Columbia, many would tell you, is a football town. Specifically, a college football town.
The lion’s share of that reputation, naturally, comes from the Capital City’s long association with the University of South Carolina’s football program. Even those who aren’t fans of the sport likely understand why the Gamecocks seize so much of the local conversation.
Seven Saturdays each fall, USC games are routinely played before crowds of 80,000 people in Williams-Brice Stadium, with potentially millions of folks watching at home across the nation, courtesy of the Southeastern Conference’s 15-year, $2.25 billion contract with ESPN. (The league also has a $55 million per year deal with CBS for weekly 3:30 p.m. Saturday football showdowns.) This is a city where few people seem to think twice about the fact that USC just spent $50 million on a new football operations building, just one small munition in the ever-escalating “arms race” that is major Division I college football.
But not all college football in Columbia is played under the bright lights of one of the largest stadiums in America, or in front of the ever-watchful eye of the national media.
They also play ball over on Two Notch Road.
That’s where you’ll find Charlie W. Johnson Stadium, home of the Benedict College Tigers, an NCAA Division II squad representing one of Columbia’s two Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs). The crowds over on Two Notch are smaller than the ones at Williams-Brice — the Tigers averaged 5,180 fans per game in 2017 at their 11,000-seat stadium — but are no less spirited, with the grass fields surrounding the ballyard filling with fans and grill smoke and music and revelry on gamedays, particularly during homecoming, always the biggest party of the year.
And they play ball — yes, college ball — out at Irmo High School, too.
That high school’s W.C. Hawkins Stadium, located about 12 miles from downtown Columbia on St. Andrews Road, has served this year as the gameday home of the Allen University football team, which competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization made up of schools smaller than those in the NCAA. A tiny HBCU — enrollment in 2017 was about 600 students — located literally right next door to Benedict on Harden Street, Allen is playing football for the first time since previously shuttering its program after the 2005 season.
Both schools are at flashpoints in regard to their football programs. At Benedict, the Tigers are going through a reimagining, of sorts, under fourth-year head coach Mike White: After years of losing records, the team has been winning ball games in bunches the last two seasons.
Meanwhile, at Allen, back on the field for the first time in more than a decade, this year is about rebirth — a chance to make good on an endeavor that didn’t quite work the last time around.
In a city long-enamored with the blinding lights of the SEC and USC’s ever-futile efforts to climb that conference’s mountain, it is perhaps important to note that it isn’t the only college football game in town. With rosters stocked almost exclusively with players from South Carolina and nearby states, rollicking marching bands that can often be more entertaining than the games themselves and a vibrant tailgating scene — “You see tow-behind grills, the serious grills, and there’s almost like a competition to it,” Benedict sports information director Dennis Switzer says — the city’s HBCUs produce a level of pageantry all their own.
“It’s like a party”
Indeed, when you look to HBCU football, the teams are only part of the equation. A small part, in some folks’ minds.
Because the bands are where it’s at.
“You cannot have HBCU football without a band,” says Teddy Keaton, head coach of the newly resurrected Allen University football team. “A lot of people come to the football games just to see the band. The bands are a big thing. The music culture takes a whole different turn when we start talking about HBCUs.”
Less rigid than their counterparts at Division I schools, HBCU bands have a long tradition of theatrics and style, with schools often incorporating dance moves and an elevated level of choreography into their routines.
“It’s about the showmanship,” James Oliver, band director at Alabama State University, said in an April Associated Press story. “We are a show band. Our shows must be entertaining to our fans. HBCU marching bands are so much more different than the corps-style bands. It’s entertainment on a whole other level.”
The unique flair of HBCU bands has been lionized in broader pop culture, as well, such as in the hit 2002 film Drumline.
At Benedict, the marching band — The Band of Distinction — has seen solid growth in recent years. The band is directed by f H. Wade Johnson, who is in his third season at Benedict following the 2016 death of former band director Herman Jones.
The Band of Distinction had 89 members when Johnson arrived. That number has now swelled to 165. Johnson feels the band is important to the livelihood of Benedict.
“We are the largest operating organization on campus at this time,” Johnson says. “So, it’s very important. The band is an ambassador to the college, and we serve as major recruiters. When we go out and perform, a lot of the high school students could see that and say, ‘Wow, I want to go to that school.’ If the band shows out, they can imagine that the institution is great, also.”
