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Arkansas Baptist scores!

Its new football team hasn’t been a winner on the field, but it’s still a success story at the struggling LR college.

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At the beginning of 2006, Arkansas Baptist College was on the brink of death. The historically black school's enrollment stood at fewer than 170, and all signs showed that it would lose its accreditation when it was up for evaluation later in the year. So, on a recent August afternoon, it was no trifle to see 120 Arkansas Baptist students suited up in helmets and shoulder pads for a preseason workout. If the number of players on the field was any indication, the school had discovered an elixir in football.

Led by a new president, Fitz Hill, Arkansas Baptist had established the junior college team a year earlier, and coach Richard Wilson had only signed on in April. Now, after just three weeks of work with the players, Wilson looked to be conducting more of a jumbled fire drill than a practice.

Despite some rudimentary unison — three full offenses ran the semblance of plays against three full defenses — assistant coaches constantly turned their attention towards the problems of individual players. A ceaseless trill of whistles seemed to command nobody. The team didn't even practice on a proper football field. They used a collection of baseball diamonds, two of which were of only a Little League depth. The third, a larger converted Pony League field, ran only 90 yards.

There had already been three injuries that day, and the wounded gathered on a set of concrete bleachers that was covered with peeling paint and shot through with weeds. As he iced his knee, Andre Lewis, a wide receiver, pointed at the rusty structure that served as a locker room. “If somebody makes it to the NFL,” he said, “that field house is going to be fixed up.” To anyone watching the practice, Lewis's hope would have seemed futile, but it was appropriate considering the broader goals of Arkansas Baptist's football program. It not only underscored the players' dreams; it also matched Hill's ambition to rebuild the college.

At the crux of Hill's plan is the belief that athletics is a counterpart to education rather than a distraction. It's not football itself that matters. What matters is the power that athletics has to draw students — particularly black, male students — to the classroom. As Wilson commented as he left the practice field that day, “Fitz Hill let me know that I'm not going to be held accountable as coach if I don't win. At any other school, I wouldn't be sure if it would work. But Dr. Hill has made it very clear: no books, no ball.”

Considering college football's reputation for academic slacking, some might be skeptical. For example, Matt Leinart, USC's Heisman Trophy winner, was roundly ridiculed when it was reported in 2005 that his only senior-year class was dance.

But Andre Lewis is not Matt Leinart, and Arkansas Baptist is not USC. And Hill's plan appears to be working. Arkansas Baptist is safe for now, rejuvenated by an influx of students who want to play ball. Still, the question remains: Can football be a vehicle to solid education? Or does an institutional focus on sport come at the expense of learning?

***

On the afternoon of Arkansas Baptist's first home game, against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M at War Memorial Stadium, Hill and I took a drive out to his home in West Little Rock, where he was due to pick up his daughter and take her shopping for a leotard. Hill, who is married with three children, has been a football man for much of his life — after graduating from Ouachita Baptist and serving a stint in the military, he became an assistant at Arkansas — but in recent years he has supplemented coaching with activism for African-American causes. When San Jose State named him head football coach in 2000, he was one of only five African-Americans to hold that job in Division I. He used his position to help start the Literacy Classic, a game between San Jose State and Grambling, the historically black college famous for its football program under the late Eddie Robinson. The game raised money for children's literacy programs.

Hill quit at San Jose State in 2004, but he brought the Literacy Classic concept back to Arkansas. He took a job in development at Ouachita and began organizing the Delta Classic 4 Literacy, a game that supports reading in the Delta region. While rounding up support for the Delta Classic in January 2006, Hill called up Arkansas Baptist to talk to the school's president. The problem was that Arkansas Baptist didn't have a president. Hill met with a couple of board members instead, who asked if he would fill the post.

The school's next leader would be saddled with an enormous challenge. Arkansas Baptist suffered from a shrinking enrollment and fiscal difficulties. (“Our budget was a foreign language,” said Hill. “They just hoped to get by from month to month.”) It also faced a pending evaluation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, an accreditation agency, and things didn't look good. “The executive director of North Central was very candid in saying that he thought we would get negative sanctions,” Hill said. “Many people told me I was crazy for coming, and that we're going to lose accreditation and that it was going to go under my watch and that I shouldn't take the job.” But for Hill, the decision was a no-brainer. “I call this a divine appointment,” he said. “I felt it was a calling on my life to share my experiences and try to help those less fortunate.”

Hill had only 90 days to prepare for the NCA's visit. After reading everything he could get his hands on about the accreditation process — he didn't know what the NCA was before taking the job — he assembled a strategic plan that covered the next 18 months. Not only was the school saved from de-accreditation, but it received full approval to operate until its next comprehensive evaluation, in 2011.

