By Lenny Moon
The Ohio Valley Conference is a conference consisting of 12 schools that’s clustered within the five states of Tennessee (6), Kentucky (3), Illinois (2), Missouri (1) and Alabama (1).This mid-major conference has an average enrollment of just under 11,000 with the largest being Eastern Kentucky checking in with 17,034. A sampling of notable NFL stars produced by the OVC are Phil Simms (Morehead State/N.Y. Giants), Jim Youngblood (Tennessee Tech/ Los Angeles Rams) and former Eastern Illinois star signal callers Tony Romo (Dallas) and Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco).
The “odd-ball” in this grouping is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) entity that comprises one of the four Tennessee-based programs in the conference. Tennessee State University was founded in 1912 as a land grant institution designed to facilitate collegiate educational opportunities for disenfranchised African American citizens that were also tax payers. Somewhere in the area of 1979, the state establishment of Tennessee decided to merge the University of Tennessee-Nashville with Tennessee State. And according to the records, TSU officially became a member of the OVC in 1988 (Former stars such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Claude Humphrey and Richard Dent were long gone)
Lawrence “L.C.” Cole was hired as the head football coach of the TSU Tigers in 1996. He previously played collegiately at the University of Nebraska, coached by the renowned Tom Osborne in 1978 and 79 as a defensive end. He entered the coaching ranks following his student-athletic days as a Cornhusker, serving assistant coaching duties at Ball State, Kansas State, Wisconsin, Toledo, Morgan State, Eastern Michigan and Cincinnati prior to his opportunity at the state’s largest HBCU as their head football coach. Being the only historically Black institution in the historically White conference did come with some challenges.
The TSU gig represented the first head coaching job on Cole’s resume, and although he inherited a downtrodden program (10 consecutive losing seasons), it was a golden opportunity to come and build his program without immediate expectations. “No one in the conference felt that we could come out of the cellar and become a good football team. Being the only Black team in a predominately White conference, I felt that we were overly penalized which was another barrier we had to cross” he stated. Cole’s contingent finished his first two seasons with a 4-7 record, but that second season, his team was 4-3 in conference play and showing indications that his TSU Tigers were turning the corner vs OVC opponents. “When conference teams would beat us, they would run the score up
to make us look bad” Cole offered. “But one of my most vivid memories of when we became a good team was against Eastern Kentucky and leading by two touchdowns at halftime. We started hearing references of the “N-Word” and fans throwing things down on our players headed to the locker room. We had to use security just to get to the locker room safely. We went on to win the game handily and they refused to congratulate us and shake our hands like we always did win or lose”.
On the horizon was history ready to be recorded in the annals of collegiate football. The next two seasons would witness Cole leading his team to two consecutive OVC championships, and two consecutive OVC Coach of the Year awards (1-AA National Coach of the Year in 1999). Needless to say, this represented the first time that a Black coach along with a HBCU entity winning their conference in football. During the 1998 and 1999 seasons, TSU compiled a 20-4 record with an impressive 13-1 in conference play. “Although we had success on the field as a team, I’m more proud of how we raised the standards academically with our football program. When I arrived, it was around 13% graduation rate. During my four years at Tennessee State, we raised that to 93%. It was more important to me to develop productive young men outside of the football field and that same dedication followed into the athletic arena” Cole stated.
**L.C. Cole was a featured guest on a previous sports talk show platform that was hosted by Lenny Moon during Black History Month