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HBCU Football

Redskins VP and Grambling star Doug Williams says HBCUs are as vital as ever

‘We need them. The worst thing to do is for people to say that we don’t.’


This NFL season marks the 30th anniversary of Doug Williams becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Yet, some may not realize that this season also marks the 40th anniversary of Williams’ graduation from Grambling State University. While winning that Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos cemented Williams’ legacy as an African-American trailblazer, his decision to play at Grambling places him in a unique fraternity of players who helped transform the league.

Walter Payton, John Stallworth and Jerry Rice, like Williams, attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) before playing in the National Football League. Each has made it into the NFL Hall of Fame. Others such as David “Deacon” Jones, Richard Dent, Michael Strahan and Robert Mathis all have been catalysts in leading their teams to championships.

Under legendary coach Eddie Robinson, Williams finished fourth in the 1977 Heisman Trophy voting. The young Grambling QB passed for 3,286 yards and 38 touchdowns in his senior season.

“It’s something that you can’t even imagine what it was like on campus with all the great athletes,” Williams said while at the 18th annual Original Tee Golf Classic in Hardyston, New Jersey. “To have played and went to school with some of those guys is something I will never forget.”

Williams, who is now senior vice president for player personnel for the Washington Redskins, also said he learned much from Robinson, who at one time was the all-time winningest college football coach. He taught him to become a more polished man off the field as well as on it.

Williams was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 17th pick in the 1978 NFL draft. He was a first-round pick from an HBCU, a more common occurrence in the 1970s than in recent years. In 1978, three HBCU players were selected in the first two rounds. In the 2017 NFL draft, the first HBCU player was not selected until the third round.

After playing in the NFL for 11 seasons, Williams had two head coaching stints at Grambling, in 1998 and again in 2011. From 2000 to 2002, Williams led the Tigers to three consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) titles. Nearly 10 years later, Williams and the Grambling State football team in 2011 captured another SWAC championship that was revoked last week by the NCAA because of improper certification of players.

Williams said his goal in coaching was to make his players better people during their time at Grambling. He even mentioned that one of his former players texted him when he got the head coaching job at a Louisiana high school. “Thank you for everything coach. I love you,” said the text.

Williams accomplished these feats despite what he says was strong meddling by his university president.

“The hardest part about coaching at an HBCU is that the president must realize that his job is the educational side,” Williams said. “Too many of the HBCU presidents want to be coach, too, and that’s where I think we run into trouble.”

Whether an administration’s involvement in HBCU athletic decisions is excessive is still up for debate. What is undeniable, however, is that HBCU football programs no longer attract or showcase the majority of top black athletes as they did in the 1940s through the mid-’70s. The issue may be beyond the control of any particular college administration.

“You can’t compare today’s football players,” Williams said. “Before integration, all the players went to HBCUs. Now if you get three guys out of black colleges drafted, you’re clapping and giving a standing ovation.”

Williams says the talent a school can attract is sometimes directly related to its resources. Power 5 conference schools such as Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson have better football facilities than any predominantly black schools. Without these on-campus resources at their disposal, HBCUs find themselves at a significant disadvantage in recruiting.

“HBCU facilities don’t compete,” Williams said. “If a guy got the ability to go to one of the big schools and you take him on a visit over there and then bring him to your school, you aren’t going to win it.”

While Williams understands the struggles that face HBCU football programs, he still remains an advocate for schools like his alma mater. He says these institutions are crucial to society. Perhaps this is because HBCUs are some of the few federally funded institutions that preserve and celebrate black history and culture in America.

“It’s a little different today, but it’s still black college and it ain’t going to change,” said Williams. “We need them. The worst thing to do is for people to say that we don’t. We need the athletic programs, and we definitely need the educational side of it.”

Donovan Dooley is a former Rhoden Fellow and a multimedia journalism major from Tuscaloosa, AL. He attends North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.