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Big paycheck or big headache? HBCUs rethink playing ‘money games’

Some schools considering new approach when securing guaranteed money

The first weeks of the college football season often include a familiar sight on the scoreboard: lopsided victories against overmatched schools.

Historically black college and university (HBCU) programs are often on the losing side of those games, but the win comes in the guaranteed money the school receives to participate.

But are the payoff and exposure worth the crushing losses or potential injuries that could affect an HBCU team? Athletic directors from HBCUs across the country are rethinking the approach.

Include Morgan State athletic director Edward Scott among that group. His approach — schedule teams in their own class: other Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponents and Group of 5 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams that also paid guarantees.

“I just brought a different business model to the HBCU landscape,’’ said Scott, whose previous college positions were at predominantly white Binghamton and George Washington, “and said, ‘We just keep throwing the same thing against the wall and hoping it sticks. And I know that this model works in other places, so why not use that model here?’ ’’

Morgan State opens its season Thursday at Bowling Green. The payout of $350,000 will equal what the Bears made in 2017 when they played Rutgers and lost 65-0.

The Bears follow with FCS power James Madison — a bus ride away in Harrisonburg, Virginia — and FBS team Army, both payout games.

Last season, Morgan State played at Akron and lost 41-7, “but the biggest thing was, we brought all of our players home healthy,’’ said Scott.

Morgan State does play at Northwestern next season (for $450,000), but, he added, the potential recruiting benefits in the Chicago market make it worthwhile. And, he said, “no disrespect to Northwestern, but … physically, they’re not Ohio State.’’

At what cost do they play?

No less than the players’ parents, as well as alumni, faculty and school officials have grown more vocal about the true price of the payout games against the power programs. The memory of Southern University’s Devon Gales, still paralyzed after breaking a vertebra on a hit during a guarantee game against Georgia early in 2015, is too fresh in some minds.

That was a worst-case scenario, but even the defenders of this scheduling philosophy, including those who know the existence of the programs and even the universities depend on the money, are fully aware that the skeptics have a point.

The money, especially the high six-figure payouts, have real impact on the athletic departments, points out Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) commissioner Charles McClelland. The exposure for a program and for future NFL prospects cannot be scoffed at, he added, using former Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard, the Houston Texans’ 2019 first-round draft pick, as an example.

“Wherever you are, if you can play, the NFL will find you,’’ McClelland said. So when Howard’s highlights and analysis came up during the NFL Network’s draft coverage, “they pulled up his film from the game at Auburn. That’s what they used to get him on the radar.’’

Auburn won that game last September 63-9; Alabama State received a reported $515,000 to play it.

“Wherever you are, if you can play, the NFL will find you. [So when Tytus Howard’s highlights and analysis came up during the NFL Network’s draft coverage], they pulled up his film from the game at Auburn. That’s what they used to get him on the radar.’’ — SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland

McClelland is pragmatic about what the 10 schools in his league do to make ends meet, and why. “As the commissioner’s office, you can’t say, ‘No, you cannot,’ ” he said. “I do not see a time when we will not play these games.” The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) also has no prohibitions against guaranteed-money games for its 12 teams.

Even with some of the blowout scores that scroll across TV screens on early-season Saturdays, McClelland added, “Scores don’t always tell the complete picture. It doesn’t reflect the quality of the experience for our student-athletes or the institution.’’

That, of course, is provided that the players make it out of the game safely. As SWAC commissioner and in his previous years as athletic director at Texas Southern and Prairie View, McClelland said he heard from the same people who decried the mismatches at other schools. As much as the players like the challenge, he said, “You have to face reality.’’

Dennis Thomas has been MEAC commissioner since 2002 and was the Hampton AD from 1990 to 2002.

“I think it does help [to have the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl and the Sept. 1 MEAC/SWAC Challenge], no question,” Thomas said. “It helps to ameliorate it, to convince our institutions to not play those games. But it’s an institutional decision to choose to play those [guarantee] games.

“These are salient points. They’re points we’ve talked about as a conference. But each program has a philosophy. Each has a goal and objective to how they want their stories told. Not everybody recognizes that by playing a Power 5 institution, there is a larger story to be told.”

Ron Prince, the longtime college and NFL coach who is beginning his first season at Howard, said his Aug. 31 opener at the Big Ten’s Maryland, a short drive from campus, can potentially “make us a tougher, more calloused team.’’

But, he added, “Every time [the opposing argument] comes up, it’s valid. How many of these kinds of games can you play, and in what sequence?”

What are the alternatives?

The reality of the financial straits that HBCUs are in — the universities as a whole, the athletic departments and the football programs — cannot be ignored. Their budgets and revenues are a fraction of those of the Power 5 programs, and with little to no help coming from other sources, the subsidies from a game or two, or more, can go a long way.

Louis “Skip” Perkins, who had previously been athletic director at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Howard, left the athletic administrator business after Delaware State fired him at the end of the 2017 football season. He went on to obtain his doctorate in education. His dissertation included a section on guaranteed-money games, which pointed out that the major programs subsidizing HBCUs with such games “creates a level of dependency among HBCUs and ensures that these programs remain disadvantaged, compared to larger and better-funded Division I PWIs [predominantly white institutions].’’

