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Last week was a good one for anyone at Savannah State University who happens to love the circus. The Universoul Circus, the world's only African-American-owned big top, had its tent pitched on campus. In the parking lot of Ted Wright Stadium, acrobats and animal acts performed. And around the corner from the big top, a short walk down aptly named Skidaway Road, stood Tigers Arena, home of the Savannah State basketball team, where every visiting team is the Greatest Foe on Earth.
That's not ringmaster hyperbole: The Tigers are the Worst College Team in the Land. Their record tumbled to 0--25 on Feb. 2, when they lost a 92--68 nail-biter to Florida A&M, and with three games to go they were headed for the NCAA's second winless season in 50 years. Subtract the four wins the team forfeited last season because leading scorer Jamal Daniels--who also happened to be coach Edward Daniels's son--wasn't enrolled in classes, and the losing streak swells to 53, the longest the NCAA has ever seen. "You know Grinnell, that Division III team that was on TV?" freshman guard Chauncey Shaw said last Friday. "They'd probably beat us."
There are two types of losers. You have your lovable underdogs--think the '62 Mets or Homer Simpson--whose ineptitude has a certain inspiring charm. Prairie View A&M, the NCAA's first winless team when it went 0--28 in 1991--92, could at least find hope in the rubble. Three years earlier the Panthers had suspended their entire sports program. "It was disheartening," says Prairie View athletic director Charles McClelland, a student there at the time. "But there was a sense of enthusiasm because at least we had a team."
Then there's Savannah State, which hit bottom by overreaching and mismanaging, and where, instead of esprit, there is stonewalling. Coach Daniels declines most interview requests and won't let players talk either. Athletic director Tony O'Neal didn't return calls from SI, and last week another athletics official, eager to escape attention, told a reporter that Friday's practice would be canceled so players could attend the circus. (It wasn't.) "We focus on education and graduation," says school president Carlton Brown. "We're not going to live and die by what happens in athletics."
It was Brown, though, who, in the name of raising the school's profile--and buffing up the bottom line--decided to make Savannah State a Division I program, in 2002. The small, historically black college once had a respectable athletic tradition, winning its share of championships in the Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In 2000 the baseball team set a Division II record with 46 consecutive wins.
But the jump to Division I plunged the athletic program into chaos. One problem is that sports at Savannah State are severely underfunded; the overall budget of $2 million is less than half of what most D-I schools spend on football alone. Only eight basketball players have scholarships, though under NCAA rules the Tigers can offer 13. The football team, which is 3--29 in three Division I seasons, has only four coaches; Daniels's two basketball assistants are students. (Neither team has a strength coach.) As of Monday, with the season opener less than a week away, the softball team was still without a coach.
The whiff of scandal also hangs over the school. The NCAA is investigating allegations that an ex-assistant sold football players steroids last season. Baseball coach Jamie Rigdon, who is white, had a winning record last season, but in August he filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Brown and other school officials. And enraged alums are questioning Brown's leadership and handling of athletic funding. "[The winless season] is not a total surprise," says Henry Nash, president of the Savannah State Athletic Foundation. "This program has been progressing toward disaster for a few years."
With boosters like that, who needs enemies? Instead of flag-waving alums and the gleaming national profile that made the Division I leap so alluring, Savannah State is left with a second-division program facing Division I bills. No wonder Tigers basketball players long ago seemed to throw in the towel. Only twice this season have they lost by single digits--their average deficit is 24 points--and they have yet to feel the thrill of leading at halftime. During a loss at Georgia Southern last month senior forward Sherrard Reddick flipped off the crowd. "Nobody wants to play anymore," says one player. Another suggests that some of the injuries that have depleted the team--only six players dressed against Florida A&M--are of the phantom variety.
"I tell recruits, This school is your last option," says Shaw. Still, on National Signing Day the football team added 16 new players. Welcome to the circus, guys.
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