Johnson, an accomplished jazz musician who has his master’s degree in jazz education from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, acknowledges the elevated role bands play in the gameday experience at HBCUs. He also notes that the battles between bands during — and after — games can be as vicious as the contests between the football teams.
“It’s always competitive in terms of bands among HBCUs,” he says. “We are competing to win games also, from the band perspective. We expect our audiences to kind of judge what happens, and who they feel is the best band. It’s a showdown pregame, halftime and postgame. We call it the ‘Fifth Quarter’ at the end of the game, when the two bands will perform some selections of their own choosing.
“It’s a competition, even after the game.”
With the return of football at Allen came the rebirth of the school’s marching band, The Band of Gold. To lead the band, Allen turned to former longtime Morris Brown College and South Carolina State University director of bands Eddie Ellis.
Ellis, 70, says the Band of Gold has 54 members, including instrumentalists, dancers and color guard. Like the football team, the overwhelming majority of the band’s members are freshmen.
He says he hopes to eventually grow the band to at least 150 members.
“It’s been a fulfilling experience for me, to try to bring it back, to make this attempt,” Ellis told Free Times. “Our vision is to bring more students and make it bigger and more exciting for the university and the students. … We just have to get out there and do a lot of recruiting. But the reception has been well and the students are very engaged. They are enjoying themselves and having a good time. I am, too.”
When asked about the enduring popularity of marching bands as part of the HBCU football experience, Ellis says the music is an essential element.
“I think what makes it popular is how we go about it,” he says. “The excitement, the dance moves, the pageantry. It heavily adds to the atmosphere of an HBCU football game. … It’s not like a [standard] Division I game. It’s like a party.
“When you are talking about an HBCU marching band, you are just talking about excitement.”
What: Virginia University of Lynchburg at Allen University football (homecoming)
Where: W.C. Hawkins Stadium (Irmo High School), 6671 St. Andrews Rd., Irmo
When: Saturday, Nov. 10, 1:30 p.m.
What: Morehouse College at Benedict College football (homecoming)
Where: Charlie W. Johnson Stadium, 2047 Two Notch Rd.
When: Saturday, Oct. 20, 2 p.m.
“Who’s Going to be the Rulers of Taylor Street?”
Teddy Keaton seems like the type of guy who is ready to get things done — and in a hurry.
“Let’s do it. Talk to me,” the 41-year-old coach says recently, immediately after answering a phone call from Free Times. This is the man who was tapped to revive Allen University football, and while he seems proud of what has been accomplished so far — the brand new squad won two of its first five games — he’s eager to accelerate his team’s progress.
His is the type of energy that would seem necessary for a coach whose team is solely comprised of freshmen — 86 in all. At this point in the season, he says his young squad has reached a pivotal point.
“When you have 100 percent freshmen, and they are having to transition to going to college, learning a new environment, going to class every day, then deal with football practice and the weight room, all of that can take a toll on a freshman,” Keaton says. “I think they’ve handled it well, but I think we are getting to that point where they are hitting a wall and they are starting to get tired.
“The mental fatigue is starting to kick in for the players.”
An Alabama native, Keaton has been coaching for nearly 20 years. He had assistant coaching gigs at several small colleges, and he was the head coach of a trio of semi-pro indoor football teams. He also was the head coach at Stillman College, his alma mater, for five seasons from 2011-15.
But building a college football program from scratch hasn’t been an easy task. Finances played a role in the program’s folding a dozen years ago, so a close eye is being kept on the bottom line this time around. The budget for the program’s return year — almost exclusively raised by alumni and supporters — is about $500,000, an infinitesimally small amount in comparison to a major Division I program. (The football budget at the University of Alabama for the 2016 season was $62 million.)
Keaton had a small practice field constructed along Taylor Street, directly across from the school’s campus. While having the advantage of being close to where the players live and go to class, the postage stamp of a field seems, to the casual observer, awfully small for a college team, but Keaton says it will do until the program can grow.
And then there’s the team’s home field. While certainly roomy enough for small college games — Irmo is a Class 5A high school, the state’s largest classification — there’s no getting around the fact that Hawkins Stadium is out in the suburbs.
Still, Keaton is appreciative that Irmo has played host for Allen’s return season.
