Murder of football player in Kansas shakes town (cont.)
The KCAC was formed in 1928 to give the small colleges of Kansas their own conference, and local sportswriters took to calling it the "Little Six" (in contrast to the NCAA's Big Six, precursor to today's Big 12). The Topeka Capitol-Journal commended the spirit of the small-college game, noting that there were "no costly schedules, no overbuilt stadiums, no disproportionate staffs in the KCAC, but a lot of real football just the same." One of the most electrifying players of that era was Ruple Perkins, nicknamed "The Ghost," a black running back from Ohio who (despite having to sit out games against southern schools like Oklahoma Baptist) helped lead Kansas Wesleyan to the inaugural conference title in 1929.
The presence of out-of-state players such as Perkins was a rarity, however, and for the next several decades the KCAC was for the most part a league of tough Kansas farm kids playing for church-affiliated colleges. Up through the 1960s, a Bethany-Bethel game consisted of Swedish-Lutheran players with names like Gustafson and Sandquist battling it out against German-Mennonite kids with names like Friesen and Zerger. That began to change in 1976, when a South Dakota-born coach named Ted Kessinger arrived at Bethany and started building a dynasty that would dominate the KCAC for 25 years, winning 15 conference titles between 1977 and 2001.
In small-college football circles Coach K is as legendary as Bear Bryant or Lou Holtz (to whom he bears a faint physical resemblance), though the best comparison might be to Tom Osborne, since Nebraska inspired the NCAA-style program Kessinger brought to Bethany. In an era in which most KCAC football coaches still doubled as gym teachers and assistant track coaches, Kessinger devoted himself to football year-round. While other conference coaches seldom strayed past Oklahoma or Colorado to scout out-of-state talent, Kessinger recruited in Florida, New Jersey, Texas and California. And, at a time when KCAC squads rarely topped 50 or 60 players, Coach K's Bethany rosters boasted 100 or more student-athletes. It wasn't long before other conference programs began to adopt Kessinger's methods.
Ask KCAC veterans about Coach K, and they'll tell you he brought national-class excellence to what had previously been a sleepy provincial conference. They'll also enthuse about Kessinger's moral and spiritual character, his genius for delegating leadership to his players and assistants, and his unwavering conviction that sports are a classroom for life. The problem with 10 KCAC football programs trying to emulate Coach K is, of course, that only one team can be conference champion in a given year. Simple math dictates that half the programs in the conference will end up with non-winning records-and coaches with losing records don't stay in the league for 25 years, regardless of how much moral and spiritual character they possess. The resulting struggle to stay competitive from year to year created an arms race of sorts: By the 1990s, 100-man football rosters were the norm in the conference.
This arms race arrived at a time when the number of teenagers graduating from high schools in the Great Plains was on the decline. Moreover, the small colleges of Kansas didn't compete just with each other for the dwindling number of area prospects; they had to compete with five state universities (including Kansas, K-State and Division II powerhouse Pittsburg State) and eight Kansas junior colleges (including NFL hothouses such as Butler and Coffeyville). Many coaches discovered that two days of visiting high schools in Houston or Ft. Lauderdale could yield better prospects than two weeks of driving the backroads of Kansas. Florida became a big recruiting destination for KCAC coaches in the 1980s, but by the late 1990s a disproportionate number of the conference's non-Kansas players were coming from Texas and California. At the outset of the 2012 season, 36 percent of all players on KCAC football rosters hailed from those two states.
One challenge in recruiting these athletes is that, due to KCAC regulations, sports scholarships tend to max out at about 40 percent-50 percent of total tuition (which averages around $21,000 a year across the conference). Without the luxury of handing out full rides, coaches tend to court players who aren't getting many other offers. Quantity of recruiting thus becomes a tool for discovering quality: A typical recruiting class might consist of 40 to 50 solid but not particularly stellar players; coaches and athletes alike hope to develop overlooked talent. In this kind of system, starting slots are at a premium, player attrition is high, and a given team will experience a steady rotation of new faces from season to season.
With such a high percentage of out-of-state athletes flowing into KCAC colleges each fall -- many of them arriving sight unseen from tough neighborhoods in big cities -- it becomes important for coaches to identify kids who can adapt to life in small Kansas towns. Some coaches do this better than others, though with rosters on some teams now topping 120 players, it's hard for any coach to know the social and emotional backgrounds of all the athletes he brings to campus. Most coaching staffs are skilled at managing or weeding out difficult student-athletes once the season begins; some aren't. KCAC veterans use a variety of euphemisms to describe what happens when a given program is unwilling or unable to rein in unruly players, but what they are referring to might best be called a "thug problem."