One part of the plan Arkansas Baptist presented to the NCA was a new football team. The proposal made sense considering Hill's background in the sport. Besides his coaching experience, he had worked with Charles Ripley, Arkansas Baptist's new athletic director, in the late '90s in an unsuccessful attempt to bring football to University of Arkansas Community College at Hope.

Ripley later led a failed drive to start a junior college program at Pulaski Tech. “A good marriage is when both man and wife need each other,” said Ripley of that experience. “We needed [Pulaski Tech] and wanted them; the school wanted us, but they didn't need us. You gotta have a need on both sides to be successful.” He found that need in Arkansas Baptist. Logic suggested that if you build a junior college football team in a state that has no junior college programs, then the players will come. And to Hill, players are not only players — they're also students. “In order to have a school, you've got to have students,” said Hill. “What's the use in having an academic program but no students?” Today, the college has an enrollment of 603, up more than 200 percent from 18 months ago.

***

The new team is a means not only to a larger student body. In a region that's obsessed with football, it's also a way to create name recognition. Hill hopes that an improved brand will help fund-raising — and with good reason. A short walk around Arkansas Baptist — and the walk will be very short, since the campus, located at 16th and MLK, covers an area of only about two blocks — shows the college to be in sore need of cash. About half of the grounds are paved, and there are no leafy lanes or idyllic quads. White concrete walls, fluorescent hall lights and large steel doors give the dormitories the air of a dungeon. Window after window is blown out and covered with tarp, including those in Old Main, the campus's fallow central building.

Old Main, which dates from 1893 and is the oldest building for educating African-Americans in the state, is the centerpiece of a $5 million fundraising campaign. Although it's a symbol of the school, it's in such bad shape that college publicity portrays it with a hand-drawn sketch rather than a photograph. Since the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Hill applied for — and received — a $750,000 grant from the National Park Service. The school has also gotten a $200,000 gift from Dr. Emeral Crosby to be used toward the renovation. It's the largest alumni donation in the school's history.

Although the big grants are going towards infrastructure, Hill is not losing sight of the school's educational mission. In fact, he's relying on football to fund it. Although about 90 percent of the students are on government financial aid programs, the college gives few scholarships, and none of them are athletic. Hill believes a player on his own dime has greater motivation for academic success, but he also likes the system because it helps move Arkansas Baptist's books into the black. The football team is funded by private boosters, and all the tuition money from the new students goes into the classroom. “We've been able to upgrade our academic program because of the influence of athletes who pay to play,” Hill said. “We might be the only situation where athletics pays for academics.”

Hill's development program has another goal, one that is loftier and more in line with Arkansas Baptist's historically black, Christian past: It intends to address the wealth and opportunity gap between African-American males and the rest of the population. When every eighth black man between 25 and 29 is in jail, and the jailed suffer from staggering illiteracy rates, Hill reasons that he's in a position to do something about it.

“Look at the crisis of African-American men today, with 50 percent dropping out of high school, and more incarcerated than in college,” Hill said. “Look at our numbers and see that of our 600 students, 400 of them are men. That's not a trend when you look at the fact that, today, 1.2 million African-American females are enrolled in college, and slightly over 600,000 African-American males are enrolled in college. Developing young men: that's what we do. If we start graduating a mass group of African-American males out of Arkansas Baptist College that we've developed academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually, we can start cleaning up the community.”

***

Hill's task starts at a very basic level: Many of Arkansas Baptist's students are at a remedial reading level. Hill emphasized that this is one of the biggest issues he deals with as an educator. “I've recruited so many kids throughout the country that can't read,” he said. “It's a national problem.”

But then he went a step further: “Do you think a kid at three o'clock is going to go to the library and read? Come on.” The statement suggested something about Hill's philosophy of learning: Important as the library is, there's more to education than books. The playing field is just as much a classroom as the lecture hall.

For the football players, Richard Wilson is the professor who holds court when three o'clock comes. Off the field his spectacles and goatee make him look the part, and, if he's in front of a group, he speaks in a gentle voice that is barely audible. On the field, though, that voice often changes into a loud, gravelly rasp. The contrast in volume makes him especially apt to inspire fear in a faltering player. But Wilson rarely sustains the tone of a raving loon; when he means business, his speech has a quiet menace and can explode as quickly as it simmers down.

