Alcorn State and a new race debate

LORMAN, Miss -- In 1948, Medgar Evers arrived at Alcorn College with a GI Bill, a football scholarship and eyes that had seen two very different sides of the same world.

Mississippi represented one side. Evers grew up in Decatur, a farming town buried inside a state in which extreme racial divisiveness was status quo for the times.

But at 23 years old, Evers, the great-grandson of a slave, also had seen a world that was as different from Mississippi as moonlight and sunlight.

Evers served in the Army and fought in the Battle of Normandy during World War II. Stationed in France, he had a French girlfriend and marveled at how he was more accepted in another country than his own home. It gave him hope that one day he could fully enjoy the rights he'd been systematically denied in America.

Alcorn was a perfect landing spot -- and basically the only landing spot. Alcorn and Jackson State were the only two universities African-Americans in Mississippi could attend. Like all historically black colleges and universities at the time, Alcorn was a safe haven for blacks who wanted to pursue an education but were unable to do so in mainstream America because of widespread racism and discrimination.

Evers thrived at Alcorn. He majored in business, captained the football team, lettered in track and was a member of the debate team.

Evers was eager to figure out how to merge both sides of the world he'd seen. Some would say the slain Civil Rights activist -- who was assassinated in his own driveway in 1963 -- accomplished that after he left Alcorn. He organized boycotts against gas stations that refused to service black customers. He vigorously campaigned to desegregate the University of Mississippi, which denied his law school application but eventually was forced to accept James Meredith in 1962.

But 50 years after Evers fought for Meredith's enrollment, integration continues to be a touchy issue in the state of Mississippi.

Alcorn State president M. Christopher Brown II couldn't risk the information being leaked, so he took every precaution. Brown knew once people found out who he had hired as his next football coach, he'd have a lot of questions to answer. This was a historic hire for not just Alcorn, but the entire Southwestern Athletic Conference.

And Brown knew not everyone would be happy with his choice.

"The naming, the timetable, who the candidate was going to be was extremely confidential," Brown said, "My own media unit will tell you that they didn't get it until maybe 10 minutes before the announcement."

When Alcorn State announced its newest football coach in late May, it wasn't just a run-of-the-mill introductory news conference. It was a carefully planned public relations campaign. A member of the search committee, Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield, a 2012 Alcorn graduate and Brown all delivered messages as if they knew backlash was inevitable.

"I gave Dr. Brown a challenge my last week as a student here at Alcorn," the 2012 Alcorn graduate said. "I told him as well as the administrators to diversify Alcorn at all costs because we're moving into a new day and a new era."

Diversify? That's a strange word to use at an introductory news conference for a football coach.

"Today, Alcorn creates a day to remember," Brown said, before launching into a passionate speech about how African-Americans couldn't remain wedded to Mississippi's racist past.

Was this a football coach's news conference or a political rally?

Finally, the moment arrived. Dressed in a purple blazer -- the school colors -- Brown extended a handshake and simultaneously handed an Alcorn State baseball cap to the smiling new coach, Jay Hopson.

And then it made sense why everyone other than Hopson felt the need to brace the public for his hiring.

"It feels normal," Hopson said a week after he'd addressed his team for the first time. "It feels just like I'm coaching at LSU, Florida, Marshall, Michigan, Southern Miss. It looks the same, it feels the same, you know what I'm saying?"

No, there is absolutely nothing abnormal about a white head coach coaching black players.

Unless, of course, you're the first white head football coach in school and conference history.

These days, there are a number of white faces on historically black college campuses. For example, Alcorn's tennis and golf coaches are white. Roughly 11 percent of Alcorn's student body is white. And in both the MEAC and SWAC football conferences, there are white assistant coaches and several white players at nearly every school.

But hiring a white head football coach for an HBCU is different.

A head football coach becomes the face of a university, and in some cases the head coach is the most powerful man at a school.

That power is infrequently given to black head coaches at the FBS level. In black college football, it almost always is.

When it came to hiring Hopson, most of those in a position of influence at Alcorn State were ready to make Hopson the face of the Braves football program.

Most, but not all.

