Sacrificial Lions: The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s shot at Duke

Each March, another Cinderella has a go. This time, it was Lehigh and Norfolk State. But in 2010, it was Salavace Townsend and the rest of the UAPB Golden Lions. (courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Credit spewed in multiple directions following No. 15-seeded Lehigh’s historic upset of No. 2-seeded Duke on Friday night, including backward. Lehigh had played No. 1-seeded Michigan State earlier this season, and its star guard C.J. McCollum credited that game (a 9-point loss) with toughening the team: “It helped a lot,” McCollum told the New York Times after beating Duke.“Early on, we were in some tough environments. That gave us confidence we could play with anybody in the country.”

This reasoning reminded me of UAPB’s surprising run in March 2010, when the No.16-seeded Golden Lions became the only men’s basketball in Arkansas to win an NCAA Tournament game the last four years. The reward for that win was a date No.1-seeded Duke in Jacksonville, Florida. UAPB didn’t exactly pull a Lehigh there.

But that doesn’t mean their story wasn’t historic in its own right, as the following Arkansas Life article (published in March 2011) shows:

“It was like UAPB was Tiger Woods for one week.”

“Schools like UAPB support a Sisyphean system in which early-season beatings are scheduled for the chance, if all goes well, to get whacked in the end.”

UAPB’s basketball team made an amazing tournament run a year ago, but its success reveals a Catch-22 when it comes to college athletics: Some teams have to lose to stay alive.

by Evin Demirel

For nearly a week last March, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff stood alone at the center of Arkansas’s sports world. Its men’s basketball team graced the front pages and led the 10 o’clock news in a way usually reserved for the almighty Arkansas Razorbacks. But as the only Division I Arkansas men’s team in March Madness — aka, the NCAA basketball tournament — the UAPB Golden Lions were the official feel-good story of the spring. They had flipped an 0-11 start into a 12-1 finish through hard work, defense, and pluck, riding such enduring virtues through a whirlwind tournament tour that didn’t stop until top seed and future national champion Duke decided that enough was enough. In the opening round of the tourney, the Dukies clobbered UAPB 73-44 in Jacksonville, Florida, but by then the story had sold.

The Golden Lions returned heroes, beloved by a city they had thrust into the national limelight for reasons otherthan chemical weapons, poverty, and unemployment. Long an also-ran on Best Places lists, Pine Bluff had something to be proud of — its nationally known basketball team. “It kind of felt like we were rock stars for a week and a half,” says Terrance Calvin, a senior guard on last year’s squad. “By the time we reached Dayton [site of a tournament game] I had probably had about a thousand friend requests on Facebook. … And by the time we reached Florida, I had another thousand.”

The good cheer spread.
“It excited everybody — the run that these young men made,” says Harold Blevins, a UAPB alumnus and former men’s basketball coach at the college. “It excited the city, it excited the state, it excited all the alumni. As an ex-coach you even had people calling me thinking I was still coaching” and asking for tickets. “I could not find a network that was not talking about UAPB,” an anonymous poster commented on a Pine Bluff Commercial online article. “It was like UAPB was Tiger Woods for 1 week(lol).” In the ensuing weeks, congratulatory messages flooded in from public officials like Congressman Mike Ross, state senator Henry Wilkins IV, and state representative Darrin Williams. Jefferson County Judge Mike Holcomb declared March 19 “Black and Gold Day” in honor of the team’s NCAA Tournament victory over Winthrop.

But UAPB’s breathtaking rise last season was bookended by other storylines, each limning dark shadows above which Arkansas’s Cinderella team bounded to the Big Dance. These trenchant issues are not exclusive to UAPB athletics; they extend to other public universities, down to primary education and through society itself.

For a school like a UAPB, they pose problems far more imposing than seven-footers from Durham, North Carolina. These schools support a Sisyphean system in which early-season beatings are scheduled for the chance, if all goes well, to get whacked in the end.

Early each season, UAPB and other small schools play what are known as guarantee games, in which richer schools pay poorer schools tens of thousands of dollars for a visit — and a likely victory at home. Some have dubbed them Rent-A-Win games.

Guarantee Games form the financial springboard to March Madness, when the UAPBs and East Tennessee States of the world again become fodder for the likes of Duke and Kentucky. Guarantee Games, their results buried in sports sections and on Saturday night newscasts, provide the money to keep a basketball program like UAPB’s alive — despite rising costs and declining talent.

The Southwestern Athletic Conference to which UAPB belongs consistently ranks among the least competitive in the highest division of college basketball. Its ten members — historically black colleges and universities in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama — are found in some of the nation’s poorest areas. In the highest division of college basketball, nearly everyone survives, fit or not. But thriving goes to the richest.

