Savannah State AD Tony O'Neal greets players walking off the court after Monday's loss.
THE REST OF THE TIGERS' TROUBLES
Woes off the court
The women's softball team -- one of five helter-skelter additions SSU made in 2001-02 -- lost its first game 44-0 to Morris Brown on Feb. 26, 2002. It has a three-year record of 1-81 and in the entire 2004 season, it scored just one run while its opponents scored 536. And when the team was scheduled to begin its 2005 season on Feb. 9 against Jacksonville University, the Tigers had neither uniforms nor a coach. The game was postponed.
The football team, which competes at the I-AA level, finished 0-12 in '03 and 2-8 in '04. A program that once sent Shannon Sharpe and Troy Hambrick from D-II to the NFL is now embroiled in scandal, with the NCAA investigating players' claims that student-assistant coach Jerome Pope sold steroids to players during the '04 season. At least 12 Tigers have left the team in the offseason, and should the NCAA find evidence of wrongdoing, the punishment it levies could have effects far worse than the negative publicity of an 0-28 basketball season.
The baseball team, which was playing a home game Sunday on a field sandwiched in between the venues of its bungling brethren in football and hoops, is the shining star of SSU athletics. It had a 46-3 record in D-II in 2000 and has posted winning seasons in each of its two years in D-I. But it too cannot escape the shadows: Coach Jamie Rigdon, who is white, filed a federal lawsuit against the historically African-American school on Aug. 31 for racial discrimination, naming
SSU president Dr. Carlton Brown and former AD Hank Ford among the plaintiffs.
SAVANNAH, Ga. -- It was 9:38 p.m. on Monday, more than a half hour after Savannah State stumbled into the record books with the second winless season in the past 50 years of Division I men's basketball. The stands in Tiger Arena had cleared out and the court was empty, save for one man, Edward Daniels Jr., who was walking silently across it.
His gait was slow and labored, the movements of a coach weighed down by the burden of losing 28 consecutive games in 2004-05, and 77 of 79 contests in SSU's three seasons since moving to D-I. In his left hand he held a creased copy of the box score from the 49-44 defeat, in which his Tigers put in their most valiant effort of the season, trailing Florida A&M by only two points at halftime and one point with 13 seconds left ... but finished with an all-too-familiar result.
Daniels' destination was his team's bench, a row of folding chairs that was by then nearly vacant. Waiting for him patiently was his wife, Norma Jean. An event that evoked negative feelings -- the heartbreak of one final, devastating loss -- fell on a holiday that celebrates love.
"We still have some of Valentine's Day left," she said to him as they prepared to leave. That was all that could be salvaged from the evening. A season of failure had taken a severe emotional toll on Daniels and his players.
"It's been extremely hard on me, because I feel for a lot of people," Daniels said. "At some time during the year I've had to feel real deep for each individual player. I don't think I've had a good night's sleep in months."
When the buzzer sounded, tears were rolling down the cheeks of Tigers freshman guard Mark Williams, whose 3-pointer had cut the Rattlers' lead to 45-44 in the game's final minute. SSU athletics director Tony O'Neal stopped Williams before he could leave the floor and embraced him along with seniors Donald Carson and Sherrard Reddick and junior Mark Bennett. In that misty-eyed huddle, "[O'Neal] told us to keep our heads up, that things were going to get better, and that he loved us," Carson said.
Carson had his potential game-winning 3-point attempt blocked with 11 seconds left. His father, Harry, the former New York Giants football great, made his way onto the court soon after the clock struck 0:00, putting his arm around his dejected son, who was suffering from after-effects of the flu and shot just 1-of-15 from the field.
Harry, who saw Donald, along with Reddick and Winston Martinez, honored before the game as part of SSU's Senior Night, had written a letter to his son two weeks earlier when the Tigers were 0-24. In it, Harry said, "I told him how proud I was that he had the fortitude and dedication to keep playing the game, even when his team wasn't doing well."
That same level of support wasn't found everywhere. Reddick, who was fighting off tears, said, "It was hard, being in public, on campus. People would sometimes make jokes about us."
In the privacy of the post-game locker room, there was no jesting. Daniels stood in front of his team and said, "'Thank you," and then told them, "If you have to point fingers, point fingers at me, because you guys have to live together, and I am the captain of the ship."
Daniels is willing to take the heat off his players, but the blame can't be heaped entirely on the coach. Consider the issues that are beyond the captain's control: SSU has only eight scholarship players, five fewer than the NCAA maximum of 13, which most D-I teams carry. Neither of Daniels' two assistants are full-time. He has no film manager or strength coach. And worst of all, he has little-to-no money with which to recruit.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Daniels' program was allotted $211,801 in 2003-04 and the school spent just $7,212 on recruiting for all of its men's sports. By contrast, Hampton, which competes in one of the conferences SSU hopes to join (the MEAC), spent $684,216 on men's hoops and $97,259 on recruiting during that same period. The University of Georgia, a major D-I program, spent $1.6 million on men's basketball and $735,000 on men's recruiting.
SSU is an under-funded ship that's sinking in D-I, and its athletes and coaches are suffering defeats and damaged psyches as a result. Daniels' Tigers will now live on in infamy -- but the school, in part, set its basketball team up to fail.
Many would say SSU's quagmire can be traced to one man's misguided decision.