Most every school in the KCAC has had a thug problem at some point in the past 20 years. In the course of talking to people around the conference, I heard stories, dating from the early 1990s to the current sports season, of Southwestern players arrested for dealing drugs out of a dorm room in Winfield; of a former Friends player shot while robbing a liquor store in Tulsa; of a Sterling baseball player sent to the hospital after a fight with McPherson athletes in McPherson; of a Kansas Wesleyan player allegedly flashing a gun during a confrontation with Bethany players in Lindsborg; of McPherson players arrested for provoking fights outside of a Friends basketball game in Wichita; of four Bethany football players and a Bethany wrestler arrested for aggravated robbery and assault at an alleged drug-dealer's house in Salina.
"There are some schools in the conference that get a reputation for recruiting at any cost," one former athletic director told me. "When that kind of thing happens, some coaches are going to wind up recruiting the wrong kind of kids. You do that, you're exponentially increasing the percentages of something [like the Brandon Brown incident] happening."
As often as not these problems emerge during the tenure of young journeymen coaches who leave for better-paying gigs in higher-profile conferences after a couple of seasons. Theoretically, preempting thug problems should be as easy as cutting football rosters to a more manageable size and retaining coaches who, win or lose, have good instincts when it comes to recruiting and mentoring student-athletes. But winning teams make for good institutional branding, and big rosters mean better enrollment numbers for schools that in recent years have been struggling to attract students by more traditional means.
Indeed, if there has been an accidental side effect to the KCAC football arms race, it's that recruiting student-athletes to the small denominational colleges of Kansas has become intertwined with keeping those colleges in business.
The profile photo on Alton Franklin's Facebook page shows him glowering at the camera, shirtless, two fingers pointed like a gun at his right temple. His upper body is muscular and laced with tattoos: a five-point star over his heart; abstract scrollwork on his biceps and pectorals; the words respect and loyalty in ornate cursive across his collarbone. In many of the pictures on his Facebook wall he's holding his hand in an odd gesture: fist splayed, three fingers down, ring finger cocked. These pictures make him look like a Dallas street thug, but it's hard to know if he actually is one, since his efforts to create a menacing public profile mimic the Facebook behavior of roughly one million other teenage males from Dallas to Kansas to Long Island.
By comparison DeQuinte Flournoy, the second suspect in Brown's death, wears his heart on his social-media sleeve. In his Tumblr blog, Flournoy refers to himself as a "hip-hop prodigy from Dallas ... writing music about how his father was never there, having to eat ramen noodles daily, basically the struggles he and his mom had to go through." His first mix tape, he adds, is called "Being Overlooked." Even more telling is Flournoy's Twitter account, @DeeSwerve_, which is essentially a 1,980-tweet emotional autobiography from the summer he moved to Kansas until the week he was arrested. Read these tweets, and you'll learn how Flournoy likes Nike Air Force shoes and Black & Mild wood-tip cigars, how he loves God more than music, and music more than football, and football more than everything else. He still longs for the girl who broke his heart two years ago, and he still hates his sixth-grade teacher ("b---- told me I wouldn't make it through junior high, well I'm made it to college hoe"). A part of him hopes he never gets rich, because he knows everyone will ask him for money, and he knows he can't say no. He likes to smoke weed, and he has respect for men who take care of their kids. Most of all, he wants to do right by his mom and make sure she has everything she ever wanted. "It's only right," he says. "She struggled so much for me."
Based on his tweets, Flournoy's first year at McPherson College goes fairly well. Football practice is hard work, and he has trouble remembering all the plays, but he senses that the coaches like him. He gets along with his teammates, especially the ones from Dallas, but he wishes there were more girls around with good personalities. He thinks black people from Wichita talk funny, and he thinks it's hilarious when the McPherson College cafeteria serves soul food on Martin Luther King Day. He occasionally oversleeps and misses class. He admits that he fears God, dying young and losing his mom. At times he expresses a fondness for college, but by the time he heads back to Dallas for the summer he still hasn't taken much of a shine to life in Kansas. When an old childhood friend dies he falls into a funk, smokes a lot of weed, obsesses about the past ("I knew niggas who was going to jail when we was twelve"). He expresses dread at going back to Kansas, but he resolves to play one more year at McPherson before transferring someplace else.
By Aug. 11 Flournoy is back in McPherson, worrying that it's "gonna be a long year" if football doesn't work out for him. On Aug. 14 his ankle gets rolled in practice; he thinks it's high sprain or a fibula ligament detachment. By Aug. 29 he's out for the season ("I'll be lying if I said that I'm not feeling kinda lost"). On Sept. 10 he admits he hasn't been sleeping very well. On the evening of Sept. 15 he seems to be in better spirits, hanging out and "freestyling for hours" with friends from the football team.
