Restoring The Roar (Part One)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: August 18, 2008

PHILADELPHIA – When most people think of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) football, first thoughts usually conjure up images of an electric atmosphere, pageantry, precision marching bands, camaraderie in the stands, rivalry games called “Classics” and legendary coaches like Grambling State’s Eddie Robinson, Tennessee State’s John Merritt, Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither, Cheyney State/Central State/Florida A&M’s Billy Joe and Morgan State’s Earl Banks patrolling the sidelines versus each other.

But a new chapter in HBCU football history will emerge on August 30, 2008 as upstart head coach O.J. Abanishe leads sleeping HBCU football giant Lincoln University (Pa.) “Back to the Future” by returning to the gridiron for the first since 1960.

While several other smaller colleges and universities around the United States are abandoning football due to executive level budgetary concerns including Philadelphia area schools LaSalle (Dropped the sport for the second time in ’07) and Swarthmore (Dropped the sport in 2000 after 120 seasons), Lincoln University (PA) is making the vanguard move to return to the playing field.

The return of football in 2008 will be special for Lincoln University (PA) as their football team had peaked from the 1920′s through the late ’40s until their program fell on hard times in the ’50s with the university pulling the plug after the 1960 season.

The 1960 season was tough on the Lincoln as the decision to stop playing was known around campus due to rising costs to field a team, only 26 players on the team many of whom were undersized for the time, integration bringing other educational opportunities for African Americans in the region causing a drop in enrollment, little student interest (mixed feelings when the announcement came with a concern for only homecoming), and season ending four game losing streak including a lopsided loss to rival Howard University 34-13.

Even without having football for almost half a century, there is no denying Lincoln University’s resounding legacy on the gridiron. The legacy includes a respectable historical record (163 wins, 166 losses, and 27 ties) plus time-honored events like the Thanksgiving Day rivalry games versus Howard University (much more on these clashes later) and their Annual Testimonial Banquet given by the Alumni Association at McCauley Refectory.

Started in 1937, the banquet served as a way to reflect on the season past including presenting honors and most importantly the event provided an opportunity for a farewell to the team’s senior leaders. Each senior had the opportunity to stand and address their brothers on the gridiron for the last time about “What Lincoln football meant to them”.

Some of the names that proudly dot Lincoln’s football legacy include Alfred “Jazz” Byrd (famous darting style back from the 20′s who led the Lions to wins over Howard in ’22, ’23, and ’24), “Spank” Smith (Captain of 1931 squad), Frank “Tick” Coleman (Lincoln class of ’35 – One of the oldest living Eagle Scouts, former Lincoln Quarterback and Class President, who is best known as “Mr. Lincoln” at 96 years young), William Hunter (Most Valuable Player of 1940 team), Robert “Duck” Cooper (Quarterback of the 1946 Orange Blossom Classic winning team), Billy King (Lincoln’s last captain in 1960), and many other great players along with distinguished head coaches/teachers Doc Morrison, Robert Gardner, Manuel Rivero (Lincoln’s current Athletic Center named after him), Pro Football Hall of Fame player Fritz Pollard (Served as Lincoln’s head coach from 1918 to 1919 while still playing in pros on weekends), Pollard’s older brother Leslie (1914 to 1917), and notable assistant/College Football legend Paul Robeson (served as Fritz Pollard’s assistant while attending Columbia University Law School).

Like so many other HBCU overcoming obstacles stories, Lincoln’s amazing return to the gridiron for the first time in 48 years is rooted in an unwavering persistent pursuit of excellence. Lincoln University was founded in 1854 as Ashmun Institute (originally named after Jehudi Ashmun, a religious leader and social activist then was renamed after President Lincoln’s death in 1865) with a goal to provide educational opportunities for African American men (all-male until 1952) at a time when essentially there were almost no opportunities or venues for higher education for blacks.

From its humble beginnings, the small (approximately 2,500 students) southern Chester County, Pennsylvania school (sits approximately 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia) during its 154-year existence has survived the Civil War, landmark racially charged supreme court battles (Dred Scott Decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, and Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education), Segregation, the “Great” Depression, two world wars, integration, the Civil Rights battles of the 1950′s and 1960′s and countless other events to proudly continue a tradition of merit.

