By JOHN BRANCH
September 16, 2008
Tweet! Tweet! Tweet! The drum major blew the whistle, and the drum line pounded a marching beat. Hips swayed and feet shuffled. Dancers and flag bearers and musicians, walking two by two, snaked into the stadium.
The Lincoln Lions had arrived, complete.
Lincoln is the oldest of the country’s more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, or H.B.C.U.’s. The schools are renowned for their educational opportunities, and many are famous for fall Saturdays that combine football with high-energy, high-stepping marching bands.
After 154 years and 15,000 graduates, including Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes, Lincoln feels whole. It has resurrected a football program that last played in 1960. And it has created its first marching band — and a fight song for it to play.
“Since we were the first H.B.C.U., I would have thought we’d have a football team and a band,” said the Lincoln junior Shanelle Robinson, who transferred from Virginia State to be part of the band’s flag corps. “I guess that’s what was missing from Lincoln University.”
The combination has electrified Lincoln’s sleepy hilltop campus in southeastern Pennsylvania, where the red-brick buildings creep down toward the surrounding farmland. On one edge of campus, a football field will be built, so the team will no longer have to practice on the baseball field and play its games at a high school six miles away.
Alumni have reconnected to their university like never before. Hundreds, including several football players from the pre-1960 era, helped cram the Avon Grove High School bleachers for the first game on Aug. 30, a happy 34-7 romp over a club team from George Mason. Students past and present have scooped up Lincoln souvenirs at the university’s bookstore.
“The first game, my lines were wrapped around the store two times,” the store manager Tanya Bynum said last Friday, when she sold out of Lincoln-logoed umbrellas during a rainstorm. “I can’t keep enough merchandise in the store.”
Despite Lincoln’s success in many of its other 16 sports — including a track team that has won 17 national championships — the university’s 2,450 students have a reputation for shrugging aside its teams and heading home on weekends. But now they talk football in the cafeteria and lean out dormitory windows to watch the band practice. They fill buses that shuttle them to the Saturday football games, because there is no place they would rather go.
“Before, you didn’t really think you had a void,” said the senior Milan Carter, the president of the Student Government Association. “Now that we have a team, you wonder what we did without it.”
Lincoln began playing football in 1894 and was a founding member of the historically black Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1912. But Lincoln stopped playing football after 1960, after a string of losing seasons, increasing disinterest, falling enrollment and competition for African-American athletes from newly integrated universities around the country. And Lincoln never had a marching band.
“When I travel, a lot of people say, ‘Where’s Lincoln?’ ” the senior volleyball player Jordean Matthews said. “I say that we’re the first H.B.C.U. But a lot of H.B.C.U.’s don’t even know where we are.”
She smiled. “But that’s changing.”
The decision to resurrect football and start a band was complex. Each will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to operate, and there are no delusions that football can be profitable. But Lincoln officials see benefits, tangible and intangible, that far outweigh the costs.
The university wants to reconnect competitively and culturally with the H.B.C.U.’s that followed Lincoln after its founding in 1854 as Ashmun Institute. (The name changed in 1866 to honor Abraham Lincoln.) In the increasingly competitive environment of higher education, sports can forge impressions and draw unparalleled attention. Among black colleges and universities, nothing gets noticed like football and the band.
The university president, Ivory V. Nelson, sat in his stately office last Friday and whittled it down by playfully answering a reporter’s question with one of his own.
“You’re sitting here because of what?” he asked, knowing the answer had to do with a football game.
“I couldn’t have called you and got you down here if I had 10 Nobel Prize winners.”
He laughed and acknowledged that 10 would bring plenty of news media queries. But the point was clear.
Lincoln also wanted to increase its male enrollment and retention, as women account for 62 percent of the student population and earn roughly two of every three degrees. And it wanted elevate its athletic programs from N.C.A.A. Division III to Division II, largely so it could rejoin the C.I.A.A., the historically black conference it co-founded nearly 100 years ago.
To do that, Lincoln needed football. And football needed a band.
“Everyone knows, especially in black college football, that the presence of the marching band has as much drawing power, and in some cases more drawing power, than the presence of the football team,” Nelson said. “So we put those two together.”
In the visiting bleachers on Saturday, Edward McLean, the athletic director from Fayetteville State in North Carolina, said football and bands went together “like peanut butter and jelly” at H.B.C.U.’s.
On Aug. 27, 2007, the day that O. J. Abanishe arrived as the football coach at Lincoln, a truck arrived from St. Peter’s College in New Jersey. Inside were helmets, shoulder pads, tackling dummies, game clocks, sideline headsets and more, provided for a steep discount because St. Peter’s had disbanded its program.
“It was like a complete football program starter kit,” Abanishe said.
It did not include any players. Abanishe plucked a handful from an on-campus tryout that attracted 120 hopefuls.
Most of the 55 players on the current roster, sharing 12 scholarships, were outsiders sold on the pitch that they could be part of Lincoln lore.
“We’re part of history,” said Max Holiday, a junior defensive tackle. “We’re going to be here forever.”
H. Wade Johnson, a former band director at three other H.B.C.U.’s, was hired to create the Orange Crush Roaring Lions Marching Band. He designed uniforms, purchased 100 instruments and recruited members to a band that has 50 members and plans for 128. He also wrote a fight song; Lincoln did not have one.
Saturday was a warm day topped with fluffy white clouds. Fayetteville State, a potential rival as Lincoln makes the transition into the C.I.A.A., brought one of the conference’s top teams and its 75-member band. The day displayed how far Lincoln had come, and how far it had to go.
Fayetteville State led Lincoln by 35-0 after one quarter and coasted to a 63-0 victory. Afterward, dejected Lincoln players stood in front of the band as it played the alma mater — a song recently arranged by Johnson for the band; it was usually performed as a choral piece.
Fans left, seemingly unbothered by the result. Lincoln athletes from other sports collected trash from the bleachers. And the players shuffled back to the equipment shed and sat quietly.
Their meditation was broken as Fayetteville State’s band triumphantly marched past to the boom-boom-boom of its drums and the siren of its horns. Back in the parking lot, Lincoln’s band ended the day where it started — working on a whole new beat of its own.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company