A longtime assistant at various Division I colleges, Wilson's only previous head-coaching experience was at an inner-city high school in Minneapolis. While the Arkansas Baptist job gave him an opportunity to jump to the next level, it also offered new challenges. Since Arkansas Baptist is such a small school, there's little division of labor, and many teachers are also administrators. Likewise, Wilson is a teacher as well as the football team's head coach and main logistician. Along with Ripley, he plans the team's travel and dining arrangements.

Wilson's role at Arkansas Baptist goes beyond organizational acrobatics, however: Above all, he's a role model. Football teams naturally strive to be a cohesive group, but Arkansas Baptist takes it a step further. On-campus players stay in the same dorm; Wilson and his assistant coaches live on the ground floor below. While the arrangement allows the players a semblance of independence — “Most of them think they're grown men,” said Wilson — it also gives them someone to fall back on if they need help. As a result, Wilson is as much a father figure as a coach. “To me, football's football,” he said. “The interesting thing about this type of program is that I can't lose sight of the mentoring part.”

***

I got a closer look at what it takes to organize 80 football players for a road trip — and what junior college players have to tolerate just to get to an opponent's field — when I boarded the team bus on a September Saturday for a game near Dallas against Blinn College. Although Arkansas Baptist was nominally the home team — Blinn is just outside Houston, and the schools agreed to play at a neutral location to reduce travel time — the crowd was rooting for the Texans. It was the second of six road trips for Arkansas Baptist; Ripley was only able to schedule two games in Little Rock. (Their opponents are all in the Southwest Conference, which the Buffaloes, as the team is known, are trying to join. Whether they will be able to do that is still in question. According to Otis Kirk, a writer who covers recruiting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Texas teams in the league have discussed forming an all-Texas conference, which could leave Arkansas Baptist as an independent.)

To make it to Dallas in time to prepare for the game's 3 p.m. start, the bus left Arkansas Baptist at 5:30 a.m. After a mid-morning stop at a Ryan's steakhouse — and a half hour of drills in the parking lot after breakfast — the team moved on to the stadium, where Blinn awaited. With their custom-made polo shirts and a giant fan to keep them cool on the sidelines, the Blinn squad had a professional look about it. It also had the 2006 national junior college championship under its belt. Northeast Oklahoma A&M had stomped Arkansas Baptist 58-9 at home the previous week, and now the Buffaloes faced an even hotter baptism by fire.

From the third play of the game, it was clear that the only thing to be decided was Blinn's margin of victory. Just a minute into the first quarter, the Blinn quarterback threw a pass that looked to be an Arkansas Baptist interception. In fact, it would have been an interception had the Blinn receiver been a bit less muscled. After a split-second struggle, he ripped the ball from the cornerback's hands for a touchdown.

The play set the tone for the entire afternoon. Blinn's receivers were constantly able to connect over Arkansas Baptist's defensive backs, and whenever the Buffaloes made a big play — a 50-yard run, a timely first down — a turnover erased the gain. Sloppy play hurt even more — on the final play of the first half, a napping offensive line allowed the quarterback to be sacked, and he was carried off the field with a knee injury. Perhaps the only solace Arkansas Baptist could take was a blocked extra point late in the fourth quarter. That play ensured that Blinn's scoring didn't top Northeast Oklahoma A&M's from the previous week. Final score: Blinn 58, Arkansas Baptist 0.

The Richard Wilson who returned to the locker room was not the professorial Richard Wilson. After making the players sit in silence for 10 minutes, he got up and, waving around a stat sheet, started to count. “1, 2, 3….”

He didn't stop until he got to 25.

“25 penalties! We couldn't beat Mabelvale Junior High School with 25 penalties!”

As Wilson continued his tirade, an offensive lineman boldly — and inexplicably — stood up.

“Sit your ass down!” Wilson barked.

“But I'm falling asleep,” the lineman quietly responded.

Looking a bit stunned, Wilson allowed the transgression. Before forcing another half an hour of silence — “Y'all are going to do one thing as a team today” — he gave a speech that went deeper than penalties and botched plays. “Some of you are too street smart. One of two things is going on on this football team: Either we ain't good enough, or you guys don't trust us as coaches.” The emphasis was on the latter diagnosis — the players needed to learn to take instruction.

By the time the team bus finally left the field, the game had been over for two hours. At 1:30 in the morning — 20 hours after our departure — we pulled into Arkansas Baptist. That gave the players just enough time to get to bed for eight hours of sleep — there was a team meeting at 10 a.m.

***

If football has given a boost to Arkansas Baptist College, Arkansas Baptist College is also a leg-up to football players and programs around the state. Until the Buffaloes began play this year, Arkansas didn't have a junior college team. Since junior college conferences place rules on how many out-of-state players a team can have, Arkansas high schoolers unable to cut it at the NCAA level had few options if they wanted to continue with football.