Lincoln (PA) was the first degree granting predominantly black school and has a fertile tradition of producing African American professionals — reportedly in the school’s first 100 years, it has graduated approximately 20 percent of the black physicians and more than 10 percent of the black attorneys in the United States.

Notable graduates include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Class of 1930), legendary author Langston Hughes (Class of 1926) and future government leaders Nnamdi Azikiwe (Class of 1930) and Kwame Nkrumah (Class of 1939), who were the first President/Prime Minister of Nigeria and Ghana respectively.

Plus Hall of Fame baseball player Monte Irvin (played football and baseball before leaving school in 1939 to become a professional baseball players with the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues) and legendary entertainer Cab Calloway (left in 1930) were also students at the school before going onto stellar careers.

Lincoln University’s distinction is not just limited to the classroom as their athletic teams also have a tradition laden treasure chest worth boasting about including 17 NCAA Division III Track & Field championships since 1985, their 2005-2006 basketball team was a National Championship contender while being featured on ESPN, and of course their historic football team. Lincoln was a powerhouse in football prior to falling on hard times in the 1950′s leading up to the program’s last season in 1960.

Lincoln University has seven known HBCU football All-Americans and/or All-CIAA conference named players by the National Negro Press in their history (end Goss – 1911, halfback Pollard – 1911, quarterback Collins – 1911, back Alfred “Jazz” Byrd – 1924, tackle Grasty – 1926, end Taliafero – 1938, and end Gillmore – 1938) plus conference championships in 1918, 1919, and 1924.

The 1924 team was also named by Paul W.L. Jones of the Colored Industrial School of Cincinnati as the National Negro Football Champs in the East according to the 1939 book titles The Negro in Sports. Additionally in October of 1926, Lincoln University almost stopped Tuskegee’s claim to the mythical black college football national championship by narrowly losing 20-16 at Franklin Field before 35,000 fans including football legend Red Grange.

Lincoln was also a legitimate contender for the HBCU football title in 1946 as they defeated the Florida A&M Rattlers 20-14 in the 14th Annual Orange Blossom Classic in Tampa, Florida. The Lions would have probably been the champs for 1946, if not for an early first game of the season 35-0 loss to eventual champion Morgan State.

Shortly after the Civil War, Rutgers and Princeton played the first football game ever on November 6, 1869. The first game led to college football growing into a staple in the Northeastern part of the United States with college football hotbeds sprouting at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers, and other schools.

Each weekend the burgeoning sport grew by leaps and bounds at predominantly white colleges, however other than a few notable African American players like Amherst halfback WTS Jackson, Nebraska halfback Dr. George Flippin, Oberlin player William L. Washington, and Harvard All-American center-rush Williams H. Lewis, overall college football like so many aspects in society at the time were closed to blacks.

The first mention of two predominantly African American college teams playing a football game was on November 23, 1892 (Thanksgiving) with southern schools Biddle (Later Johnson C. Smith) and Livingstone meeting on a rainy afternoon. Biddle won the game by a score of 4-0, however the game was largely unnoticed except for the sparse crowd in attendance.

The HBCU version of football got the larger attention it badly needed when Mid-Atlantic schools Lincoln University (PA) and friendly rival school Howard University of Washington DC formed teams in 1894. The two schools became the first two African American schools to play organized football in the North in November of 1894 with the Lincoln Lions winning by a score of 6-5 over the Howard Bison.

The two aforementioned historic first HBCU games laid the groundwork for Hampton Institute administrator Ernest Jones Marshall in 1912 to introduce Lincoln, Hampton, Howard, Shaw, and Virginia Union as charter members of the groundbreaking CIAA Conference (Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, formerly the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association – first and oldest HBCU conference).

The CIAA was instrumental in organizing venues, officials, and other HBCU football administrative tasks shortly after the turn of the 20th Century when almost all other HBCU football teams were either not playing the sport at all or basically playing intramurally.

NEXT: A historical look at HBCU football and Lincoln (Part Two).