Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Future of the SWAC" - Local alums take on topic

GREENVILLE – Davis Weathersby remembers SWAC sports at the height of its popularity.

“When Steve McNair played at Alcorn (State), we left Greenville at 4:30 in the morning for a 1 o’clock game,” said Weathersby, who head coached Mississippi Valley State football from 1970-77.

Corey Holmes, MVSU’s all-time leading rusher, has his own fond memories of his days playing in the SWAC.

“We might not have been the best team,” said Holmes, who is now the mayor of Metcalfe, “but people wanted to come see the SWAC’s leading rushing attack….They wanted to come see us run for 200 yards.”

Those recollections are a far cry from the current state of an athletic conference that has been hit hard due to school integration and a financial downturn. And for those reasons, an open dialogue – “The Future of the SWAC” – will be held today at 6:30 p.m. at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame & Museum in Jackson.

MVSU Athletic Director Donald Ray Sims and former Valley AD Lonza Hardy are among those who will be in attendance.

A press release posted on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame & Museum’s website announcing the event addressed the current state of the SWAC: “Amidst dwindling budgets, shrinking attendance, crumbling facilities and talk of school closure and consolidation, the future of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) has rarely been more uncertain.”

That uncertainty can be traced back to black players choosing more prestigious universities and a lack of financial support, which have caused a downturn in interest, say many SWAC alums.

To get an attention hungry 17-year-old to sign with a SWAC school is a tough task, said Alcorn State Hall of Famer Elijah Moore.

“I don’t care what you do in high school, if you select Alcorn you won’t be on ESPN,” said Moore. “And that’s another reason for a kid to select a larger school.”

Attendance at SWAC sporting events has also been a problem. Last season, Valley averaged just 2,600 fans while playing three home football games 45 miles away at Greenville-Weston High School. Their highest attended game – 3,197 – was in October against Grambling.

The poorly attended games ending up costing the cash-strapped Greenville School District nearly $6,000. Large crowds could be seen outside the stadium, but only a select few paid admission.

“Only the people that really love you are going to come see you play,” said Moore.

“A typical SWAC day – come see the band….don’t worry about the team,” said Holmes, the record-setting running back turned mayor.

For several decades, highly sought after athletes have bolted for schools where they can get their names in headlines in hopes of a professional career.

Take basketball for example, the latest player from MVSU to get drafted was Marcus Mann, who was selected in the second round of the 1996 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, Michael Phelps was the last Alcornite to hear his name called when the Seattle Supersonics selected him in the seventh round of the 1985 Draft.

Weathersby, who went 33-45 during his tenure at MVSU, cited a lack of resources as one primary reason for the lack of support for SWAC schools.

“During my time, we were the youngest school and we had to compete against Jackson State and Alcorn, plus the smaller schools that made it difficult with limited resources,” said Weathersby. “We had a small staff that was coaching, teaching and taking care of training programs….So you’re at a disadvantage.”

Currently, there are no NFL players from MVSU. Alcorn State, meanwhile, has two former players in the NFL ranks – Jacksonville Jaguars’ Nate Hughes and Super Bowl champion Donald Driver.

Moore remembers a completely different time period. “I remember when you couldn’t turn on the TV without running across a few SWAC players,” he said.

All of those interviewed agree on one aspect: nobody wants to pay to watch a losing team.

“The generation that you’re dealing with now – they’re more of a show me generation,” said Holmes. “If they’re not seeing progress, we have a (tendency) of pulling ourselves away.

“The past generation was about school spirit and bleeding green,” added Holmes. “But if you’re not winning nowadays, people won’t follow you.”

MVSU’s football games in Greenville were attended mostly by older alumni, not current students. And those that did attend tailgated instead of watching the game.

“You can’t exist without moral and financial support,” Weathersby said.

Holmes said he hopes something good comes out of today’s discussion. As for MVSU, he’s said will do whatever he can to help boost support.

“We have to get the older guys back into the program (and) get the Valley pride back,” he said. “It’s definitely needed right now.”

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