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Five legendary HBCU coaches honored at College Football Awards Show

The honorees include ‘The Gunslinger,’ ‘The Godfather’ and the first black coach at a predominantly white Division I-A program


When the voice on the phone told former Mississippi Valley State coach Archie Cooley that he’d be a special guest at ESPN’s College Football Awards Show at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, he wondered if it was a prank. The coach asked the ESPN rep: “You know I live in Fort Worth, Texas, right?”

Mississippi Valley State coach Archie Cooley (right) with player Carl Byron.

Denver Post via Getty Images

For the miles Cooley has traveled, not to mention the yardage his teams have racked up, round-trip tickets for the coach and his wife are more than a worthy thanks for his contributions to the sport.

Cooley was known as “The Gunslinger” for his pass-first and innovative “Satellite Express” passing offense at Mississippi Valley State that featured the record-setting tandem of wide receiver Jerry Rice and quarterback Willie Totten. He will be one of five coaches from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) recognized with the National College Football Awards Association (NCFAA) Contributions to College Football Award.

“Archie Cooley’s offenses gave us Jerry Rice and made the NFL and college football take notice and implement his style,” said ESPN college football analyst Jay Walker, who will present the award. “He was definitely an offensive mind ahead of his time,” added Walker, a former quarterback for Howard University and a member of the university’s sports Hall of Fame.

The award, to be given during the Home Depot College Football Awards, will spotlight HBCUs’ contributions in college football’s nearly 150-year history, a legacy that has changed the game at the highest level, including 29 of the 303 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The annual awards show will be broadcast live on ESPN from the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. EST.

Joining Cooley onstage will be:

  • Rod Broadway, the former head coach at North Carolina A&T State University and the only coach to win a black college national championship at three different schools (plus the inaugural Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl).
  • Marino Casem, known as “The Godfather” for his seven Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championships at Alcorn State and for being a four-time black college national champion.
  • Bill Hayes, the winningest coach at both Winston-Salem State and North Carolina A&T, who compiled nearly 200 wins over 27 seasons.
  • Willie Jeffries, head coach at South Carolina State, Wichita State and Howard. His tenure at Wichita State made him the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white Division I-A program.

“This is a game that these gentlemen built and protected the brand and grew the brand and nourished the brand,” said Walker. “I look at these coaches like the Negro League baseball players who didn’t get the notoriety that they deserved. Having these legends around and to actually pay homage for the job that they did, letting them know it didn’t go unappreciated, is hugely important.

“Understand, Eddie Robinson was great, but Marino Casem’s name speaks volumes in SWAC territory. You talk about Rod Broadway, the modern era, who was able to do stuff that no other coach had ever done: win national championships at the three different schools. That’s legendary. Willie Jeffries, the pioneer — the only [coach] to go from an HBCU to a major Division I program, to coach at that level, to do it from an HBCU. And Bill Hayes, who was from that next generation of coaches who carried the HBCU coaching mantle during the ’90s to where we are currently, when he passed the baton to guys like Rod Broadway.”

A video feature will precede the presentation of the award next week, showcasing interviews with prominent coaches, athletes and writers reflecting on the impact of HBCUs as well as an appearance by the Florida A&M University marching band.

“You won’t have to worry about me,” said Cooley. “I’ll be there, front and center, because I’m truly honored to be alongside those other great coaches.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.