At the beginning of 2006, Arkansas Baptist College was on the brink of death. The historically black school's enrollment stood at fewer than 170, and all signs showed that it would lose its accreditation when it was up for evaluation later in the year. So, on a recent August afternoon, it was no trifle to see 120 Arkansas Baptist students suited up in helmets and shoulder pads for a preseason workout. If the number of players on the field was any indication, the school had discovered an elixir in football.
Led by a new president, Fitz Hill, Arkansas Baptist had established the junior college team a year earlier, and coach Richard Wilson had only signed on in April. Now, after just three weeks of work with the players, Wilson looked to be conducting more of a jumbled fire drill than a practice.
Despite some rudimentary unison — three full offenses ran the semblance of plays against three full defenses — assistant coaches constantly turned their attention towards the problems of individual players. A ceaseless trill of whistles seemed to command nobody. The team didn't even practice on a proper football field. They used a collection of baseball diamonds, two of which were of only a Little League depth. The third, a larger converted Pony League field, ran only 90 yards.
There had already been three injuries that day, and the wounded gathered on a set of concrete bleachers that was covered with peeling paint and shot through with weeds. As he iced his knee, Andre Lewis, a wide receiver, pointed at the rusty structure that served as a locker room. “If somebody makes it to the NFL,” he said, “that field house is going to be fixed up.” To anyone watching the practice, Lewis's hope would have seemed futile, but it was appropriate considering the broader goals of Arkansas Baptist's football program. It not only underscored the players' dreams; it also matched Hill's ambition to rebuild the college.
At the crux of Hill's plan is the belief that athletics is a counterpart to education rather than a distraction. It's not football itself that matters. What matters is the power that athletics has to draw students — particularly black, male students — to the classroom. As Wilson commented as he left the practice field that day, “Fitz Hill let me know that I'm not going to be held accountable as coach if I don't win. At any other school, I wouldn't be sure if it would work. But Dr. Hill has made it very clear: no books, no ball.”
Considering college football's reputation for academic slacking, some might be skeptical. For example, Matt Leinart, USC's Heisman Trophy winner, was roundly ridiculed when it was reported in 2005 that his only senior-year class was dance.
But Andre Lewis is not Matt Leinart, and Arkansas Baptist is not USC. And Hill's plan appears to be working. Arkansas Baptist is safe for now, rejuvenated by an influx of students who want to play ball. Still, the question remains: Can football be a vehicle to solid education? Or does an institutional focus on sport come at the expense of learning?
On the afternoon of Arkansas Baptist's first home game, against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M at War Memorial Stadium, Hill and I took a drive out to his home in West Little Rock, where he was due to pick up his daughter and take her shopping for a leotard. Hill, who is married with three children, has been a football man for much of his life — after graduating from Ouachita Baptist and serving a stint in the military, he became an assistant at Arkansas — but in recent years he has supplemented coaching with activism for African-American causes. When San Jose State named him head football coach in 2000, he was one of only five African-Americans to hold that job in Division I. He used his position to help start the Literacy Classic, a game between San Jose State and Grambling, the historically black college famous for its football program under the late Eddie Robinson. The game raised money for children's literacy programs.
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