To Perkins, playing games like the one at the University of Missouri in 2016 where Delaware State lost 79-0 was never worth it, and the phone calls and texts he started receiving immediately after that game from angry parents and alumni confirmed his feelings. He went to his superiors at Delaware State, he said, to ask not to play them anymore.

“We have one of two choices,’’ he said, speaking of his former school and others in the same predicament. “We either cut some sports if we want to operate at a true [Division I] level, or drop to Division II. Choose your poison. … You can’t have your cake and eat it too.’’

Howard quarterback Caylin Newton playing against UNLV in 2017.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Howard University, under Prince’s predecessor Mike London, already has proved the effectiveness of the new, more cautious model. Its $600,000 guarantee game at UNLV in 2017 became not the anticipated blowout but a 43-40 upset that made the school the talk of the nation and put then-freshman quarterback Caylin Newton, younger brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, on the map.

A year later, Prairie View traveled to UNLV for a $350,000 check, and lost 46-17, a score that most programs at that level and their supporters can swallow. Still, the schedules that HBCU teams set at times are real problems, even with the power programs deleted.

Prairie View opens this season with a conference game against Texas Southern at the home stadium of Houston’s Major League Soccer team, then plays a payday game at Group of 5 contender Houston on Sept. 7. After its game at Maryland, Howard goes to Youngstown State and plays at Harvard in October, another payday game. Alabama State’s money trip this season is to in-state UAB. Grambling plays at nearby Group of 5 opponent Louisiana Tech.

School and conference officials agree that one recent development has eased the financial pressure that can entice a football program to punch too far above its weight. The fifth Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl between the SWAC and MEAC champions takes place in Atlanta in December, part of ESPN’s bowl package, and each conference is scheduled to receive $1 million.

“The Celebration Bowl has changed the story,’’ McClelland said. “A team can say, ‘I don’t have to go play at the University of Alabama because I have a team that can get to the Celebration Bowl.’ And if it’s in contention for that and falls short, if you’ve played enough of a quality competition, you have a shot at the FCS playoffs, and that means money as well.’’

Scott agrees: “Folks are bringing home 600 [thousand]; that’s a good game for me to get. To play someone in the SWAC at the end of the season, in that spotlight, can you imagine Morgan and Grambling in the Celebration Bowl? … I know what the endgame is.’’

It’s yet another motivation to steer clear of the sacrificial-lamb episodes, and of the notion that those games are a necessary evil.

“Folks are bringing home 600 [thousand]; that’s a good game for me to get. To play someone in the SWAC at the end of the season, in that spotlight, can you imagine Morgan and Grambling in the Celebration Bowl? I know what the endgame is.’’ — Morgan State athletic director Edward Scott

The odds of a Howard vs. UNLV type of result are far greater than even a close game for one quarter against the traditional powers. Guaranteed-money games are a staple of HBCU basketball schedules too, but they often are a building block for NCAA tournament runs and, at times, upset wins themselves.

But often the best that football teams can hope for in the same circumstances, because of the physicality of the game, is not to suffer serious injuries. Which is why the balance is tipping toward just not playing the games.

“There’s nothing better than sitting with a football parent and saying, ‘We’re not playing Nebraska. We’re playing Georgia Southern or Tulane,’ ’’ Scott said.

The balance is tipping that way with the Power 5 conferences as well, as programs and leagues (and coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban) simply do not see the benefit of such games anymore, for their bottom line or their playoff chances.

“So now,” Scott said, “I’ve got to start looking at that and going, all right, that might be not an option at some point, so I’ve got to prepare for when that’s not an option.”

The sooner the better, Perkins said: “I don’t think it is a sustainable model for HBCUs or FCS schools to play Power 5 schools. I don’t think there is any dollar worth it.”

Not even, say, $475,000. That’s what Delaware State was guaranteed to play Florida State on the road late in the 2017 season, a year after the horror show at Missouri.

The 2017 game was slightly more competitive: Florida State won 77-6.

HBCUs aren’t only schools playing ‘money games’

There are other FBS schools that cash their share of checks as well — often at the expense of their teams in the same fashion. Fitz Hill, who in the early 2000s at San Jose State was one of just four black head coaches at Division I programs, ran into a Power 5 buzz saw in 2002, when the school scheduled Washington, Stanford and Illinois in consecutive weeks early on — then had the team going to Ohio State three weeks after that.

“I tried to get out of that game,’’ Hill said, going as far as reaching out directly to Ohio State Buckeyes legend Archie Griffin in the school’s athletic department. After he was unable to cancel or move the game, his team still arrived in Columbus with a 4-2 record and in position to close in on bowl eligibility. They were down just 17-7 in the second quarter, “and it hit us. They just beat us up in the second half.”

They lost 50-7, finished 6-7 and missed a bowl game. Hill resigned a year later and never got another head coaching job. San Jose State continued playing payout games, though: According to the San Francisco Chronicle, from 2010-18 the program played 14 such games, averaging about $900,000 a game, and lost all 14.

Yet, even with such dedication to that scheduling philosophy, Hill recalled, his school was able to write checks to Grambling and Morgan State to visit San Jose in back-to-back years, in 2003 and ’04. “Grambling was the only sellout we had while I was there,’’ Hill said; the school paid six figures to bring the Tigers there. San Jose State, 3-8 that season, won 29-0.

It was a reminder that in the chain of college football paydays, HBCUs are last in line and get the smallest check. “You noticed that,’’ joked Scott, Morgan State’s athletic director.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.