After 13 years, Allen University revives football program
Teddy Keaton is in his element. Building a football program — Allen University’s reborn football program — one “brick” at a time.
This day, he’s sitting at a table in his small coaches’ meeting room, talking up his school and its fledgling program. Across from him, a potential player from Denver with family ties to Greenville sits with his parents, listening.
It’s late July, seven months since he took the job and barely two months before Allen, a small historically black college in downtown Columbia, kicks off its first football season since 2005. But Keaton is still recruiting, still pitching a 260-pound offensive lineman on what he can do with the Yellow Jackets. “You’ve got to be a used car salesman in this business,” said Keaton, who is energetic and enthusiastic.
This day, the pitch worked. “He’s coming here,” Keaton said afterward, glancing up at the Allen team roster on a TV screen over his office desk. Some 86 players are listed. When he arrived Jan. 3 from his Alabama home, there were no names; a month ago, there were 63. By kickoff of the Yellow Jackets’ first game on Sept. 1, he figures he’ll have what he needs.
Short and stocky, wearing a white coach’s shirt with Allen’s logo, Keaton is facing the challenge of a lifetime.
He is tasked with forging a team, with all its support systems, by the home opener at Irmo’s W.C. Hawkins Stadium. Watching the process intently will be Ernest McNealey, the school president who hired him, plus a passionate alumni base, including former players from Allen’s glory days of the 1960s, who have raised $500,000 to see a longtime dream come to fruition. It is an uphill battle.
That $500,000 first-year budget is roughly a third of what Allen was spending each season from 2001-05, the last time the school fielded a football team. By comparison, the University of South Carolina athletics department reported expenses of $102.9 million for 2017-18 (with projected income of more than $121 million), most of that for football.
So being frugal, and creative, are watchwords for Keaton. He and a largely volunteer coaching staff laid sod themselves to create a practice field across Taylor Street from campus, and solicited alumni to provide materials and labor for a weight room and lockers.
By any standards of college athletics, Allen’s seems an improbable goal. But the school administration sees football and its pageantry as a means of revitalizing not just a program, but their entire small university.
Why should it work this time, when Allen’s last attempt to bring back football failed miserably? The answer, most likely, lies with the man charged with doing it.
‘If he can’t win there, it won’t be for a lack of effort’
Keaton believes he was meant for such a job. That attitude has been part of his makeup ever since he finished his college baseball career in 1999 at Alabama’s Stillman College, then pursued a coaching position — in football. “I knew this is what I wanted to be,” he said.
Since 2004, the 42-year-old native of Brewton, Ala., has coached two small colleges and three minor-league indoor football teams. In 2011, he returned to Stillman as head coach, had four winning seasons in five years — and lost his job when the school shut down football during the 2015 season.
McNealey was Stillman’s president when Keaton was an athlete there and during his first three seasons as coach. “(McNealey) told me, ‘It’s going to take a guy who knows how to work with limited resources,’” Keaton said. “He knew I’d done more with less.”
At Allen, less is reality. Keaton’s office is in a former check-cashing business at the front of the parking lot of Allen University Mall, a converted Food Lion. “No one’s come in trying to cash a check; I wish they’d drop some checks off,” the coach said, laughing.
The former grocery houses the Yellow Jackets’ new weight room and new locker room. Locally made lockers in Allen blue were provided by William “Billy” Chapman, a local businessman who played football at Allen in the 1960s.
“I’m a contractor, so the guys who work for me know how to build things,” said Chapman, a running back who graduated in 1968. “I designed the locker room for them, and guys I played with stepped in and provided the wood. We probably saved the school $45,000.”
Other savings came when Keaton found a young company, Future1s in Alabama, which gave Allen a “reasonable” price on uniforms — and even allowed the coach to have a hand in their design. It all adds up, Keaton said.
Keaton didn’t come into this job unaware of Allen sports history. His cousin, former Irmo High and Alabama basketball standout Marvin Orange, was Allen’s basketball coach in 2000-02 before moving to Los Angeles and then finishing his playing career overseas.
“(Keaton) called me, asked what I thought (about working at Allen), and I thought, ‘If anyone can resurrect that program, it would be him,’ ” Orange said. “His enthusiasm, his ability to communicate and get the right people to promote Allen football … he’s a motivator, and he’ll get the Allen community excited.
