Can the Colorado football program continue to recruit black student-athletes effectively?
The simple answer: yes.
To suggest otherwise is an offense to the many black players and coaches at CU, and to the many who will end up in Boulder in the coming years.
The realistic answer? Yes, but.
In order to continue to make the CU campus an attractive place for black student-athletes, the football program, the athletic department, the university and the community need to make changes.
Some of the challenges in recruiting African-American athletes to CU mirror the challenges in recruiting a diverse population to the university as a whole.
The University of Colorado has rung the diversity bell for well over a decade now. Unfortunately, it’s created a lot of noise, but not a lot of diversity on campus. Especially underrepresented at CU-Boulder are African-American and American Indian populations.
The black student population at CU has hovered on the underside of 500 for years. Last school year, the number was 448.
That’s simply not good enough, according to former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney.
“Diversity has been such an important part of the culture of America,” he says. “There’s absolutely no way that you can examine the numbers (at CU) and then say we’re doing everything we can.
Former CU football coach Bill McCartney thinks the university can do more to promote diversity on campus.
Photo by Getty Images
“Why can’t we just recognize that we’ve missed the mark and say, ‘We’re so sorry, and we’re going to do everything we can to rectify it.’ And then what you need to do is swing the pendulum to the other way. If you’re going to err, err on the side of a good heart.”
Alphonse Keasley has worked at CU for 27 of the 30 years he’s lived in Boulder. He currently directs the Minority Arts and Sciences Program, an honors program for minority students at CU. Keasley, a black man, knows all to well the challenges of recruiting black students to the Boulder campus.
Keasley says negative stereotypes can crop up for black students at the university.
“Part of the difficulty in recruiting to the campus is in how others perceive who black students are here,” he says. “The city and campus aren’t as culturally engaged, partly because there are too many stereotypes in play. So some black families are concerned.”
Keasley was around when some of McCartney’s players had run-ins with police 12 to 15 years ago. Keasley was part of a faculty advisory committee that dealt with the athletic department in the 1990s. As Keasley remembers it, some stereotypes were in play then. But he saw some positive steps taken.
“Those positive steps worked in many ways,” Keasley says. “I think that the Boulder police, in particular, tried to make sure that they didn’t automatically go into a mode of what stereotypes may have been operating unconsciously for them. There really was an attempt to step back and get to know who these (students) were.”
The controversy surrounding the CU football program this past spring did not involve the Boulder police department. Instead, several allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against players, past and present, on the CU football team. No charges in any of the cases have been filed, and two black players were cleared through DNA testing in one of the cases.
Players, however, felt stereotyped by the allegations. The sting of suspicion may have played a part in two black players — Brian Calhoun and Sammy Joseph — transferring out of the program.
Another player who considered leaving during the controversy is sophomore Lorenzo Sims. He said he didn’t like being seen as a possible rapist, just because he was on the football team.
Sims, however, doesn’t regret his decision to stay at Colorado.
“I’m very happy,” he says. “I don’t think I could’ve made a wiser decision.
“For a couple months there, some things changed. We were looked at different,” he says. “But, overall, (CU football players) have a good life. The people do care about us. After the allegations were over you could just see the love pouring back in.”
Both McCartney and Keasley remain positive about the school’s potential to attract black students because of what they’ve seen from people in the university and Boulder community.
McCartney remembers being encouraged when he watched Boulderites get to know his black players.
“What was in my heart is that the whole community would recognize (the need for diversity) and they would all say we’re going to make it work here,” he says. “Why? Because we want to be diverse. We don’t want to be just white, we don’t want to be just exclusive, we don’t want to be holier than thou. We want to be part of helping these kids.
“And there were a lot of people in Boulder with that spirit.”
Likewise, Keasley remains hopeful that the university will one day be a more diverse place.
“I have faith in Boulder,” he says. “I’ve lived here long enough and I know enough people who when they get the information that corrects their misperceptions, then people make the changes. People are sincere in what they want to see happen. I have confidence on that front.”
The problem of diversity in higher education — or, certainly, at Big 12 universities — isn’t confined to Boulder, however.
Edwin Harrison is Director of Finance for Harris County in Houston. His son, Edwin Jr., is a student at CU and a redshirt-freshman on the football team.
Harrison points out that NCAA statistics show the total black student population at all 12 Big 12 schools combined is roughly 13,000.
“Obviously, any of these schools you go to, the black population is going to be small,” Harrison says.
Harrison, who is black, had no hesitation sending his son to Colorado after going through the recruiting process two years ago. Edwin Jr. will be the first of the Harrison family to attend an undergraduate university outside the traditionally all-black Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).
“We understand that we’re minorities in this country,” Harrison says. “Whether you like it or not, if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to assimilate. You’re going to have to be as adept at doing what the majority does as you are doing you what your particular group of people does. That’s just a fact of life. You’ve got to get over worrying about it, and figure out what to do, because it’s not going to change.”
Lance Carl agrees. The former Buffalo football player encourages current black players to be proactive while they have the opportunity to play and study at CU.
Carl was part of McCartney’s first true recruiting class in 1983, and played football at CU from 1983 to 1987. He graduated with a degree in sociology in 1989, worked with the county Big Brothers and Big Sisters program for several years, served as a graduate assistant for the football team under Rick Neuheisel. Later, he worked as a scout for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles for three-and-a-half years.
