|Wheatley, Morgan State a comfortable fit|
|Published Saturday, August 24, 2019|
A lot of eyebrows were raised around the MEAC – and in all of black college football, for that matter – when Morgan State hired Tyrone Wheatley to coach the Bears’ football team last February.
Wheatley was the 1992 Big Ten offensive player of the year as a running back at the University of Michigan and an All-American hurdler on the Wolverines’ track & field team. He was a No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, and had a 10-year career with the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders. His coaching career included stints as an assistant at Eastern Michigan, Michigan and Syracuse, and in the NFL with Buffalo and Jacksonville.
Those credentials made it easy to conclude that it would be unlikely that Wheatley would even consider a position in the MEAC, or any HBCU, let alone accept one. That line of reasoning caused Wheatley to pause for what seemed to be an eternity when it was posed to him in an interview during MEAC Football Media Day activities in July.
“I don’t think it’s unlikely to come to Morgan State,” Wheatley said, measuring his words carefully. “It’s an emotional thing with me, but, at the same time, it’s a sore subject. I’m a black man. Why not the MEAC? A lot of black men who are coaches feel like they are above the MEAC. My thing is this: I want to uplift black men. I want to uplift all young men. It’s not just a color thing. Why not start in my own backyard with my own people? “
Wheatley no doubt would love to have landed a head job with an FBS program or an NFL team. But he also recognizes the odds and circumstances don’t favor that happening for most black coaches. “I forget who it was who said it best: While you’re crying and complaining about not being at the table, there’s a table here for you every day and you walk past it.’ The table I’m talking about is you’re talking about wanting to be at the Power 5 schools, you want to be at the predominantly white schools, and there are schools that have been around well over 150 years and have never had a black head coach, and if they did have a black head coach, they would never hire a black head coach consecutively. But you continue to want to sit at that table and complain about it.”
Wheatley, the Bears’ third coach in three seasons, takes over a program that has a rich tradition but has fallen on hard times in recent years. Morgan State has won seven black college national championships, the last coming in 1967. Its alumni include Pro Football Hall of Fame members Len Ford, Rosey Brown, Leroy Kelly and Willie Lanier, and NFL luminaries Raymond Chester, Frenchy Fuqua, Mark Washington, Daryl Johnson, George Nock, Carlton Dabney, Greg Latta, Bobby Hammond, Elvis Frank and Visanthe Shiancoe .
The Bears were a black college power under coach Eddie Hurt, who led them to six national championships between 1933-49 and a 54-game winning streak from 1931-38. Hurt ended his 30-year career with a 173-51-20 record, all at Morgan State.
Earl “Papa Bear” Banks, a member of both the College Football and Black College Football Halls of Fame, succeeded Hurt and guided Morgan State to a 31-game winning streak from 1965-68 and three unbeaten regular seasons. He compiled a 93-30-2 record in 14 seasons for a .756 winning percentage, and he never had a losing season.
After Banks became director of athletics in 1974, Morgan State stumbled to 23 consecutive losing seasons before going 7-5 under coach Donald Hill-Eley in 2002. The Bears’ last winning record was in 2014, when they ended the season in a five-way tie for first place and had a 7-5 overall mark. They made their only FCS playoff appearance that season after claiming the MEAC’s automatic berth on a tiebreaker. They are 12-31 the last four years.
Wheatley says he is impressed with what he has seen of the Bears since taking over, but he understands and accepts that it won’t be a quick fix. “Job No. 1 is getting the young men in the program to understand and trust who I am and what I am in the process. That’s the first job. Without trust, nothing happens,” he said.
Wheatley seems to have built that trust and belief. “He’s a better man than coach,” senior linebacker Ian McBurrough said. “What I mean by that is, he does more for the team outside of just football. He doesn’t just focus on football. One of his first orders of business when he got here was he set up individual interviews with each person on the team. That’s like a hundred guys he had to sit down with. But he put in that effort just to get to know guys and establish that relationship so we could build a good foundation for the season.”
Senior center Stefan Touani said Wheatley’s openness and accessibility sets him apart from previous Morgan State coaches he has played for. “You can talk to him any time of the day,” Touani said. “You can call him. He’ll sit down and talk to you. He makes it open for us to talk to him. That’s a big thing with us. You’re going to see more trust this year.”
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