As Hopson's name began to emerge in the hiring process, there were two camps forming -- old-school and new-school.

The camps were split along the lines of racial experience and understanding. The old-school camp had experienced the ugliness of racism firsthand. The new-schoolers were ready to move beyond that deep racial pain.

Once all the candidates had been interviewed, Brown gathered all 24 members of his search committee, which included faculty, alumni and students, in a room to sort through the applicants. When the committee got to Hopson's name, the mood in the room instantly changed.

"You could feel the emotional thickness in the room," Brown said. "There were alumni who said, very plainly, they personally felt that it was an insult to hire a white coach. They had been discriminated against in their coaching careers. They had been denied coaching jobs because of the black color of their skin, and there were people crying. It was an emotional time where everyone was having to face their internal demons. There was real wounding here. Something was being taken from them, that some core part of their identity was being taken out of them. And I heard this one student -- I won't say his name because he was really quiet -- he sat up in the back and he looked at the alum and said, 'I'm sorry. I understand how you feel, but the students are clear: We want the best coach, and we don't want race to be a factor.'

Alcorn State's hiring of Hopson strays from how things have traditionally been done at HBCUs, where it's almost a foregone conclusion that if there's a football head-coaching vacancy, an African-American man will be hired.

But Hopson's hiring has capitulated old fears. If Hopson is successful, will his hiring empower other HBCUs to seek white coaches? If so, when you consider the incremental progress FBS schools have made in hiring African-American head coaches, will it leave black coaches further disenfranchised?

"What I'm looking at is access to opportunities and what's been so limited historically since the start of football," said Dr. Fitz Hill, the current president of Arkansas Baptist College. At San Jose State, Hill became just the 17th African-American head football coach on the major college level. "Historically black colleges have always been a place that African-American coaches go and learn and build their trade and improve and move up the ladder. But now, this can throw a wrinkle into that."

Hill has studied the plight of African-American football coaches exhaustively. His firing at San Jose State in 2004 was the impetus behind his book, "Crackback! How College Football Blindsides The Hopes Of Black Coaches," in which he provides critical analysis of why African-American coaches often don't succeed.

Hill finds it hard to believe that Alcorn State couldn't find an African-American coach who would have met or exceeded the school's qualifications.

While Hopson has been an assistant at nine colleges, including heavyweights LSU and Michigan, he also was replaced as Memphis' defensive coordinator two weeks into the job after the Tigers' defense surrendered more than 600 yards in consecutive weeks. Hopson resigned rather than be reassigned.

Even though coaches with Hopson's major-college experience often don't consider HBCU coaching opportunities, Hopson's track record raised some questions.

"Some people may look at the track record of where he's been and see how things have turned out there," said Heishma Northern, the head football coach at Prairie View. "If I had the same record or same statistics that he had, would I have been given an opportunity? I think that's what some of the older people would look at and that's what they have said to me."

By taking the football program in a new direction with a white coach, Hill also believes it undermines the original mission of HBCUs and those schools' abilities to address specific cultural issues.

"Fifty-two percent of African-American males dropped out of high school throughout the United States of America," Hill said. "Sixty percent of the incarcerated population are African-American males. We got issues that HBCUs need to be on the forefront addressing. I think the very complex situation is that after integration, you have different organizations that are not specifically focused on the mission. It's pretty specific how other ethnic groups really protect their culture. If you take any other ethnic group -- if it's Jewish, Indian, Asian -- that had a specific culture for their organization, I doubt very seriously that they would appoint another race ahead of their organizations. Because they protect their culture."

Can a culture be protected and progressive at the same time?

Jay Hopson grew up a huge Alcorn football fan. He was raised 40 miles from Alcorn's campus in Vicksburg. In high school, he played with and against a lot of future Alcorn State players.