“It’s a wonderful, beautiful stadium,” Keaton says. “We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to be able to play there. Some of their kids [at Irmo] have had a chance to see us first-hand and see the things we’re doing. I think it’s a good relationship between both parties.”
Keaton started work at Allen in January, and immediately had to set about building an entire roster for the 2018 season. While he didn’t have an on-campus stadium to leverage with recruits, or a recent football tradition he could sell, there was something he could offer: Playing time.
“That was a plus,” the coach says, reflectively. “We live in the Right Now Generation. This generation wants to play right now. It was an easy sell for guys who wanted to play right now. But, they have found out how hard college football can be, regardless of the level you go in.”
Another interesting complication for Allen as it returns to football is the fact that the school is so close to Benedict, as Taylor Street essentially splits the two campuses. Keaton admits he sensed a bit of unease between the two squads as the season started, but says that has long since calmed down.
“We’re fighting for the turf of, ‘Who’s going to be the rulers of Taylor Street?’ right now,” Keaton says. “I think that the Benedict players got a little upset when a new football team came in, and I’m quite sure my group was a little rowdy, too, trying to show they belong here.”
Having the Allen program once again up and running does beg a question: When are the Yellow Jackets going to play Benedict, their more established across-the-street rival?
“It’s gonna happen,” Keaton says. “From what I know, it was a big rivalry back in the day. We’re just not ready for that yet.”
“There’s No Secret to It”
It’s starting to rain at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Out on the field, near the corner of the stadium’s south end zone, sits Benedict College football Coach Mike White, his massive frame resting on a stool as he talks good-naturedly with Switzer, the school’s longtime sports information director.
When Switzer suggests White’s interview with Free Times could be moved up to the stadium’s press box, White demurs, saying he doesn’t mind chatting out in the rain.
After a lifetime spent on a football field, White is more than comfortable out in the elements.
White has led Benedict’s program since 2015. Prior to his arrival in Columbia, he spent 30 years coaching at his alma mater, Georgia’s Albany State University. He was the head coach at Albany State for 15 of those years, amassing a 112-51 record at that school and being named the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference [SIAC] coach of the year five times.
He also played four seasons as a defensive lineman in the NFL, from 1979-82, with the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks.
But despite all of his personal success, White had a different kind of challenge when he arrived at Benedict in 2015: He was tasked with turning around a program that hadn’t had a winning season in years.
Plans for a turnaround didn’t happen overnight: The Tigers went 0-10 during White’s first year. However, things began looking up in 2016, when the squad improved to 5-6, then took a dramatic jump in 2017, when Benedict went 7-2, their only two losses coming in games that went into overtime. The winning ways have continued in 2018: Benedict is currently 5-1.
White says there’s no magic potion involved in the school’s change of fortunes on the gridiron.
“There’s no secret to it,” White insists. “We are just a better team right now. It took us a few years. We have had this group of guys with us or three or four years now, and they are playing better football.”
As you might expect for a college football program that has seen a steadily increasing number of marks in the win column, recruiting has been crucial at Benedict. It helps, White says, to be able to find the players you need nearby, and he says South Carolina and Georgia are fertile recruiting grounds.
“It’s not nationwide,” the former NFL lineman says of his recruiting. “For us, it’s the South. … South Carolina and Georgia, and the top of Florida is about as far as we go. We have some guys from other places, but most of our players were basically in this region for us to reach them.
“You’d always like to recruit a little bit wider, but that’s the hand you’re dealt, and you make do with it.”
It helps to have Johnson Stadium, which, at a capacity of 11,000, is a reasonably expansive setup for a Division II school. The stadium is only 12 years old, and it also hosts Class A and AA high school football state championship games each year, along with other events.
White is well aware that, when many in Columbia talk college football, they are likely talking about USC. However, he says he doesn’t mind that.
“Actually, I think it makes it better,” he says. “We have our own set of fans. The better the Gamecocks are doing, the more the town is talking about football. We have to get ourselves going. We struggled for a while, and now we are trying to play a little bit better and grow our fanbase a little bit.”
The 61-year-old ball coach is hopeful that, if he can sustain a winning culture at Benedict, perhaps residents who haven’t been to a Benedict game will give the team a try.
“You hope that’s what you can get when you talk about growing your program and your product,” he says. “You want visitors and new people to come over and see exactly what you’re about and what you’re doing. When you are a small school you want to be as open as possible.”
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