Grambling golf legacy slipping away

Tegitra Thomas is a man of God; a Baptist preacher in the piney woods of Northeast Louisiana, where he was the men's and women's golf coach at Grambling State University before state budget cuts forced the school to shut down these programs in 2010.

Long before most of Grambling's football team refused to play a game against Jackson State on Oct. 19 -- most notably over the "horrible condition" of the school's athletic complex and the drain and exhaustion of taking long bus rides to far away games -- the 41-year-old Thomas was praying over the golf program at his alma mater.

Prayer, ingenuity and elbow grease were about the only virtues he could draw upon to keep a non-revenue-generating sport churning in this little town made famous by its football team's legendary coach, Eddie Robinson, who amassed 408 wins in 56 years at the head of the program.

At Grambling, where state support has decreased 57 percent since 2008, from about $31 million to $13 million in 2013, the golf program was an easy target in a culture where football is too big to fail.

When Thomas was on the Grambling golf team in the mid-1990s, his coach was John W. Jackson, a former pitcher in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs in the early 1950s.

"Our program was full of pride because we had a good coach, and whatever we needed he tried his best to get it for us," said Thomas, who was recently called to be the pastor of a church in Monroe, La., after 17 years leading the Galilee Baptist Church in Hodge, La. "That's why for 10 years I tried to do the same thing, because I didn't want to take out on the kids what the university wasn't prepared to be responsible for."

Thomas often conducted practices on a field that was adjacent to the old football stadium on the 384-acre campus. The flat, low-lying terrain didn't drain well, so when it rained, practice was moved into a gymnasium where players took turns hitting off a mat into a net. When the field and gym weren't available, the team would find space between two buildings to hit balls.

Each squad had a $9,000 travel budget, and to make sure the money lasted through at least the eight minimum events as mandated by the NCAA, the teams would often hold one-day 18-hole matches at sites where they were already in a tournament to save on traveling expenses.

"We found a way to get from golf course to golf course," said Thomas, who had a salary of $25,000 with no assistants and regularly, at his own personal expense, drove his teams to practices and tournaments.

What Thomas did offer these kids were scholarships.

"We didn't have good practice facilities, so it was hard to recruit good golfers with less than full scholarships," said Thomas, who was able to give 4.5 men's scholarships and six for women, the maximum allowed under the guidelines in NCAA Division 1 golf.

When the programs were disbanded in June 2010, the university allowed every student that was on scholarship to keep their funding for one year to give them time to either graduate or find another school.

The men's best player, Jonathan Coleman, had won the Southwestern Athletic Conference men's individual championship in the spring, and was the first golfer from a school in that part of the state to receive an automatic qualifier bid into the NCAA regionals.

Coleman immediately transferred to Jackson State for his senior year, where the next season he helped that team win the SWAC championship by 35 shots.

"It was pretty tough at Grambling just because we knew there were other schools that had things we didn't have," said Coleman, a 24-year-old Cincinnati native who now plays on mini tours in the Las Vegas area. "I took it upon myself to find ways of practicing. Even on days when we didn't have a scheduled team event, Coach Thomas and I would get together to play.

"So instead of going to basketball and football games, I would go practice. I had to figure out what I needed to get it done and go do it. It was a lot of hard work."

Coleman would continue to thrive as a player and student at Jackson State. Yet his time at Grambling taught him some very valuable lessons.

"The experience at Grambling made me way more prepared for where I am now," Coleman said. "I learned to do the most with the least. It definitely taught me more lessons than I knew at the time."

Coleman's coach at Jackson State was Eddie Payton, the dean of black college golf coaches, and older brother of the former NFL all-time rushing leader Walter Payton, who died from a rare form of cancer in 1999.

For the past 28 years, Eddie Payton -- who was a running back and kick returner for five years with four NFL teams -- built his alma mater, Jackson State, into a national powerhouse. They have been perennial winners of both the men's and women's SWAC tournament.

In 1996, Payton's men's team became the first squad from a historically black college to qualify for the NCAA golf regionals.

Like Thomas and Coleman, the recent events surrounding Grambling's football team are a reminder for the 62-year-old Columbia, Miss., native of what happened to that school's golf program. It also points out the larger issue of the survival of collegiate golf at HBCUs, an endeavor that Payton has been dedicated to since he helped form the National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship in 1986.

Payton has witnessed in recent years the reduction of men's sports programs from 10 to eight and from 10 to six in women's in the SWAC, which participates in Division I in all sports and the Football Championship Subdivision.

"The rationale for cutting these programs is asinine," Payton said. "Golf is one of the least expensive sports to fund. To protect their football programs, which are their cash cow, the administrations at several of these historically black colleges are missing an opportunity to put money into the development of African-American kids in the hope that one of them might be good enough to become the next Tiger Woods, a role model for millions of black kids and bring prestige to the university."

On a more fundamental level, Payton -- who could not have afforded to attend college without a football scholarship -- said the loss of golf programs at these schools will mean that future generations of African-Americans will not have the opportunity to secure an education at black schools through golf.

Payton believes in the spirit of Booker T. Washington's mantra of self-help, the same spirit that led a group of black farmers to start Grambling in 1901. So he doesn't think the burden of saving and reviving golf and football programs like Grambling's should rest solely with a state-appropriated budget.

"If our administrators and our people who lead our athletic programs can't go out and raise additional revenue through creative ways like partnerships with corporate America, then we're all going to perish and we won't be an existing competitive body," said Payton, who has kept his program vital through the years with a combination of his own money, university support, corporate partnerships and fundraising.

For Thomas, the concerns of running a college golf program are now behind him. Since 2010, he has been teaching a nine-week golf class at Grambling, where he makes $150 a month to run the 50-minute session that meets twice a week.

The program is supported through a $25,000 grant from Corey Pavin, who as the 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, split his $50,000 from the Play Golf America University program between Grambling and Spelman College, a school for black women in Atlanta.

Thomas knows well the lack of adequate athletic facilities on Grambling's campus, but his feelings toward the recent boycott of the football team, which ended Oct. 21 when players returned to practice, is tempered by history.

He remembers a time during the early 1990s, toward the end of the long Robinson regime, when the football players had to work out under the old stadium and then walk across campus to practice. At least now, he says, all the facilities are housed on one side of the campus.

"If Robinson were still alive, I think there would have been a whole lot of mothers and fathers who would have told their children to get on that bus and play that game and we'll work on what's wrong down the line," Thomas said. "This is definitely a new-age kid, a new-age athlete."

As the Grambling golf coach for a decade, Thomas -- like Robinson and his mentor Jackson -- tried not to make any excuses for what he couldn't do for his kids because they were black, underfunded by the state legislature or devoid of the grand facilities of their white counterparts. Like many before him, he forged on regardless of the hardships.

But the current state of affairs at the university doesn't make Thomas optimistic about the revival of the golf program.

"I don't see it happening until people decide to do what they haven't done for the last 30 years, and that's donate some money to the athletic department," Thomas said. "I don't foresee that happening, but two years before the program was killed, I didn't see that happening either."

Embarrassed by the national attention brought to its struggling football program and the university, the Grambling administration is committed to making improvements to its athletic facilities. The program that has sent more than 100 players to the NFL will continue to keep the flame burning that was first lit by Robinson.

As a proud Grambling man, this must please Thomas, but it still doesn't make it easy for him to forget about that state-of-the-art practice facility he never got for his golf teams.