100 years of S.C. State football

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The tradition of the S.C. State football program long has been the focal point around Orangeburg

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9ORANGEBURG — Growing up in Union in the 1940s and ’50s, he heard stories about South Carolina State, about its football team, seemingly every day.

James Moorer, a member of the S.C. State Athletics Hall of Fame, escorted him and his high school classmates to tour the campus. Floyd White, his coach his final two seasons of high school and a former Bulldogs running back, took him to games and “was beating South Carolina State into me” on a regular basis.

“I didn’t know a lot about it in my early years, but football opened all the windows,” Willie Jeffries said. Little wonder, then, that in 1956, when it came time for him to decide where to play college football and baseball, there was no decision at all.

After college, when Jeffries coached at all-black Granard High in Gaffney (where his principal, Hampton G. Simpson, had been an All-American center at S.C. State in 1938), and he met other former players in coaching, his understanding grew more about S.C. State’s stature, and the team’s role in the lives of the state’s black population.

The stories, the role models, all would weigh on Jeffries’ mind when he returned to his alma mater as head coach — not once but twice, in 1973 and 1989 — to rebuild its football program and shoulder the expectations of the state’s African-American citizens.

To become, eventually, a legend within that tradition. Saturday, more than 50 years after Jeffries enrolled as a student, S.C. State will honor its top 100 players and coaches at Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium as part of its football centennial.

For many outside the university, Jeffries, 70, seemingly always has been the face of Bulldogs football. But the former coach, who retired with a school-record 122 wins there, and his successor will tell you the tradition goes back much further than Jeffries.

“I think (the football team) is almost like an old country store, something to gather around,” said Buddy Pough, a “lifer” who saw games here as a child, played for the Bulldogs and became S.C. State’s coach in 2002. “You are somewhat the focal point (of the community). Not like church, but a place for us all to get together on a weekly basis.”

It’s been that way every fall weekend since 1907.

IN THE BEGINNING ...

The roots of S.C. State football are shrouded in the mists of time. Keeping records of the state’s “school for Negroes” was not a priority for the white-dominated establishment and press of that time.

In 1907, S.C. State Agricultural and Mechanical College played its first intercollegiate competition, against Georgia State in Savannah. No score from that game could be found in the S.C. State archives; only a listing of a 45-0 loss to Morehouse that year.

Records do show the Bulldogs joined the Georgia- South Carolina Athletic Association in 1910 and won its title in 1919. In 1923, S.C. State A&M played the first major intersectional game between historically black colleges, losing to Tuskegee 13-6.

Only W.C. Lewis (1925-26) is listed as a coach from 1907-1934, but from 1927-34, the school had eight consecutive winning seasons (43-12-7 overall). Robert Brooks was coach from 1935-39 (18-19-4) but perhaps is best known as the man who hired Oliver C. “Ollie” Dawson as his backfield coach.

Gracia Dawson, 91, met her future husband, a native of Ohio, when she was a junior at the school. From 1940, when he became head coach, until 1950, Ollie Dawson was — shades of Jeffries — the face of Bulldogs football, as well as other sports teams; fittingly, since he coached them all, often with little or no help.

“He’s a legend,” his widow said. “They never had another to do all he did. He even began the health and physical education program,” which Dawson directed until his retirement in 1976. He died in 1989, five years after the football stadium was named for him. Dawson’s record in eight seasons (World War II halted football from 1943-45) was 30-29-7, but in 1947 he led the Bulldogs to a 6-0-2 season and the Black National Championship game vs. Shaw. S.C. State men’s golf coach Richard Arrington, 81, was a freshman lineman on that team.

“That was something else,” Arrington said. “We even rode in Pullman cars to Washington, D.C., for the game. That was big time.” He said the team stayed in a YMCA because blacks were not allowed in the capital’s hotels.

S.C. State scored late but lost 7-6. Arrington said Dick Adams, like him a product of Massillon, Ohio, missed the extra-point kick.

Though he didn’t grow up in South Carolina, Arrington said he learned what S.C. State’s team meant to the community.

“The stadium (then located near Dukes Gym on campus) stayed packed,” he said. “It wasn’t as elaborate as now, but they’d come out, holler and cheer.”

Something else was different, too. “The band had about nine members,” Arrington said of the ancestors of today’s internationally known “Marching 101.”

