A half century ago Heisman winner Cam Newton and Pac-10 leading rusher LaMichael James might not have been squaring off for Auburn or Oregon in the BCS Championship Game.
The pair of young, elite black athletes more than likely would have been throwing around the pigskin or running the rock at one of the major historically black colleges and universities.
That is the way it was in the in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement when the best football players in the country were at tiny schools like Grambling State, Jackson State, Tennessee State or South Carolina State.
That was the way it was before integration opened the door for now upper echelon FBS schools to seize black talent. While desegregation in the mid-60s might have enriched college athletes as whole with an influx of talent, it also spelled the demise HBCU football.
Sure, black colleges were able to land Richard Dent (Tennessee State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) and Steve McNair and Donald Driver (Alcorn State), but that collection of talent as a whole has been few and far in between these days.
From 1990 to 2010 just seven players from black colleges have been taken in the first-round of the NFL Draft compared to the 17 selected in the first-round from 1970 to 1980.
What once was a no-brainer in black athletes donning HBCU uniforms, has now become a struggle for several decades with no end in sight.
As cited in the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves written by New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden black athletes no longer felt as if the place where they grew up was home.
As the profitability of the sports industry -- starting at the college level -- increased, the disconnection imposed by white schools on black athletes became more deliberate and pronounced. No longer did they need to feel obliged to attend black colleges.
Integration would give blacks the access to that big stage they craved, but also gave whites access to the black market to black wallets and sensibilities, and to black talent.
Throw in television exposure, larger stadiums and better facilities and it became tough for HBCUs to compete over time.
Former University of Mississippi linebacker Al Rice, who was heavily recruited by several SEC schools coming out of Hattiesburg High School in 1996, said Ole Miss was more aggressive in their recruiting tactics.
“(Ole Miss) made me feel important,” Rice said. “They called me every day…sometimes to wake me up for school.”
Former Miami Hurricane Marcus Nettles shared the same sentiment.
“I wanted to compete with the best,” Nettles said. “Additionally, the beach, the weather, the city atmosphere, the location had me sold.”
“I had house visits from college coaches, letters sent on a daily bases, phone calls, and even coaches at my games from the non HBCU's,” he said. “They showed genuine interest in my talents. I can honestly say, the most persistent schools kept my interest, and it just so happened Miami was one of the programs I've always admired.”
Another reason Rice and Nettles also decided to attend major Division 1 schools was the prospect of playing in front of large crowds on national television, a luxury many black colleges don’t have.
“I wanted to be seen on national television,” Rice said. “More (pro) scouts and coaches get the chance to see more games. Going there gave the opportunity to play in the NFL.
In the past, most HBCU games were televised via BET on tape delay until the mid-2000s.
Although the SWAC and MEAC were able to ink more lucrative TV deals with ESPN in recent years, that transaction pales in comparison to the SEC’s 15-year, $2.25 billion contract with ESPN, which is concurrent with a 15-year, $825 million deal with CBS.
“I didn't know if black colleges were competitive enough to get me the exposure I needed for athletics,” said Nettles. “I knew academically, there were a lot of good HBCU's out there, but I needed to kill two birds with one stone.”
Rice was recruited by Alcorn State and a black college in Texas. However, he didn’t feel those schools had much of a chance at landing him.
In the end, it boiled down to the lack of confidence exhibited by HBCU recruiters that turned him off.
“They didn’t think they had a shot,” said Rice.
If increased media exposure or an opportunity to compete for national championships does not give major schools the upper hand over their HBCU counterparts, plush facilities in a lot of cases are the deal breaker.
Let’s take the national championship participants for example.
During recruiting Oregon noticed that kids would visit Eugene just to see the facilities, even if them signing there was not likely. As a result the school continued to upgrade until blue-chip athletes committed.
Oregon is in the process of constructing a six-story, 130,000 square-foot football operations center. It also helps that Nike CEO Phil Knight has invested $300 million in the program.
According to the Auburn athletic website, the program has completed a major locker room renovation for the football team.
The project included a ceiling-to-floor renovation of the football practice locker room. Custom-designed, wooden lockers will give Auburn’s football players the space, comfort, and functionality they need, the website said.
Lavish facilities were one of major the reasons Rice decided to attend join the Ole Miss program.
“The stadium (Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at Hollingsworth Field at Ole Miss) was bigger than anything I had seen before coming out of high school, “Rice said.
Since many HBCU athletic departments are underfunded, major multimillion-dollar facility upgrades are not always able to be complete as quickly as BCS schools.
While the deck might be stacked against HBCUs in many areas, that does not mean high school athletes completely disregard the institutions, though.
Just last month Florida’s Mr. Football Quentin Williams made a verbal commitment to Bethune Cookman College.
Anthony Hales Jr., took a chance on Jackson State after not fielding many solid offers from Division 1 schools following his senior year.
“JSU was my best solid offer,” Hales said. “My experience was okay. I enjoyed being an athlete at JSU. I will say that I wish athletes had more support.”
So what can be done to attract more blue-chip athletes?
“Invest in facilities and do a better job selling the advantages of attending an HBCU,” Hales said. “Really go after the parents.”
“I know there may be monetary constraints, but I think having a serious fund-raising campaign is the key instead of waiting for the school to allocate money,” said Nettles. “Also, being persistent, and taking the time to become personable with the recruit and their parents will have a big impact on retaining players.”
Kezdrich Malone, who starred at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, said it is tough to get commitments from young black athletes due to the perceived media monopoly big-time schools have and the lack of facilities.
"See all our student-athletes only see BCS schools on the major networks," Malone said. "As football player who do not want to play in front of?..70,000 people and have a traveling fan base of 20,000?"
"Most HBCU school stadiums look like high schools stadiums because they just don't have the funds and strong alumni support," he said. "(HBCU alums) need to show players how they can make them successful by attending their school. “If you are an athlete, scouts will find you no matter where you are. However, our top student athletes do not feel that way."