MAXWELL:  Coach helps his players score on field and in life

3/12/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



To Theophilus Danzy, the 69-year-old head coach at private, historically black Stillman College, football is no mere game. While acknowledging that such a view of the sport has become cliche, he has proof that the gridiron, with the right adult leaders on the sidelines, is the ideal venue for building character.

Why did football return to Stillman in 1999 after a 50-year hiatus? After all, the school, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., has an average student population of about 1,000, and it is continually strapped for money.

“When President Earnest McNealy announced that the school was bringing back football, I asked why,” said Danzy, who had been retired since 1990. “I said, “God dog, that’s a big chore. Then, I realized that our president has a mission.”

In addition to boosting alumni interest in the 124-year-old campus and encouraging more giving, McNealy wanted to increase the number of males on campus. During most recent years, the college has been roughly 65 percent to 70 percent female, and McNealy believed that football would help reverse that trend.

He was right.

“It is safe to say we probably have 200 male students who would not be here otherwise,” he told the Tuscaloosa News.

Incredibly, 300 students tried out for the squad, with more than 100 biting the dust early on and others failing the cut. McNealy and the coaches expect football to have a domino effect, believing that even males who do not want to play football will want to be on an all-black campus that has the sport.

The next task was to find the right coach. “I selected a coach that I thought would bring the same types of values to the table that are at this institution already,” McNealy told the News.

Most of those values are manifested throughout the tiny campus, and the head coach must be in synch. “If (athletes) don’t do their work, they will go home,” McNealy said. “If they don’t behave, they go home. We fully expect our students to go to class. We fully expect them to graduate.” Violence is not tolerated, and even profanity is cause for expulsion. One player recently overheard cursing, for example, was kicked out of school.

“So far,” McNealy told the News, “our football players are among the most controlled students on campus.”

Give most of the credit to Danzy, the straight-talking father-like figure who acknowledges that he is “very firm.” Beneath that firmness, however, are a vision and a willingness to save troubled young black males. When McNealy asked Danzy to be Stillman’s first contemporary football coach, he saw a chance to renew efforts he had started in 1958, when he took his first coaching job.

“I had been reading that one in every three black males couldn’t vote because they were in jail or in some other kind of situation where voting was taken away from them,” Danzy said. “I told myself the best way for me to help is to step in here at Stillman. I had been successful every place I worked.”

He can rattle off the names of many current and former NFL African-American players whom he turned around and put on the right path, especially at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. But he takes most pride in the ordinary ones who are making a difference.

“Everywhere I go, I see them in places where I have recruited hundreds of of kids,” Danzy said. “I see successful professionals who, when I first got them, their teachers said they would never make it. And now, many are assistant principals, business executives, attorneys, teachers, some even pastors. I feel that I have succeeded when they go back into the community they came from and produce, when they become functioning citizens. Football is a great sport for producing these kind of results.”

The coach knows student success is a two-way street. On an office bulletin board, for example, he has written the words “grade sign-off sheet.” The note reminds him to regularly monitor _ complete with signatures _ the players’ course grades.

“I have to make sure they’re doing their part, that they are studying,” he said, taking a telephone call from a prospective linebacker in Mississippi. “They must do their part academically. They just can’t sit around a wait. But my job is to set up mechanisms and tools to make sure the kids function well.”

As a Division III program, Stillman cannot offer athletic scholarships or establish endowments. Players must find financial aid, loans and other assistance to attend Stillman. In other words, they have to have a burning desire to attend the school and play football.

“Not having scholarships makes coaching doubly hard,” Danzy said. “You sell the young men the concept that you want to get them an education. You sell that concept real, real hard. It is very hard to retain many of these young men. They have faced many negative forces and still face them, and it is tougher than ever before. Regardless of football, you want to make sure they get an education. Even if a kid stays here two or three years, he is elevated. He is a better person.”

Danzy said too many high schools and colleges exploit black athleticism and discard it _ and the player. He believes the historically black campus is best for those with troubled pasts.

Unlike traditional campuses with thousands of students, which also may have special programs for minority athletes, the typical black campus is a network of caring. “Black schools have more net to catch the troubled kid,” Danzy said. “I have no problem in saying that this thing is separate, segregation. You take care of yours. When you cease to take care of yours, then things go awry.”

Florida natives Michael Cunningham, 21, Jermaine Blakely, 21, and Antwan Blatch, 19, each the first in his immediate family to attend college, appreciate their coach’s philosophy and credit it, along with their parents, for their success. Each is determined to earn a degree and become a professional after football. Each knows that he is at Stillman because of football.

How does Danzy consistently inspire most of his players, many from the inner city, to work hard and stay on the straight-and-narrow?

“I try to see farther than they’re looking,” he said. “I try to cultivate them in a way that will bring them into society and show them the value of doing a good job. Simply, I want to build character among young black men.”