Tennis & Golf Programs at Historically Black Colleges & Universities

By Clay, Bobby | Black Enterprise, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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Tennis & Golf Programs at Historically Black Colleges & Universities

Clay, Bobby, Black Enterprise

Eddie Payton couldn't understand it then and never will completely understand why so many barbs were hurled his way last season, during which his Jackson State Tigers became the first golf team from a historically black college to qualify for the NCAA tournament. So what if four of his top six players on his team-- which won the predominantly black Southwest Athletic Conference's (SWAC) men's golf title--were white? "A golf ball doesn't care about the color of the person hitting it," he says, "so why should I?"

Well, with all the talk about increasing minority participation in golf and tennis, some people just assumed that black kids would be getting the scholarships at the historically black colleges. That reasoning might have been correct 20 years ago, but let this serve as a wakeup call. Just as historically white colleges have seen the racial makeup of their basketball and football teams change with the acceptance of integration and the heavy focus on winning, a similar transformation is occurring at more and more HBCs. Hampton University golf coach Burl Bowens, like Payton, says he used to recruit only black golfers. "Now I look at the best player I can get." Southern University golf and tennis coach Cliff Johnson is no different. The top ranked player on his tennis team is white.

There are 13 historically black colleges that now field men's golf teams. They are Alabama State, Alcorn, Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M, Grambling, Hampton, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley, Prairie View A&M, South Carolina State, Southern, Tennessee State, Texas Southern.

The SWAC mandates that each of its schools also field women's golf and tennis teams. The Jackson State women's team won the SWAC women's golf title, while Grambling won the 1996 women's tennis title and Jackson State won the men's tennis title.

Rest assured, Johnson, Bowens and Payton would have jumped at the opportunity to sign Tiger Woods, the 20-year-old phenom at Stanford University, who this year became the first black golfer to win the NCAA Championship. Their primary interest in Woods, however, would have been that he was the best player available, who just happened to be black. Clearly the message is this: The HBCUs are not going to do to other races, what predominantly white institutions did to black student athletes for so long.

That's not to say that Johnson, Bowens and Payton have forgotten their roots. Each speaks passionately about the need to develop golf and tennis in African American communities and their tenure alone speaks volumes about their commitment to the historically black colleges. Payton, who once played in the National Football League, has been coaching golf at Jackson State for 10 years. (Walter Payton, the NFL Hall of Famer and former Chicago Bear running back, is his brother.) Johnson has been at Southern for 30 years, the last 27 at the Baton Rouge campus, and Bowens has been at Hampton for 12 years.

Despite the experience and the stability, they and the other HBC golf and tennis coaches face a tremendous uphill battle in trying to qualify for the NCAA tournament. In golf, for example, there is no automatic NCAA berth for conference champions as there is in basketball.

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