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Winston-Salem State’s Date With Destiny

Winston-Salem State has a chance at history when it faces Valdosta State today in the Division II Championship Game. (WSSU photo)

When Winston-Salem State goes up against Valdosta State on Saturday, there will be much more at stake than just deciding this year’s Division II champion. WSSU is carrying the flag for HBCU sports in general, and HBCU football in particular.
Three years into an attempt to move to Division I, WSSU’s athletic program hit rock bottom in 2009. Athletic Director Chico Caldwell (now at Grambling) was fired in February. Longtime head coach and former WSSU quarterback Kermit Blount (now at Delaware State) stepped down during a season that would see the Rams finish 1-10. And in September of that year, WSSU Chancellor Donald Reaves pulled the plug on the school’s Division I experiment.

Connell Maynor has led WSSU to a
35-3 record in three seasons.

But out of the ashes of that rocky year, rose the characters who have led the Rams to today’s national championship, a place no other HBCU has gone in almost 30 years.

That November, former WSSU football coach Bill Hayes returned to the school to take over as athletic director. A few months later, he hired Connell Maynor, his former quarterback at WSSU and NC A&T to lead the program. The charismatic and innovative Maynor had never been a head coach, but Hayes felt comfortable handing him the keys to the team.

Three years, two CIAA titles and one national championship game later, it’s clear that Hayes’ hunch paid off. Maynor has led the team to a 35-3 record during his three seasons, including back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and multiple win playoff runs.

But again, today’s game is about more than WSSU. It is about the excellence that can and still does flow from the HBCU experience.

For years prior to integration, HBCUs were flushed with top caliber athletes, as a result of the fact that predominately white institutions would not recruit black athletes. Though they produced draft picks by the dozens in the 50s and 60s, they were ignored by national polls and as a result, never competed for national championships.

By the time HBCUs were (somewhat) welcomed to compete on the national level, much of the talent that used to flock to these institutions were now competing against them. As a result, FAMU’s 1978 Division I-AA title is the only one ever claimed by an HBCU. The disparity has become even wider in recent years, especially at the Division I level. MEAC teams haven’t won a playoff  game in the 21st century, and the SWAC has given up the playoffs all together, opting to play a championship game and call it a day.

Today, less than four years after having about as bad a year as an athletic program can have, Winston-Salem State has NCAA gold within their grasp. They have a mix of swagger and substance that separate good teams from great teams. They have a talent roster, full of playmakers on the offensive and defensive sides. And they have a coach that believes in his team.

“We believe,” Maynor told the Winston-Salem Journal. “Those guys know they have a chance to make history.

We believe too, coach. We believe, too.

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