THE GLORY YEARS

Robert Howard, S.C. State class of 1941 and a former team trainer who is “80-something,” has seen seven decades of the Bulldogs, watching home games from the stadium press box.

“Riding Greyhound (buses) to road games. No (playing) offense or defense; 60-minute men,” the longtime high school administrator said of those days. S.C. State had good-but-not-great teams under a string of coaches, notably Roy D. Moore (1955-59) and Oree Banks (1965- 72).

That all changed when Jeffries returned in 1973. Then an assistant at Pittsburgh, he had built a reputation for recruiting South Carolina’s top black players.

When Banks’ 1972 team finished 1-9, the school sent a professor, Isaac Bracy, to try to hire Jeffries.

“I told him, ‘Doc, you have a coach. I don’t go after another man’s job,’” Jeffries said. Then Banks was fired, and Jeffries took an $8,000 pay cut to come home.

His 1973 team finished 7-3-1, losing to old foe Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic, and Jeffries was on his way to building a small-college power. His teams were 50-13-4 in six seasons, won the 1976 Black National Championship and produced a long line of NFL players led by future NFL Hall of Famer Harry Carson and perennial all-pro Donnie Shell.

“We’ve always been a pretty good team, about like we are now,” said Pough, a junior lineman when Jeffries arrived. “But the only time we were great was when coach Jeffries and Bill (Davis) were coaching. We had some really good teams then.”

In late 1978, Jeffries left S.C. State to become the first black head coach at an NCAA Division I school (Wichita State). He was succeeded by Davis, his longtime assistant, who had two 10-win seasons and back-to-back trips to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. But in 1985, after successive losing seasons, Davis and his staff (including Pough) were fired.

In 1989, Jeffries was lured from Howard University and had six consecutive winning seasons (1991- 95), including a 10-2 Heritage Bowl winner in 1994. But unlike in the 1970s, S.C. State no longer had its pick of the state’s top black players.

“The guys who were top-notch were beginning to go to larger, major universities,” Pough said. “But the biggest impact for us was the Furmans, Georgia Southerns and Woffords finally caught on and started recruiting the entire population.”

That continued when Pough followed Jeffries in 2002. The former high school coach, who won a state championship at Fairfield Central and was an assistant at USC, said S.C. State never again will enjoy the advantage among blacks it once did.

“These aren’t the kids of segregation any more,” Pough said. “They’ve gone to school with white kids all their lives. “I heard it from my parents growing up: ‘(Whites) used to ride the bus and we were walking.’ Well, ever since I can remember, we were on the bus, too.”

THE PAST MEETS THE FUTURE

Times change, but traditions linger. Take Pough, for example.

He grew up in nearby Great Branch, son of S.C. State graduates (his mother, Marjorie, earned a masters at State), and first attended Bulldogs games with his father, Oliver, when he was 8 years old.

“I saw (linebacker Sam) ‘Herc’ Goodwin, one of the great players then,” Pough said. “I saw John Gilliam. And when State beat Florida A&M (8-3 in 1966), the first time they beat them, I was at the game. That was one of the most glorious days in S.C. State football history.”

Pough’s college choice was, like Jeffries’, simple. “My dad was pretty adamant he wanted me to go to State,” he said. He played two seasons under Banks before becoming part of the Jeffries line.

Later, as an assistant at S.C. State and a successful high school coach, Pough was seen as a logical heir because of his Bulldogs roots and his ties to Jeffries.

“I doubt seriously I’d have come back if not for the fact Coach said, ‘I want you to come back,’” Pough said. “State was struggling as a whole then,” with institutional shortages that kept Jeffries’ program begging for facilities and scholarships. In taking the job, Pough said he demanded, and received, better backing.

“He’s an excellent coach, he’s got great recruiters on staff, and he knows every high school coach in the state and cultivates them,” Jeffries said of his protege. “I think the future looks bright.”

That’s good news for a school that, despite ongoing struggles, still is a beacon to a populace that once had no alternatives, in education or in sports.

Saturday, when the 100 greatest players in school history gather, they, like Jeffries and Pough, will remember a past that helped shape their present.

As for the future, Jeffries said of the coach who someday will follow Pough, “Buddy might be grooming one right now.”

One day, the next man to lead the Bulldogs should not be surprised if, as with his predecessors, there really is no decision at all.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.