Carl understands the challenges of being a young black student at CU. But he chose to make Boulder his home, and lives here with his wife and two children. And Carl, 39, has taken an active role over the years in encouraging CU football players to take advantage of their time at Colorado and reach out to fellow students of all backgrounds.
“One percent of these kids that come in here are going to play pro football,” he says. “You’ve got to align yourself with the right people while you’re here. One of these guys you meet, you don’t know who he knows. It’s about networking yourself, not only in football, but outside of football.”
But if a black student-athlete never gets to Boulder, he can’t do that. And signs point to opposing coaches taking advantage of the controversy over the past spring and reverting to negative recruiting.
Rangeview senior Maurice Lucas was the first prospect to verbally commit to Colorado this recruiting cycle. His father, David Lucas, said publicly last spring that the off-field controversy at CU hadn’t swayed the family’s desire that Maurice attend Colorado.
Those statements didn’t sway Kansas State from continuing to recruit Lucas, a four-star prospect at defensive end, according to Scout.com. In August, Lucas changed his commitment to the Wildcats. When the change of heart came to light, Scout.com asked David Lucas if the off-field controversy played a part.
He responded, “It was certainly a factor. …social life was something we were taking a very strong look at. It is nothing against Colorado, as it is a great school for both athletics and academics, but right now we didn’t feel comfortable with the social life.”
Rangeview DE Maurice Lucas has recently reconsidered Colorado in his recruiting process.
BSN File Photo
In recent weeks, however, the Lucases have reopened Maurice’s recruiting process. Word is, Maurice may have received some incorrect information from another school about his ability to qualify for admission to the University of Colorado. Apparently, that misinformation has been cleared up by the CU coaches and the Rangeview senior is again considering Colorado.
The CU coaching staff is very aware that some schools may use negative tactics in the highly competitive game of football recruiting. Gary Barnett told the Daily Camera in September, “"We know (the spring controversy) is going to be used against us, but we're fighting our way through it.”
Asked just last week for an update on how the so-called scandal had affected CU recruiting, Barnett declined to elaborate, and only said it was to early to evaluate the situation.
One of the best ways to fight negative recruiting, or concerns from potential black student-athletes about the social environment in Boulder, CU coaches maintain, is to get the prospects on campus and show them the program, the players, the coaches and the school. The straightforward approach has worked for Barnett’s staff in the past.
“The only way we’re going to overcome (concerns about the controversy) is for them to get up here and let us prove what we’re about,” says John Wristen, CU’s recruiting coordinator.
Wristen points out that, despite the small black population in the city of Boulder, the University of Colorado is in closer proximity to a large and thriving African-American community than any other school in the Big 12.
“We’ve got the best of both worlds,” Wristen says. “What other (Big 12) school has a city like Denver or Aurora that’s 28 miles away that has a pretty good minority population?”
McCartney says Barnett, who served as an assistant on his staff at Colorado for eight years, has credibility in the black community and among black players and their parents.
“The reason he has it is because the black kids that he coaches trust him. If ever a guy was expendable, it was during this recent time. And yet, look how the black kids stuck with him,” McCartney says. “Bottom line is, ‘Does he have a heart for these kids?’ He does.”
Barnett thinks, in the wake of the off-field controversy, time is on the program’s side.
“Time allows things to heal up and allows you to look at things a little differently,” Barnett says. “Time’s the best thing that’s on our side. That and just seeing how many of our players are happy here and how many of them are doing well.”
Just as big a concern for the football program's ability to recruit top athletes, no matter their race or cultural background, is the looming possibility of more stringent academic requirements.
In the past, 20 percent of the student body at CU has been granted admission through the so-called academic window, meaning they did not have the requisite GPA and/or test scores, but showed some unique skill in another area. A much higher percentage of student-athletes have been admitted to the university through the window than that 20 percent in recent years.
The Boulder Faculty Assembly strongly urged the CU administration to bring the academic window for athletes more in line with the rest of the student body, in wake of the off-field controversy. On top of that, the university is moving to close the window for admissions to 10 percent of admitees in the near future.
CU Provost Phil DiStefano in August formed a committee to explore the academic progress student-athletes admitted through the window have made. Initial findings, according to DiStefano, showed student-athletes let in through the window were making better academic progress on average than the student body as a whole.
CU freshman RB Byron Ellis had a 4.0 GPA in high school and was the most academically accomplished member of CU's 2004 recruiting class.
Photo courtesy CU AMR
In an interview in August, DiStefano pointed out that it’s wrong to assume that a black football player who wears the black and gold on Saturday’s in the fall was let in through the academic window. For example, the student-athlete with, by far, the most impressive academic resume in the 2004 football recruiting class, Byron Ellis, grew up in impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, but excelled in the classroom.
DiStefano has not yet ruled on whether or not the window will close to student-athletes. But he spoke to the issue of diversity on campus back at the start of the fall semester.
“Diversity is a campus goal. It’s very important to the campus,” DiStefano said. “That’s why I want to make sure that if there are students of color – whether they are student-athletes or not – who want to come to the University of Colorado and they may not have the (test scores and GPA required), those are the students who we really want to take a close look at to see if they have potential for success.
“I would always err on the side of taking a student who we think has potential for success rather than denying that student. Because diversity is important to the campus.”