and say hi.
“I know when I came out and was a second round pick they said, ‘Well I’m not sure about the competition he played against. I thought by now that would be an obsolete observation. That doesn’t make any sense because if you’re a good football player, you’re a good football player. It doesn’t matter what school you come out of.”
Unfortunately, for HBCU players, Doug Williams begs to differ.
“A lot of NFL scouts come with a negative mentality,” said Williams, now head coach at Grambling. “They come in thinking there’s no players there. They will grade the school instead of the player. They’ll think, ‘There’s nobody [worth drafting] at Grambling, or Jackson State or Southern. I’m not saying all scouts are like that. But I know there are some.”
Even in the heyday of the SWAC, when a kid was drafted he was considered a project. Their coaching and individual techniques dismissed as they more times than not were drafted on pure physical attributes. The most common term used in evaluations was “raw.”
“You hear you’re raw, you’re raw, you’re raw,” Strahan said. “But how many of those so called polished players turned out to be horrible football players? I think it’s about the heart of the guy and about the commitment of the player. I don’t know. Maybe the scouts are lazy now.
“It’s called a backhanded compliment,” said Aeneas Williams, who played collegiately at Southern and was on the ballot last year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “We all were ‘raw.’ I had great coaches, but there is always room to get better. You can teach any kid fundamentals.”
Apparently scouts think that is done better at places other than HBCUs. So much is riding on their recommendations to their teams. While the NFL may be a dream to college players, it is at its core a business and it studied as such. They haven’t the time for nostalgia. HBCUs still produce good football players but nowhere near the quantity.
|Christian Thompson was the only MEAC player chosen in this year's NFL draft. His stats are below:|
|Source: Pro Football Weekly|
The players who looked at HBCUs when the Division I schools did not sign them are now at mid-majors, higher-profile FCS schools and even power Division II programs. So on a given Saturday, a scout will flock to a Georgia Southern vs. Appalachian State game, or Delta State vs. North Alabama game instead of a Jackson State vs. Mississippi Valley matchup. More bang – in terms of talent evaluation – for his buck.
“Number one, you’ve got to realize we are not back in the day,” Doug Williams said. “Integration has taken that away. Then again, maybe we have to do a better job of identifying kids [in recruiting].
“Those guys like Jerry Rice [Mississippi Valley] and Michael Strahan and Steve McNair [Alcorn State], they could have gone anywhere and played the same way. I came out in the 70s when integration they were just getting it right. McNair could have gone and played anywhere in the country ... as a defensive back. But for him, he made a great decision [to go to Alcorn].
“It’s hard to sell a kid from Jackson State, or Alcorn or Prairie View. When [scouts] are in that room talking about those kids, you have to [the courage] to stand up in there and make a case and fight for these kids.”
Clearly, they don’t feel they have to. Once the draft is over, those players who scouts would not stick their necks out over the three days previously reflexively sign HBCU players to free agent contracts by the handfuls. It’s low risk, potentially high reward for the teams. Evidently, an HBCU-bust free agent is less damning that one drafted from a financial and public relations standpoint.
“It’s all about value,” Strahan said. “If we can get this guy, without giving up a draft pick that we can use somewhere else, let’s not use the draft pick. Unfortunately, the part that loses out is the HBCU players. But from what I have seen, the ones [from HBCUs] that were picked high seemed to work out pretty damn well.
“These teams, I feel think, if I can get a guy that is coming out of a system we run more so in the pros, against competition closer to what they’ll come up against in the pros, I’d rather pay that kid some money, take a chance on that kid, instead of taking a chance on a kid who is coming out of a situation that we feel is inferior talent and hope that they catch up. It’s not a fair system, but it is the system.”
One that could ultimately work to a kid’s advantage as well. Think Arian Foster of the Houston Texans, or New England’s Wes Welker, or All-Pro players from the past Donnie Shell and Willie Brown. They were undrafted free agents and it did not stop their dream.
“Look at Victor Cruz [New York Giants],” Doug Williams said. “He got to pick where he wanted to go. Just be thankful even for that. Sometimes is a better situation to be a free agent and get to pick their teams. It can sometimes get a better opportunity.”
Which, by their play, may help enhance the reputations of their schools and their conferences again. As it is now, those things are in tatters. Where you go to school factors in as much as conference. As football people know, that is no guarantor of success.
“If they look at this college stuff, then they should stop picking kids from half these other schools that haven’t panned out,” Strahan said. “Anybody who thinks you can’t play because you are from an HBCU is out of their mind.
“Now are we going to get the same breaks that these guys from the Big Ten or these other conferences? No. But there is a history that if you give us a shot, and based on what we did in college, there is a pretty good chance we’re going to pay you back many fold. You’re not a great football player from the SWAC. You’re not a great football player from an HBCU. You’re a great football player.”