Moving Forward While Honoring the Past

You remember the fall of 1980?  Ronald Reagan was on his way to an historic beat-down of President Carter in the election, the Iran Hostage Crisis was into its second year and most of us saw this concept called cable television for the first time.  Who can forget the set top box with the dial that you had to get up and spin to find another channel.  Oh and the stories some of us could tell about rigging that cable box to find channels you weren’t supposed to see.  A story for another day.    

          It was also the last year one now NCAA Division II football program played a game.  In other words, this school ends 40 years of bye weeks this Saturday afternoon at Bluefield, West Virginia’s venerable Mitchell Stadium.

          Bluefield State College in Bluefield, West Virginia last played a football game on November 15, 1980, a 54-13 beat down from nearby rival Concord College (now University).  The game was a complete mess.  The two teams combined for 36 penalties encompassing 427 yards and a bench clearing brawl that delayed the game for 10 minutes.  The game itself lasted over 3 hours which is an eternity in small college football where there are no 3-minute ESPN commercial breaks.

          Bluefield State shuttered its program after the 1980 season which ended with a 1-7-1 record.  They also largely fell off the athletic face of the earth by dropping what is the single sport most alumni can relate with.

          College football has a way of bringing people together even if they don’t actually like the sport. Without football, BSC’s signature sports became men’s and womens’ basketball with the womens’ program achieving more sustained success than the men’s team.  In addition, the school participated in baseball, cross country, golf, tennis, softball, womens’ cross country and volleyball all in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference or WVIAC. 

          Enter a new school President with a new vision to move into the future by honoring the past.  Under President Robin Capehart, Bluefield State decided to kick start its athletic program and revive football by adding 12 sports including the football program to not only increase its profile but revive a proud heritage that was all about providing opportunities to African American student-athletes.

          Bluefield State sits right off West Virginia Route 52, a highway that leads to the once thriving West Virginia coalfields and to an era that is gone and never coming back.  BSC’s hilly campus overlooks the train tracks that divide a city which was once the epicenter of the coal boom.  Those tracks carried coal (and still do to a much smaller extent) from the mines to the steel mills up north where it was used to supply the power source for the manufacturing of steel. 

          In those mines were a large number of African American workers who came to the West Virginia coalfields in search of good paying jobs and a better life.  But being an African American in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s came with a price, a lack of opportunities particularly educational ones. 

          In response the West Virginia legislature created Bluefield Colored Institute with its sole mission of providing college education to the children of African American coal miners.  The school was and remains a historically black college or university (HBCU) and on the football field quickly became a small college powerhouse.  BSC won the National Black College Football National Championship in 1927 and 1928.  The 1928 team went 8-0-1 in claiming the national championship.

          And while BSC is an HBCU, it was called by an NPR article in 2013 as the whitest HBCU in the nation.  After the United States Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education which outlawed segregation in education, educational opportunities blossomed for African Americans. Simultaneously white residents of the area returning from war with a G.I. Bill took advantage of the now renamed Bluefield State College for their educational opportunities.  BSC slowly turned from a largely African American school to one that at one point earlier this century had 90 percent of white students.

          To revive its football program, BSC also had to revive the way it operates its campus.  After a bombing in the school gym on November 21, 1968, the schools’ then president closed the campus dorms turning BSC into a commuter college overnight.  The lack of athletic dorms severely hampered BSC’s efforts at competing in athletics.  It’s hard enough convincing a really good player to come to a school with limited scholarship money much less asking that same player to find his own place to live and incur the expenses for doing so.   President Capehart understood that in adding sports they also needed new on-campus housing which is under construction.

          The lack of football also left BSC in conference purgatory.  In 2012, 8 of the 9 football playing members of the WVIAC bolted the conference to join non-football playing Wheeling Jesuit (now Wheeling), UVA-Wise, and Ohio based Notre Dame College and Urbana University to form the Mountain East Conference.   Cast-offs Seton Hill and Pitt-Johnstown joined the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, while Alderson-Broaddus, Davis & Elkins and Ohio Valley joined the Great Midwest Conference.  The only school left without a conference affiliation was Bluefield State which was left operating as NCAA Division II independent with some sports participating in the wide-ranging and largely disorganized East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC).  The once proud WVIAC became a footnote in history. 

          Make no mistake that football is a marquee sport and BSC will need to find a home for its football program along with its other sports.  But for now, BSC will play an independent 8 game schedule in its second inaugural season which begins on Saturday with a home game at Bluefield’s Mitchell Stadium against Michigan based Lawrence Tech.  Other games include matchups against other HBCU’s Elizabeth City State and Johnson C. Smith.

          BSC hired Tony Coaxum as its new head coach.  Coaxum came to BSC from Northern Colorado where he coached the defensive backs and special teams.  Coaxum, a West Point graduate, served a term in the Army as a field artillery officer before embarking on a coaching career that included stops at the University of Kansas, Central Michigan and his alma mater in college and the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.  He’s hired 8 assistant coaches and filled out a roster just since last October.  The school has also rebranded its mascot.  The athletic teams will still be known as the “Big Blues” but now have a bulldog mascot. 

          Anyone who has lived or still lives in the area knows that Bluefield is a dying city.  According to the Census Bureau the City’s population declined 8 percent to just under 10,000 between 2010 and 2020, and most of the people who live there were born there and will die there.  Sixty years ago, the population was north of 20,000 residents.  The city still features the powerhouse local Bluefield High School football program and there’s a powerhouse Virginia high school team in Graham high school just across the border.  That provides a pipeline for potential players, but for now it’s all about providing opportunity for student-athletes to play a game they love and get an education in the process.  After all the school on the hill had education as its sole purpose when its door swung open to provide opportunities to those who previously did not have them. 

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