The Joy of Covering HBCUs, By Ron Morris03.08.2017
By Ron Morris
COLUMBIA, S.C. --- I had the great fortune throughout my journalism career to cover many historically black college athletic programs. I say “great fortune” because I found over the years that nowhere is a reporter’s work better appreciated, nowhere is a writer’s access to subject matter greater, and nowhere is there more fertile ground for producing good copy.
My conclusions came through covering, at various times, Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.
My introduction to coverage of black colleges occurred at Livingstone, where my first big story concerned a punter recruited out of Miami only to find when he arrived in Salisbury that he was the only white on campus. Andrew Cooney eventually led NCAA Division II programs in punting.
I could relate to Cooney because, at that time while working for The Salisbury Post, I often was the only white face in an otherwise all-black audience at Livingstone sporting events. Yet every coach, administrator and athlete at Livingstone was most welcoming to me on campus.
The tone was set at the time by Livingstone’s head football coach, Baxter Holman, a man who was as equally congenial as he was rotund. And he was quite rotund. What distinguished Holman from all other coaches I ever came in contact with was the rope and wooden paddle he tied to his belt during practices.
What Holman did with that paddle was, no doubt, a sign of the times, a practice of discipline that would no more be accepted today than a coach striking a player with his fist. Yet that kind of intimidation as a form of discipline was accepted during the 1970s, and I never saw a player complain. In fact, there existed a genuine love between Holman and his players not often seen in athletics.
As effervescent as Holman was in dealing with the media, I never have encountered a coach quite in the vein of Hank Lattimore, N.C. Central’s forward-thinking and fun-loving head football coach.
I considered myself the luckiest young reporter in the country during the early 1980s with my beats at the Durham Morning Herald. I covered ACC basketball in the winter, the Durham Bulls minor-league baseball team in the summer and N.C. Central football during the fall.
When it came to fun, nothing quite compared to dealing with the folks at N.C. Central, particularly Lattimore. He was the coach of the Eagles from 1979 through 1990, collecting 71 wins that still rank second in N.C. Central history. Lattimore was far ahead of his time in employing a spread offense that often featured only the quarterback in the backfield. From 1985-88, Lattimore’s quarterback was Earl “Air” Harvey, who set an NCAA Division II freshman record with 3,008 yards passing in 10 games. For his career, Harvey passed for 10,621 yards and 86 touchdowns.
You talk about access. This, obviously, was long before cellphones. If a reporter telephoned a coach at a major college, that often meant having to leave a message with an administrative assistant. Not with Lattimore. He answered his office phone, and it was not unusual for him to announce that he was busy eating lunch, and he would return the call as soon as he finished. He always did.
Once, prior to an N.C. Central game at Elizabeth City State, I approached Lattimore in the locker room to tell him I was facing a particularly tight deadline that night. I was hoping I could catch Lattimore immediately following the game’s conclusion for a brief interview on the field, rather than waiting to catch him in the locker room minutes later.
Lattimore, always wanting to help the media, suggested a different plan. So, there I stood midway through the fourth quarter, conducting an interview with Lattimore on the sideline while the game was still going on in front of us.
One summer, perhaps prior to the 1982 season, Duke came up with a marketing strategy around head coach Red Wilson. “Red Means Go” read bumper stickers that were distributed around town.
Shortly after Duke released the slogan, I received a telephone call on a Sunday morning at home from Lattimore.
“We’ve got a new slogan this year,” Lattimore exclaimed with a hearty laugh. “Latt-i-Mo Mean Go!”
Finally, there were my dealings with Florida A&M officials while working for the Tallahassee Democrat. In 1994, former NFL running back Billy Joe was named the Rattlers new head football coach. Joe obviously was not wise to the ways of the Florida A&M athletics department, where the football team and all other programs played second, third and maybe fourth fiddle to the Marching 100 band.
During Florida A&M’s first home game that season, the halftime performance of the March 100 went well beyond the allotted time, and the Rattlers were assessed a delay-of-game penalty to begin the second half. Joe was none too happy about the penalty, and expressed his displeasure afterward to the media.
By Monday following that Saturday game, Joe had changed his tune. He had learned that the Marching 100 was allowed to play as long as it rightfully wanted during halftime performances.
Only in black college athletics does that ring true.