"I can remember the Mississippi Valley State game when Jerry Rice was playing and Ike Holt was the DB at Alcorn," Hopson said. "He was kind of like the premier defensive back in the SWAC, and here was Jerry Rice and Willy Totten at Valley State, and Archie 'Gunslinger' Cooley was the head coach at Valley, and Marino [Casem] was the head coach here at Alcorn. And that game had such huge hype, that it went to Jackson -- and I think it was 63,500 showed up for that game. That was the largest -- and it may still be the largest -- sporting event attended in the state of Mississippi. But you know, growing up in '79, you know, with the 'Who Dat' team? You know, people don't know, but 'Who Dat' didn't start with the New Orleans Saints. 'Who Dat' started right here on this campus in Lorman."

When Brown created a rubric to identify the most qualified candidates for Alcorn State, one of his most important qualifications was someone with a connection the area.

Brown wanted a coach who knew how to recruit Mississippi. He wanted a coach with major college or NFL experience. He wanted someone who looked at the dilapidated football facilities and saw promise, not peril.

Hopson met every qualification on the checklist.

In addition to his coaching experience, the Hopson family name is among the most prominent in the area. His brother, Briggs, is a state lawmaker. His father is a doctor.

"[Hopson] has the qualifications to do the work," Brown said. "And so, he forces us -- in this context -- to continue to rethink our own racial bias that we bring to the workplace. If the table was reversed and Ole Miss or LSU had the same thing, and the black guy who'd applied for head coach was an Alcorn alum, he'd worked in the SEC, he did Division I, he had the record, he had the references, and then LSU interviews him and says, 'Oh, well, you know, some of our alumni won't like having a black coach,' my people would go crazy. We'd call them racists. We have to practice what we preach."

If anything, outsiders look at Hopson and wonder why a coach with his résumé would ever want to coach at Alcorn State?

But Hopson, like a lot of African-Americans in the SWAC, was hungry for an opportunity to be a head coach. At this stage in his career, this was likely the only chance.

He also had some personal reasons for wanting to return to Mississippi. He has fought -- and beaten -- testicular cancer twice. Being close to his family and friends is more important for him now.

"It is coming home," Hopson said. "You know, I'm getting older. I'm not ancient, you know? I'm 44. But I'm getting older, and I want the opportunity to head-coach, and I think you get to a point in your life where that's what you want to do. And you realize, this is the opportunity."

No matter what Hopson's race, on the surface the Alcorn State job doesn't have a lot of obvious appeal.

The program hasn't been nationally relevant since Steve McNair brought the Braves unprecedented attention by finishing third in the Heisman balloting.

Alcorn State has had some difficult seasons in past few years. The Braves have gone 14-38 in the past five seasons, which includes three two-win seasons. The Alcorn alumni have mostly been supportive during the tough times, but even they seemed to have reached a breaking point during this recent downturn.

Last season was tumultuous. Melvin Spears was fired as head coach after one season. The losing made him fall out of favor with alumni quickly, but a parent of player claimed Spears threatened him, and filed a complaint with the state's Institution of Higher Learning.

Only 500 fans showed up for the Braves' home finale against Prairie View.

"One of the things we were taught in management school is to carry out your own trash," Brown said. "Whether good trash or bad trash, you want to carry it out."

Banners fly from the lamp posts throughout Alcorn State's scenic campus.

The faces of students on the banners catch your eye -- Indian, white, black and Latino. But there is one banner that Brown is particularly proud of -- the one that recognizes Alcorn State as HBCU of the Year in 2012, an award the school won in April.

The football facilities aren't up-to-date, but just about everything else is. Alcorn State has made the most of the Ayers mandate -- a $504 million settlement that's to be paid over 17 years to HBCUs for increasing non-race enrollment. There are new buildings throughout campus, including a Medgar Evers dormitory village.

If you think Brown has made a bold step by hiring a white football coach, that's nothing compared to his ultimate vision for Alcorn State.

He wants to distance Alcorn State, a publically funded university, from being known as a historically black college.

"I'm not trying to -- I did," Brown said.

That statement is sure to anger some proud HBCU graduates. Legacy is extremely important to them. Many HBCUs buildings were erected by the hands of slaves. How dare Brown suggest that history is no longer worthwhile?

"Harvard used to be a great men's school -- for white, Protestant male priests," Brown said. "But now Harvard's just a great university."

And Alcorn State?

"Alcorn used to be a great black school," he said. "Now it's just a great university."