“If he can’t win there, it won’t be for a lack of effort. He’ll put in the work.”
Upon arrival, Keaton immediately began working the phones, calling on high school contacts in Alabama, Florida, Texas and West Virginia. “I had no staff, so I made calls at night,” he said. “I got kids in here, sold them on the school and the chance to play early (as freshmen).”
The season opener is against a club team from Columbus (Ga.) State, and Keaton is — surprise — enthusiastic about the product he’ll put on the field.
He’s also realistic: Because of the late start, Allen scheduled just seven games, all but one vs. NCAA Division 2 teams. The Yellow Jackets, who compete in lower-level NAIA, figure to be regular underdogs.
“My job is to go out and be competitive, put a good product out there, see the kids grow,” he said. “If we don’t win a game … I just don’t want to be embarrassed. I understand the circumstances we’re in, that we probably won’t win any.”
He also understands that such realistic expectations could be in short supply this fall with his president, and especially with Allen’s avid fans.
Learning from the past
Ernest McNealey never set out to revive football at Allen when he became president in the fall of 2016. But the former member of the NCAA Presidents Council knew his alumni base was already enthusiastically on board.
“They approached me within two weeks of my arriving,” McNealey said. Among the most rabid was Clyde Hill, a Newberry restaurant owner and Allen Class of 1959.
“He was down here about every 10 days,” the president said. “He arranged for meetings with other alums, most of them typically in their 60s, 70s” — including former players from the 1950s and 1960s — “and there seemed to be a favorable disposition toward it.”
Hill, who ran track and managed athletics and band transportation while in school, had been pushing to bring back “the good old days of football” almost from the time Allen first shut down the sport in the late 1960s. The school’s attempt to bring the sport back was discontinued due to finances, academic issues and liability concerns.
This time, “the new leaders (of the General Alumni Association) were the key to bringing it back,” Hill said. “This time, we have the right chemistry with the administration to get it done.”
That was anything but the case from 2001-05.
In February 2006, when Allen officially ended its “football experiment,” the school’s then-president, Charles Young (who was fired in 2010), said the annual cost was $1.4 million, including $300,000 for scholarships for 80 players. Allen football in 2005 brought in less than $30,000, according to an Associated Press story that year.
A 2006 “Strategic Evaluation of Allen University Football,” provided to The State newspaper by an Allen alumnus, stated that the Yellow Jackets in five seasons had a record of 18-24. But more alarming were reports of poor nutrition for players, lack of adequate strength and conditioning programs, and cases of one player overcome by heat exhaustion and another hospitalized with “an aggressive form of staphylococcus” because of inadequate sanitary conditions in the locker room and showers.
Also in 2006, a “lack of academic support” resulted in 33 of the first 87 players recruited failing to earn a single college credit, a group GPA of 1.75, a retention rate of 11 percent over eight semesters, and only one player who actually earned a degree.
This time, McNealey agreed to help push the football agenda for one reason: the prospect of increased enrollment and with that, more alumni giving.
“I wouldn’t call myself a rabid fan,” he said, “but from an executive position, if managed properly, it can be a powerful tool for a small school. Besides the players, you’ve got cousins, best friends, girlfriends and others who want to come because football is here. That’s a direct benefit.
“And,” he said with a laugh, “you keep the alumni happy, which is very important.”
Allen athletics director Chad Washington — son of Willie Washington, longtime athletics director at Allen’s cross-street rival Benedict College — is similarly direct about the school’s current motivation.
“You can quote me: The sole purpose of bringing back football is to drive our enrollment,” he said. “We’re in the business of getting students, and ideally, if you have a decent football team, more kids will come to your school.
“Athletics here already is almost 33 percent of the campus; in 2014, we had 188 athletes (out of an enrollment of about 600). It’s all about recruitment, garnering new students.”
McNealey insisted that alumni provide the money to restart the football program. “They understood we were not going to use school funds,” he said. He gave football’s supporters that $500,000 goal and was pleasantly surprised when they met it.
“We could’ve opted to hire eight full-time coaches, but we’re not going to,” McNealey said. “Especially at a small school, there’s no return on spending lavishly on sports. You spend to ensure your students are taken care of properly, and that the teams represent the school’s values and are competitive.”
