Bethune-Cookman’s Brian Jenkins, Winston-Salem State’s Connell Maynor Lead New Era of HBCU Football
In a refreshing break from the timeless and broken practice of bringing in older, battle-tested head coaches, several HBCUs are finding success with a new image of head coach leading their teams onto the fields every Saturday. Bethune-Cookman University’s Brian Jenkins and Winston-Salem State University’s Connell Maynor, both under the age of 45, are innovative visionaries with eyes on national titles and relevance for their teams and their conferences.
Jenkins and Maynor are championship-winning coaches who have made extraordinary impact, both with far-from-ordinary beginnings to their careers. Accepting their first head coaching positions just six days apart in December 2009, Jenkins and Maynor are the two new faces of black college football, with clear visions on how their programs will climb the hill of success in college football.
But with very different visions on what HBCUs must do to thrive in the future.
Jenkins arrived in Daytona after one season as a wide receivers coach at Rutgers under former Scarlet Knights head coach and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano. Jenkins, whose godparents were both Bethune-Cookman graduates, spent many Saturdays of his childhood on the sidelines of Wildcat home games. The familiarity made it an easy choice when approached for the job in 2009.
“I remember the Larry Littles and other guys who played in the program, and being on the sideline with my godfather Charles Bingham when things were exciting,” says Jenkins. “I remember people teaching me about the teachings of Mary McCleod Bethune. I just felt like it was time. My wife told me I was helping people make their programs successful and that maybe it was time for me to build my own. Even though I didn’t attend, I’ve always felt that I was a Wildcat born and raised.”
Through his first three years, Jenkins is 21-7 overall with a MEAC football title, FCS playoff appearance, a national black college football championship (the first in school history) and top 25 FCS rankings in several national polls to his credit. He replaced alumnus and HBCU coaching staple Alvin “Shine” Wyatt, who through 13 seasons drew as much attention to his sideline wardrobe than his triple-option offense that brought 90-plus wins to the BCU program. Jenkins’ transition yielded little protest from Wildcat faithful, and through these early years, his teams and their results on the field have evenly matched his personality – quietly effective.
Described by Bethune-Cookman Athletic Director Lynn Thompson as “a disciplinarian who challenged all of us to operate at the highest level when he arrived,” Jenkins speaks sternly on the responsibility necessary to build an elite program while working against the stereotypes about competitive balance and player talent commonly levied against HBCUs.
“The number one thing is that you’ve got to take the vision like Sylvester Croom took. You cant allow people to box you in or label you. He didn’t come into Mississippi State saying ‘I’m the first African-American head coach here, and we’re going to do this the way African-Americans would do it.’ He came in with the mentality of being the best football coach he could be, and that’s it.”
“You can’t separate yourself into a category as just HBCU. We want to represent and be counted amongst the best, but yet we want to separate ourselves as an HBCU. I’m respectful of our heritage, and of the development of our colleges, and I have a lot of honor for the way by which our colleges came into existence. But we have to see ourselves as the norm, and when we begin to present ourselves as the norm, we’ll be accepted as such. Let’s get out of the mold of how HBCUs do it, because a lot of the people have a lot of stigmas about HBCU football. And that shouldn’t occur.”
“We have to stop pushing that ‘we’re an HBCU.’ We play by the same rules between the chalked lines. We have to operate at a high level.”
Few operate at a higher level of excellence than Connell Maynor. The mild-mannered offensive guru is 26-3 through two-and-a-half-seasons at the helm of Ram football, with an undefeated regular season and CIAA football title as footnotes to WSSU’s historic run to the national semi-finals of the NCAA Division II football championship in 2011. His success, a far cry from becoming the face of a program that had recently made a controversial return to the CIAA after a failed attempt at moving up to the Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Maynor, a former standout quarterback at Winston-Salem State and North Carolina A&T, says that he welcomes the opportunity to represent HBCUs with his team’s success, and understands the role that resources play in strengthening the stereotypes.
“Before last year, the CIAA had just a few wins in the postseason. People have done what we’ve done, but they’ve gotten beaten in the first game,” says Maynor. “We knew that we were carrying the CIAA when we got to the playoffs, and we knew what it meant to everyone. Jackie Robinson had to be the first in baseball, so we don’t mind if we’ve got to be the flagship to show that HBCUs can compete for a national title. I don’t know if its added pressure, we just prepare to win every game.”
“I think that the resources are a big factor in black college football. We don’t have big alumni chapters like UNC, Michigan State, etc. We have about 5,000 students, they have 30,000. We don’t have many of the resources coming in to fully invest in all of our sports. It’s not talent, its depth. When you get to the playoffs, its about the talent you have going into a playoff game where you don’t have all of your starters in due to injuries or something else. You can’t complain, you have to fight with what you’ve got. At the end of the day, if its not an even battlefield, it will be tough to beat someone.
“You understand what you have, and you work to get where you want to be. You just have to work with it.”
For both coaches, part of working with what you have is selling the experience of their institutions to potential recruits. So far, the sales pitch in living rooms across the southeast has been an effective one, as BCU and WSSU players have been mainstays on the MEAC and CIAA all-conference teams for the past two years. But more importantly, the share a common goal of building quality men for life after football.
“I’m going to coach the whole kid, when they leave, they’ll not only be a champion, but a better father, better husband and good community man,” says Maynor. “If you want them to learn the right way to go, you have to lead by example.”
“Outside, I want to build men to be good husbands, fathers and community leaders,” Jenkins says. “We can stop losing our youth to violence and take our communities back. That comes with building men, and while one of our goals as a team, a university and a community is to win championships, the bigger goal is to build men.”
Thompson shares a story of Jenkins reinstating a tradition of the ‘Wildcats Legacy Walk,’ where players walk dressed uniformly in black suits, white shirts and maroon and gold ties through the crowd of BCU tailgaters and cheerleaders into the stadium on home game days. But that’s just the surface of Jenkins’ feel for the program and its athletes.
“Win or lose, every Sunday those athletes are going to church. He always talks about serving, being involved,” says Thompson. “Jackie Wilson, our starting QB had surgery and then lost his grandfather. A really rough time for him. Coach Jenkins stopped everything he was doing to minister to this kid. It’s far more than being a coach. A college coach is a coach for life, he’ll talk to you about marriage, you see how he treats his family and that’s what our athletes are learning to emulate.”
With any success in black college sports, the question that rumbles up among alumni and supporters is how long schools will be able to afford to keep the coaching talent around. While Jenkins and Maynor both say its prudent for any coach to keep mind and options open, they differ on the prospect of joining the ranks of HBCU football coaching lifers like Eddie Robinson, Jake Gaither and Joe Taylor.
“Those guys decided to stay by choice,” Jenkins says. “He (FAMU’s Taylor) felt on his heart that he had some work to do to create opportunities for guys like myself, and I thank him for that. But if that’s what God has for me to do, I’ll be here for as long as He’ll have me to stay. And if His intent is for me to leave then I’ll pack up and go where He wants me to go. I thank God for every moment.”
“You have to keep your doors open, but I could very easily see (remaining as an HBCU football coach), Maynor says. “I’m at an HBCU so that I can help young men, and we help them understand that there’s life after football. I think that HBCU coaches get closer to their players, and we care about our players and what they’re going to do after football. I’ve got transfers from D1 schools that say they never see, so we’re here for them and I could definitely see myself doing that for as long as I can.”