By MARK F. GRAY
CLEVELAND - There were contrasting mindsets that met last Saturday as Winston Salem State faced Tuskegee in the Cleveland Classic. The Golden Tigers – who are
now eligible for the NCAA Division II Playoffs – were looking to see if they can compete with a national championship contender. For the Rams, however, it was just another step on the road back to the title game.
When the dust settled on the shores of Lake Erie, Winston Salem State gave Tuskegee and the rest of the SIAC a valuable lesson. The Rams 35-13 drubbing proved once again that CIAA is well ahead of the so called most successful HBCU football program and that the SIAC is light years behind them as a conference as well.
Winston Salem St. plays with a swagger from their success in the D-II playoffs each of the last two years. In 2011 they were within a game of playing for the title. Last year the Rams were overwhelmed by Valdosta St. in the national championship game. However, those tournament runs have proven that Winston Salem St. can play with the elite teams nationally while the depth of the CIAA has prepared them for post season.
Meanwhile, Tuskegee has dominated a conference whose depth is shaky at best. Say for Albany St., Miles, and perhaps Morehouse, there really has been no tough competition for the Golden Tigers. They have also dominated Alabama St. and Alabama A&M who are middle of the pack SWAC programs that one could argue have grossly underachieved over the last two years.
Critics of the Rams site the presence of a group of Division I players who were recruited before the program returned to the lower division which has contributed to their success. However, their recruiting philosophy is the same that former Virginia Union basketball coach Dave Robbins used to build that powerhouse.
Robbins never recruited great D-II players instead looked to find D-I caliber talent that had fallen through the cracks such as Charles Oakley, Ben Wallace, and A.J. English. Thus, there was an unprecedented level of dominance over a 30 year stretch that led to 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, three national championships and four D-II national players of the year.
Winston Salem State coach Connell Maynor and athletic director Bill Hayes are building a program with that same philosophy. They aren’t playing to dominate the CIAA or D-II Black College Football. This is a program that’s being constructed to contend for NCAA national championships which gives them an edge heading into games versus conference opponents and SIAC foes.
Tuskegee – the premiere team in the SIAC – has lost its last two games to CIAA opponents. In last year’s Pioneer Bowl they fell to CIAA runner up Elizabeth City State. As a conference the SIAC has lost three straight to the CIAA in the Pioneer Bowl although the Golden Tigers have won the game seven times signifying what?
The SIAC needs to do a better job of scheduling up. Its time for a team like Tuskegee to schedule North Alabama and Valdosta St. to get them ready to be a contender for the national championship. Unfortunately, beating up on Clark Atlanta annually won’t make you better either.
The SIAC has a great football tradition. However, Tuskegee has to realize that neither Maurice Heard nor Chris Holder are walking through the door. There is no more eligibility for Jackary Atkinson, Drayton Florence, or Derrick Washington. This conference has been watered down by the departures of Savannah St., Alabama A&M, and Alabama St. Even Albany St. isn’t the same program it was under the legendary Hampton Smith.
Winston Salem St. has the blueprint for HBCU Division II programs to contend for the ultimate prize. It would be in the best interest of Tuskegee and the rest of the SIAC to follow suit or the “basketball conference” will continue its dominance of the “football league” as it ascends to heights of national credibility which D-II Black College programs haven’t enjoyed since being sanctioned by the NCAA.