Allen also plans to reintroduce a school marching band, since “you cannot have a football program at an HBCU without a marching band,” McNealey said. “The whole effort is about growing enrollment, while also having various constituents happy.”
In Keaton, McNealey is confident he has a coach who can balance keeping costs down with fielding a competitive team. “You want a coach who’s experienced, and he certainly is,” he said. “He’s also young enough to relate to players, but mature enough to manage them.”
Chad Washington was quickly on board with the president’s choice as coach. “Starting a brand-new program, getting things done in three months here, being able to put together a team — I think he’s done an awesome job,” Washington said.
“I met him when he was at Stillman in 2010. When the president mentioned him, I said, ‘I know that guy.’ We did a national search, and he was the best guy.”
‘There’s a lot of good football played in ‘one-horse’ towns’
Tommy Brown was probably the best guy for Keaton to hire as his defensive coordinator, Allen’s only other salaried coaching position. Brown, 63, coached more than 30 years in the high school ranks, with stints at Orangeburg-Wilkinson, Fairfield Central, and smaller schools Calhoun County and Bowman.
“I wasn’t looking for this (Allen) job,” he said. “I was probably going to take a (high school) job in Augusta this year.” But a former Calhoun County High secretary now working at Allen steered Keaton to Brown as a potential hire.
“(Keaton) said, ‘Come up and let’s talk,’” Brown said, adding with a laugh, “I didn’t realize he was going to introduce me to the (Allen) president. Good thing I wore a suit and tie.”
It was a good fit immediately because Brown knows high school football in South Carolina — especially the state’s smaller schools where Allen has focused its recruiting efforts, looking for talent that fell through the recruiting cracks.
Call it a “last chance” scenario: Most of Allen’s players were thrilled at a chance to continue playing football — even at Allen, a school many had never heard of — after being mostly overlooked by USC, Clemson and other large schools.
“I don’t have to sell them on Allen,” Keaton said. “They’re looking for an opportunity. There’s a lot of good football played in ‘one-horse’ towns that no one goes to. I can find a guy who’s happy that a coach came to see him, and wants to be a part of college football.”
Among some of those finds are Jeremiah Bozeman, a defensive lineman from Fairbanks, Ga., who was selected to play in the Florida-Georgia All-Star Game, and Marvin Maddox, a 174-pound running back and slot receiver from East Brewton, Ala. (“coach Keaton’s home town,” Brown said) who was scheduled to play in an Alabama vs. Florida all-star game but passed that up to come to Allen’s summer workouts.
Allen’s players get limited scholarship help — “I’ve got enough money to have about 57-58 kids on scholarship,” Keaton said — and if players obtain other financial aid, that amount is taken off their football grant. Keaton sees that as a potential plus.
“At Allen, the average (financial aid) is about 43 percent” of the cost to attend school, Keaton said. “Now, a kid is making an investment to go to college. He’s not just there to play football.”
Allen is a last chance for some of its unpaid coaching staff, too. Though Keaton serves as his own offensive coordinator, Nick Trist holds the title. Among the rest of the nine-man staff are former Benedict players (defensive back coach Kenyatta Smith, offensive line coach Stanley Wright) and former USC linebacker Kenny Harney, who played under Charlie Strong during the Lou Holtz era.
“It’s a staff that’s young and hungry to get into the coaching business,” Keaton said. “This is a great chance to start a program from the ground up — sort of like I was at Stillman in 1999.”
He’s got players, coaches and the beginnings of a football facility. So what’s left for Keaton to do?
How about changing Allen’s past image of failure?
“Unfortunately, my time machine is broken; I can’t go back and fix that (history),” Keaton said. “I’ve had to keep moving on to the next thing.
“That means trying to get away from the mentality that ‘This is just Allen.’ Some guys are in love with the idea of playing football until they see our practices. They’ve got to pass our conditioning so we know if they’re serious about and committed to doing this.”
Keaton is committed to doing this. “I’ve won everywhere I’ve been,” he said, “and I don’t plan on losing here.” Not over the long haul.
He took a job with more hurdles and question marks than easy answers … and he hasn’t even coached a real game yet. But that day is coming on Sept. 1.
Keaton says he’s ready. Not surprisingly, he’s enthusiastic about what lies ahead.