Like many people who deal with the program, Houston Nutt, Arkansas's head coach, spoke about the value of giving kids a second chance. “[Arkansas Baptist] noticed all these young men who didn't have a place to go all these years,” he said. “What a blessing it is to be able to have a place to go now, not only for football, but to have a chance to continue their education.”

As the only junior college program in the state, Arkansas Baptist can serve as a farm system for the Razorbacks, and for other schools as well. Nutt, who attended the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M game — and not to watch the players study algebra — acknowledged that Arkansas will be keeping its eye on some of Arkansas Baptist's players.

Mike Harris, a running back, is one example. Arkansas signed him out of Booker T. Washington in Tulsa, the alma mater of Razorback Felix Jones. Harris graduated high school with a 2.48 GPA, just below the NCAA's 2.5 eligibility threshold. Although Arkansas's football program didn't tell him where to go to get his grades up, it suggested either Arkansas Baptist or Northeast Oklahoma A&M. Assuming that he completes 60 credit hours and gets his associate's degree, he'll be moving on to the Razorback backfield.

Harris is an anomaly on this year's squad, however, in that he has an apparent football future. Most of the team's players are simply looking for a way to extend their careers. Bert Butler, a linebacker who graduated from Central High, is one of them. “I wouldn't have given Arkansas Baptist a second look if it weren't for football,” Butler told me. “I don't plan on getting my bachelor's here.” Asked what he'll do if a major football program doesn't come calling, he said he's confident he can play at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff or the University of Central Arkansas.

Like Butler, almost all the players I talked to want to play at the Division I level. They're knowledgeable of what's happening at the upper echelon, and they have strong opinions about the teams. (One player told me that he wanted to play at Kansas State rather than Arkansas, not only because he has family in Kansas, but also because he believes Houston Nutt works on a system of favoritism rather than merit.)

Yet it's rare that a big-time program finds a previously unknown talent at a junior college. “It can be something of a wakeup call for some of these kids to go [to Arkansas Baptist] and find out, hey, I'm not good enough to go to Division I,” said Kirk, the recruiting writer. “But they can still play football, and Henderson, UCA, Arkansas State don't look so bad now. They go there and have a good career and have fun playing.”

The players who care enough about the game will do just that, not only because they want to play at a higher level, but also because they have a limited athletic lifespan at Arkansas Baptist. While Arkansas Baptist is a four-year school that offers a bachelor's degree, junior college athletic programs are two years. The nature of the program ensures a rapid turnover in Arkansas Baptist's student population. Hill is fine with that. “For another school to recruit a player and offer him a scholarship, why would I not want him to go, when he's already invested his own money [here]? That's why we call it a development program.”

***

The ambition of Hill's vision is impressive, but the idea of achieving it through football raised some questions. Was the college prepared to handle the windfall of students? How does the introduction of more than a hundred football players shake things up in the classroom? More, does the focus on African-American males — particularly African-American males who play football — come at the expense of other students at Arkansas Baptist? Does relying on football to fund education skew the school's focus towards players who subsidize the budget?

Hill is quick to acknowledge that, although the school desperately needed a higher enrollment, it didn't need such a quick rate of increase. “What's been stressful is that I didn't realize we would grow so fast,” Hill said. He attributed the growth to a “he tells two friends” effect — although not all the new students are football players, the players encourage their pals to come to Arkansas Baptist.

As a result, a campus that has never had to deal with hundreds of restless students is now swarmed. According to Tracey Moore, who runs the Criminal Justice Department and is a five-year veteran of the school, many students were non-traditional before the football team arrived. They had day jobs or children or both, and they took night classes. Now Arkansas Baptist is taking on more of a residential flavor, but without the proper facilities. The campus has a kindergarten, but hardly any communal gathering space. One football player told me that if he and his friends want to have a party, they mingle on a stoop outside the gym.

Of course, residential students need things to do as well as buildings to do them in. “One thing I heard every week when I first got here,” said Hill, “was, ‘President Hill, there's nothing to do on our campus!'” Hill again sees the football team as a solution to the problem. With the team came peripheral activities, such as cookouts and cheerleading and the drum line, which is supposed to expand into a full band next year. That will be a part of the upgrade of the music program as a whole — in fact, the best maintained student building on campus is the arts center.

The academic curriculum has faced a crunch as well. The college has been forced to offer additional sections of classes; Hill himself teaches two sections of a course called African-American Male Seminar. Some classes are held in the gym for lack of space.