On the road again

The Golden Lions smashed through a pinata full of firsts on their unlikely drive through March: the first UAPB basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament, first to win there, first SWAC team to win an NCAA tournament game since 1993, and first UAPB football or basketball team to win a SWAC championship since 1997.

“It was a milestone in the school’s history,” says Pine Bluff Mayor Carl Redus, who lettered in baseball at UAPB. “We hadn’t won a championship in so long, that in itself was an important hurdle to get over. … Athletics are your marketing arm. You get so much more visibility and recognition out of an athletic program than you would advertising over billboards.”

Before all that, though, came an extraordinary last. On January 16, 2010, UAPB became the last of 338 Division I colleges to play its first home game of the season. By then, the Razorbacks had played twelve home games (including two against SWAC foes). Meanwhile, the Golden Lions played their first fourteen games on the road, losing the first eleven to quality teams such as Missouri, Kansas State, and Georgia Tech. By the end of December, UAPB’s strength of schedule was ranked by computers as the hardest in the nation. Those same bots deem the SWAC so bad that, once its regular season gets underway, its best teams often fall in the rankings despite winning games.

Which is exactly what happened to UAPB a few weeks later, after beating Southern University at home.

In the end, that brutal non-conference schedule laid the foundation for later success. “Had we not gone through what we did at the beginning of the season,” Calvin says, “I don’t think we would have finished off as strong as we did. I feel as though it helped us become closer as a team and get better as individual players, which led to us winning the eventual championship.”

What happened?

From 1936 to 1970, Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College — now called UAPB — played in the SWAC. As other public universities in the South — especially those of the Southeastern Conference — were slow to allow black athletes onto their teams, most of those athletes played for historically black colleges. But in 1970 a black running back named Sam Cunningham led the University of Southern California to a rout of Alabama, helping turn what was a trickle of the best black athletes to powerhouse SEC schools into a flood.

The effect has been most pronounced in basketball. According to StatSheet.com, from 1980–1996, twenty-four SWAC players were drafted into the NBA. None have been drafted since.

“It’s difficult for those guys like [UAPB coach George] Ivory to recruit because, forget about the blue-chippers, forget about the McDonald’s All-Americans — don’t even call them — you don’t have a shot,” says Jesse Mason, who starred for UAPB in basketball during the 1950s. “This second-level, you can almost forget about them, too. Because if the majors don’t get
them, the mid-majors are.”

More metrics bear out results of this dearth of elite talent: Since 1980, again according to StatSheet.com, SWAC teams have advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tourney twice, and never past the second round; in 1983-84 SWAC teams won half of their non-conference games, but that percentage has steadily dropped to 16 percent by this season.

Such losing stifles buzz — the first step of attracting TV broadcast deals, selling tickets, selling merchandise, and bringing in donations.

So what’s a team like UAPB to do? Hit the road. Play the bigs. Make money. In 2009, men’s basketball at UAPB had operating expenses of $504,646 and revenue of $761,254 — thanks primarily to the $740,543 made from guarantee games against big-name schools, according to its unaudited report to the NCAA. Through mid-January of this year, UAPB men’s
basketball had netted $492,500 through twelve guarantee games, according to Willie Fulton, the athletic department’s interim director.

By early January, UAPB had played 34 consecutive non-conference games on the road, resulting in a single win — 64-62 over Southern Methodist University in December 2008. “Those teams, what they’re doing, is really paying you to provide them with an exhibition game in a sense,” says UAPB Chancellor Lawrence A. Davis, Jr. “And we’re playing the exhibition game on their court to make the revenue. That’s all it is.” And scheduling non-conference home games in future seasons isn’t in the plans, he adds.

UAPB’s athletic department reported a break-even fiscal 2009, its expense matching its revenue at $6,695,811. Included in that subtotal operating revenue, though, is Direct Institutional Support — state funds, tuition, tuition wavers and transfers — that public
universities pass to their athletic budgets to keep them afloat. In 2009, that amount was $2,197,911 at UAPB.

The school’s alumni, coaches, and players agree guarantee games are a necessary, if unfortunate, part of life. The men’s basketball team has racked up at least 35,274 miles on the road over the last three seasons for non-conference games, according to the database Basketball State. “It kind of gets to you once you’ve lost about four or five games in a row,” says Calvin, now a part-time volunteer assistant coach under Ivory. “You’re like ‘We gotta get this win, we gotta get this, we gotta get it’ and you end up losing two or three more and it’s like it’s never gonna come.”

Guarantee games can be effective barometers. They allow SWAC players match their abilities against future NBA players, said senior Allen Smith. They can also serve as primers on potential foes in the NCAA Tournament, he adds: “You don’t want that to be the first time you’ve seen a team like Duke.”

Read the last part of this article here.

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