SI Vault
Pat Putnam
November 02, 1970
Small-college football has its own big time, like Arkansas (State) and Texas (A&I). As for tiny Wittenberg, it only asks: Who are those Buckeyes?
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November 02, 1970

They Don't Play No Mullets Down There

Small-college football has its own big time, like Arkansas (State) and Texas (A&I). As for tiny Wittenberg, it only asks: Who are those Buckeyes?

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It does not get lost at Westminster College—the one in New Wilmington, Pa.—another of the little-little giants. Westminster is now five games into what could be Dr. Harold E. Burry's fifth unbeaten season. On Saturday Westminster beat Heidelberg 40-20, with Quarterback Dave Bierback throwing three touchdown passes to Roger Price and then running five yards for one of his own. Besides Bierback and Price, there are 1,548 kids in the student body, a group barely outnumbering the redshirts in the SEC.

At the other end of the small-college spectrum are powers like Tampa, Hawaii and Drake, which are moving toward major college status at full bore and beating almost everybody en route.

Now 4-1 after losing to UC Santa Barbara 22-20 Saturday, the Hawaiian Rainbows have upped their scholarship quota from 33 in 1968 to 55 this year and expect to raise that to 75 by 1972. "Of course, we have no delusions of grandeur," says Dick Fishback, the university's sports information director. "We'll have to get to the 100-scholarships-and-over bracket in order to compete evenly with some of our future opponents."

Meanwhile unbeaten Tampa got some national limelight two weeks ago when it rocked Miami 31-14. Last Saturday Tampa ran its current streak to six by beating Xavier 33-10. "If people want big-time football then that's what we'll give them," said Coach Fran Curci. "But they'll have to start filling the stands."

With only 65 scholarships to work with, Curci's job has not been easy; the SEC had a limit of 125. Says Curci: "Coaching, I tell you, is tough as hell."

He might find it even tougher if he played Tennessee State, leader among predominantly black schools. This was not always true. Seven years ago Tennessee State's president, W. S. Davis, decided he was less than happy with the school's recent record of 1-7-1. He fired the coaching staff and hired John Merritt. "It's no secret that football has collapsed around here," said Davis then. "My goal is to reestablish football excellence."

President Davis got all he wished for and more. Under Merritt the Tigers (backed by an enrollment of only 4,500) have won two mythical national black championships. Despite many handicaps, Merritt has built what he freely admits is a football factory.

A burly, flamboyant man, leaning heavily toward flashy rings, wide ties on colored shirts and dark glasses over an El Producto cigar, Merritt currently lists 14 of his former players on professional rosters. But, he says, things are getting tougher. He points out that not only are many black athletes going to predominantly white schools, integration is costing many black high school coaches their jobs. When schools integrate, he says, whites are chosen as head coaches, and they in turn point their black stars toward white schools. He also turns a jaundiced eye toward his own school's stiff academic requirements.

"We've got to play schools that have athletes who couldn't get into our place," he says. "I had two great kids coming here, but they couldn't make it academically. Now they're the starting tackles at a Big Ten School."

Despite the handicaps, Merritt has succeeded with a recruiting technique that borrows from both the hard and the soft sell. "I drive a Cadillac but not simply because I can afford it or because I like it," he says. "I drive it because it is important to present a good appearance. A boy who lives on a dirt floor is bound to be impressed by a man who drives a Cadillac and dresses well. But I never give a boy a false promise. I tell it like it is."

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