But when I sat in on a September session of Moore's class, Understanding Social Problems, there was no evidence of overcrowding. Out of an enrollment of 25, eight students were there when the class began; five more came in within the course of about 15 minutes. (The students aren't the only ones guilty of truancy; according to a football player, one of his classes had hardly met because of the professor's absence. The player admitted that he usually availed himself of the 10-minute rule and didn't stick around to see how late the instructor would be.)

Harris, the running back, who was present in Moore's class, said that he felt he was learning, but the passivity of the students made me wonder. The day's lesson depended on the rote memorization and repetition of sociological terms (norm, folkway) and statistics (“What country has the longest lifespan?” “China.” “China! It's Japan! I need you to stop getting them confused!”). There was little discussion of what these might mean in a real-world context.

Students were more involved in a class called Oral Communications, which I attended a week later. After a discussion of the day's newspaper headlines — “Leave the streets out there. You need to know what's going on in the world around you to speak intelligently,” the instructor, Miron Billingsley, told them — the class moved on to an exercise. Students were to give a 30-second speech in front of their peers. They were also to look presentable. Billingsley chastised several of them for having ruffled clothing (“Can I ask you a question, man? Where's your iron?”). After dressing down the next speaker for showing up with an open collar, Billingsley took off his own tie and loaned it to him. The speeches had little content — they consisted of welcoming remarks to an imaginary conference — but it was presentation, rather than content, that seemed to be the point of the class.

In keeping with Hill's goals, Billingsley's course is particularly geared toward males. In the 17-person section there were only three women, none of whom said a word. After class, I caught up with Flora Coleman, a first-generation college student from Dallas who had started at Arkansas Baptist earlier in the week. We talked a bit about gender disparity at Arkansas Baptist. “I feel there could be more girls,” she said. “I think it should be 50-50.”

Part of Coleman's concern had to do with normal teenage issues: Even though she'd tried to broadcast that she has a boyfriend, the number of overtures had been overwhelming. Just five minutes later, on the way to the college's weekly all-campus meeting, a boy approached.

“What's your name?” he asked in a meaningful tone.

“I don't have a name,” Coleman replied, moving on. The boy protested — she was being rude. “You can just call me Texas,” was all she was willing to give.

Once in the meeting, Flora moved on to sit with her boyfriend. She wasn't the only one who had affairs of the heart on the brain. After a few opening announcements — where to go to check financial aid, a request to stop throwing dining hall plates and silverware in the garbage, a reminder that students need to start buying books — the meeting's keynote speaker, Derrick Lewis, a doctor and community worker, took love as the topic of his speech. “It's the quality of relationships, not the quantity,” he said over the fuzzy microphone system. “Every relationship has to have romance. But sex is not romance.”

***

Lewis's speech could have been given in front of any group of frisky teenagers. In this context, however, it was noteworthy for directly addressing single-parent families in the African-American community. Likewise, most of the activities I observed at Arkansas Baptist revolved around practical concerns. More important than the class material was its proper memorization and presentation. Players needed to know how to run the plays, but it was more important that they learn discipline. Which suggested something about an Arkansas Baptist education: Its goal isn't necessarily to teach independent thought, or even to teach a specific trade, although it does more of the latter than the former. It's to prepare a historically oppressed group to face a world that has not always been kind to it. And if the school's mission is thought of in those terms, adding a group of males who might otherwise be lost in the cracks makes sense.

In effect, football is not simply recreation or an extension of the classroom. It's a method of social conditioning.

Arkansas Baptist's focus on males comes with tradeoffs. But, as Billingsley explained, the school is doing better academically after adding football, regardless of the strain of increased enrollment or the gender disparity. “Before, the kids were just here,” said Billingsley. “They heard it was an easy grade. Standards have risen because it's a second chance for these players. It makes other students better.”

The college has not had a perfect record in achieving its redemptive goals. In September, a student named Langston Robins was caught trying to rob a Little Rock bank and was subsequently expelled — hardly the sort of result Hill is going for. But Hill stressed that improving Arkansas Baptist will be a long-term project. “On a scale from one to 10, when I first came here, after six weeks I said our institution is a 1.8. Today I say we're about a 4.7. That's still flunking. I don't have an illusion. You don't have to tell me we're not where we need to be. But as long as we make a little progress each week. We're changing the culture — that's probably going to take five years.”

It's certain that a winning football team will take more than a year. Through press time for this article, the Arkansas Baptist Buffaloes were winless in six games. Their final home game — homecoming — is at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18 at War Memorial Stadium against Navarro Junior College.

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