A few hours later, in the early morning hours of Sept. 16, Brandon Brown was beaten unconscious. In the days that followed, DeQuinte Flournoy's Twitter account featured a handful of banal tweets ("Gotta big test"; "West Virginia uniforms are pretty nice") before falling silent altogether.
As for Brown, he didn't leave much of a social-media footprint. His Facebook profile is private, revealing only a handful of celebrity interests (Steelers linebacker James Harrison, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., "full-figured urban model" Montana Deleon) and a single quote: "Men lie, women lie, B. Brown don't!"
I reached a few of Brown's family members by phone in California, and they told me how he loved this three-year-old son and his seven-month-old daughter and how he'd been close with his recently deceased great-grandmother, a civil rights pioneer who in the 1950s started a training school for African-American real estate agents in Pasadena. They told me he had a gift for cheering people up and was a resourceful cook and a whiz with sports statistics. He'd expressed reservations about moving so far away from his kids, but his family had supported his decision to play football at Tabor, since the small-town college seemed like a good place to finish his studies-a place that was quiet and Christian and safe.
Early in October KCAC commissioner Scott Crawford, in tandem with the presidents of Tabor and McPherson, announced that the Oct. 20 game between the two schools had been canceled "to honor the memory of Brandon Brown and to respect the needs of an ongoing criminal investigation."
Around the same time my sister Kristin, who teaches English at Bethany, was getting inquisitive emails and online comments from college professors around the country. These messages weren't related to the Brown incident; they were in response to Kristin's recent Chronicle of Higher Education article recounting her attempt to lure more males into her literature classes by offering a course on the poetics of hip-hop. The essay revealed that three-quarters of her male students are athletes, and this detail perplexed some readers. "Seventy-five percent of male students are athletes?" one comment read. "Is this a college or a sports camp?"
In truth, my sister rounded down to arrive at the 75 percent figure. Even when female students are factored in, Bethany's total percentage of student-athletes tops 60 percent -- a number similar to what one finds at Tabor, Kansas Wesleyan and Sterling. The economic downturn notwithstanding, KCAC schools continue to expand their athletic rosters and add new sports programs. (Bethany now has wrestling; Tabor has bowling.)
This is not a phenomenon unique to Kansas. Around the country, small and mid-sized colleges have embraced athletic expansion-and football in particular-as a strategy for enrollment stability and growth. According to a report by the National Football Foundation, 33 U.S. colleges have introduced football programs since the start of the 2008 recession; 17 more programs are set to debut by 2015, and more than 20 other schools have formed exploratory committees to consider the possibility. Raising the institutional profile is part of the strategy-as is attracting alumni involvement, expanding the donor base, offsetting female-slanted gender imbalances, and boosting student numbers.
But in central Kansas, expanded sports programs are less about growth than about survival. "We have way too many small schools for the population," one retired KCAC administrator told me. "As money became tight at these institutions, pressure was put on to grow enrollment. Recruiting for sports is more effective, in many ways, than going out to the high schools and convincing somebody that doesn't have a Mennonite background that they need to come to Tabor for English." One problem with cultivating a sports-slanted enrollment model, he added, is that (even when donors chip in to fund stadiums and fitness facilities, as was the case at Tabor) recruiting a majority of your students against scholarships makes for tight margins. "If you're offering 50 percent in scholarship aid to students you're giving back 50 cents on every dollar you're bringing in. None of these schools has an endowment to support that, so it's coming right off the tuition and fees that other people are paying. Once you've gotten into that cycle it's hard to get out of. So now that's the dilemma: you take sports away, and these small schools will fold."
This influx of athletes -- many of them from out of state -- has gradually changed the demographic makeup of small colleges in central Kansas. McPherson College is now 19 percent minority (including 9 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic) in a town that is 95 percent white; Tabor is 19 percent minority (including 9 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic) in a town that is 97.5 percent white. In return for racial and cultural diversity, these schools offer athletes small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio in KCAC schools is 13:1), personalized attention in and out of the classroom, and a nurturing residential environment that emphasizes Christian values.
Hosting such a big percentage of athletes impacts the academic environment, however, and many of the professors I spoke with expressed concern about how some student-athletes arrive at the school without the motivation or academic foundation to succeed in the classroom. This has shifted some of the scholastic focus from collegiate academics to remedial education. All of the KCAC schools have tutoring or mentoring programs for athletes, and Kansas Wesleyan recently opened a donor-funded Student Success Center to help get underserved students up to speed academically. "I've had a lot of inner city kids who've struggled in the classroom," one Kansas Wesleyan professor told me. "They have to come in with some ability to succeed. That's what we want. We don't care if we have to work hard to get them further, but you get a kid with a 13 ACT, a kid who can't read or write, we can't help him. All we can do is take his money until he fails out."