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 as a collegian. 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 last month.
“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? So when people say it’s unlikely for me to be in the MEAC, it kinda gets me a little. It’s football.”
What Wheatley didn’t say is he believes it’s a pretty high level of football. He implied that by adding, “The majority of the black (Pro Football) Hall of Famers come from HBCUs. Four are from Morgan State.”
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,” he said. “’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 five 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.”
Rather than complaining about it and trying in vain to gain a seat, Wheatley opted for a seat at a table that is open to him and where he can make a difference.
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 such as 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 head coach Eddie Hurt, who led them to six national championships between 1933 and 1949 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 head 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.
Still, Wheatley thinks Morgan State is “an incredible opportunity. I come into this conference with a wealth of knowledge around me, meaning coaches that have been here. I’m speaking of (South Carolina State) Coach (Buddy) Pough who has been on the front porch of this conference for so long. (Coach Sam Washington) at North Carolina A&T State, which has put the conference out in front in terms of who we are and what we can do. The rest of the conference has to catch up and continue to put ourselves out there.”
The Bears were 4-7 last season, but one of their victories was the defending MEAC and Black College National champion Aggies in Greensboro, N.C. The Aggies were 5-0 at the time and had registered impressive victories against perennial FCS power Jacksonville State and East Carolina, an FBS program.
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 for him to make them championship contenders.
“I look at it as a long-haul type deal,” he said, “meaning getting recruits in, becoming part of the fabric of Baltimore, of the city, of the area. That part is building a program. It takes time. You don’t want to take too much time. But it takes time. It’s not something happens overnight.
“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.”
Wheatley seems 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.”
McBurrough and Touani smiled broadly when they talked about Wheatley’s attention to detail and the way he stayed on them about little things, such as picking up trash or making sure they clean the toilet seat after using the bathroom.
“I was taught you must take care of home,” Wheatley said. “It represents who you are. When people come in your house, come into your room, walk into your office, that’s what they see, basically the picture of your character. If you walk past a sock lying on the floor, you’re looking past the little things. If you do that in the locker room, you’re going to do that on the field. You’re going to do that in the classroom. You’re going to overlook that one little message that would have gotten you an A; you’re going to settle for a B. I don’t want people to settle. We’re not going to settle.
“Everything is a carryover -- cleaning up the locker room, making sure your school work is done on time, all those things. How can I say, ‘Keep the locker room clean, do your school work on time,’ but you make a mistake on the field it’s okay. It’s not okay. All of it goes together.”
The Bears seem to be buying what Wheatley is selling.
“He’s making us turn into respectable young men,” Touani said.
Wheatley says that’s as important to him as winning football games.
“It was ingrained in me,” he said. “It was part of my upbringing. Living in a different time and era, you went to school, you went to practice and you acted up, when you got home, you got it again. What it taught me was it was important, and as you get older and have kids, all those things do matter.
”Now all of a sudden, it’s just being late to school; it’s being late to work and you don’t have a job. Now it’s not just being late with a payment, it’s your credit is bad. Everything is a compound issue. You have to get these young men to understand it’s not okay. It all compounds. Once you become a man, ‘my bad’ is not acceptable. So you nip it in the bud and get rid of it. I tell them all the time, you’re going to be a man way longer than you’re going to be a football player, so the things I’m trying give you now are not only going to help you in football, but it will help you become a better husband, father, co-worker and all those other things.”