When Tennessee State and North Carolina Central universities last faced each other on a football field in Washington, they were playing for the mythical national championship of black colleges. Central won.
The teams will meet again Saturday at RKF Stadium (1 p.m.) in a game billed as "A Touch of Greatness." But no championship is at stake. State is 5-3 this season; Central has won only two of seven games.
TSU does not have the motive of revenge, either. None of the present players had been born when the school dropped that 1954 contest to NCC in the last Capital Classic game. What TSU has is the best winning percentage over the past dozen years of any program in the nation. Tiger Coach John Merritt has not suffered a losing season since taking the helm in 1963, compiling a 122-22-5 mark and five unbeaten campaigns.
Professional teams have nabbed 135 Tiger players - ranking the 5,000-member institution third in that statistic.
Ed Jones, Claude Humphrey, Joe Gilliam, Waymond Bryant, Nolan Smith and Joe (Turkey) Jones, among others, got their collegiate training at the Nashville school.
But State is currently "struggling" with that 5-3 record and another loss would tie the worst campaign Merritt's charges have produced. The Tigers did have a shining moment when they stopped Florida A&M's 17-game winning streak two weeks ago. Losses have come at the hands of Grambling, Jackson State and Texas Southern - not exactly a trio of lightweights.
State lost three defensive linemen - each of whom went by the fourth round of the pro draft - plus a starting linebacker among the 19 departed seniors.
But the play of defensive tackles Maurice (Uptown) Fitzgerald, end Bruce (Hulk) Walker and strong linebacker Aaron (Joe Dog) Joseph has helped soften the loss of last year's starters. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Fitzgerald has 47 tackles and five sacks to his credit; Joseph leads the team with 59 tackle and 240-pound sophomore Walker has six sacks.
Should that trio require help, they can look to "Big Cal," senior tackle Calvin Gholston, who is the team's heaviest player at 275 pounds. Strong safety Lannie Martin has intercepted seven passes this season.
Offensively, State features sophomore quarterback Joe (747) Adams, who has thrown for 1,443 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Adams, who did not start until the fifth game of his freshman year, connected for 12 touchdowns in 1977.
When State chooses to travel by land it comes on quick and strong. Sophomore fullback Ronald Holland, a 6-4, 250-pounder, averages 4.5 yards per carry, and, according to State's sports information department, runs the 40 in 4.5 Freshman tailback Larry Kinnebrew, another 250-pounder, has averaged 4.6 yards and claims a 9.5 100-yard dash.