NASHVILLE — He’s standing on a curb at the top of a hill, looking down on a landscape that exists only in his imagination. Maybe it can become real. Maybe it’s already happening.
Brian “Penny” Collins is the men’s basketball coach at Tennessee State University, and he’s up here rehearsing for the biggest recruiting pitch of his life. Tomorrow afternoon, he and his staff will meet virtually with a prospect who’s ranked among the top five high school players in the country. He’s the type of athlete who could transform a program such as Tennessee State almost overnight, a talent who usually plays at a very different kind of school. In fact, Collins afraid to say much about the kid, concerned that even speaking his name could jinx the Tigers’ chances.
That’s how it so often goes at the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities: As soon as you start feeling good, something else comes along and blows hope away.
“I want you to just imagine for a second,” Collins says, standing outside the school’s 40-year-old arena, pretending to address the recruit.
Just down this hill, three-time Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph once ran on this same patch of soil. Over there, near the football practice field, Ed “Too Tall” Jones crashed into ball carriers. A short walk from here, Tennessee State’s basketball team, in the 1970s, was an NBA talent factory that reached the NCAA Division II tournament’s Final Four four times in six years.
“We were the Black mecca,” says Collins. Or so his older colleagues and relatives tell him.
But then the winds shifted, blowing away that momentum and altering sports history. Star athletes largely stopped attending or even considering HBCUs, instead choosing institutions whose leadership and student bodies were predominantly White. The infrastructure and facilities at HBCUs gradually crumbled. Rich histories faded. Resources on campus and investment in surrounding communities dried up.
Collins is planning to touch on some of that history tomorrow, though recruiting sometimes is about the things you don’t say. He doesn’t plan to mention that the electricity goes out so frequently in some Tennessee State buildings that last year, half the student body asked for tuition reimbursements. Or that, months after a tornado ripped through campus, an electronic sign remains damaged because there’s no money to fix it. Or that Tennessee State lacks an athletics fundraising arm, that alumni giving is lower than it has been in nearly a century or that its endowment, like those at so many HBCUs, is a fraction of predominantly White schools, including Collins’s alma mater just a few miles away.
Collins does plan on pointing out that, in the months following the police killing of George Floyd, the winds may again be changing. A few days after Floyd’s death, NBA star Carmelo Anthony, who played at Syracuse, challenged top basketball prospects, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black, to “change history” by considering HBCUs. Last month, Makur Maker, the No. 16 player in this year’s recruiting class, did just that, committing to Howard over UCLA. Former Purdue guard Nojel Eastern announced this month he was joining Maker at Howard, tweeting a raised fist emoji and pointing out he’d made his decision “for the culture.” When highly ranked shooting guard Mikey Williams released a list of the 10 programs he was considering, five were HBCUs.
“That’s just the beginning,” says Mo Williams, a former NBA player who’s now the coach at Alabama State, one of Mikey Williams’s finalists. “The mentality over the last couple months has changed, and everybody is kind of intrigued: ‘I want to go where I want to go, not where I think I need to go.’
“We’re in a place where we can recruit those guys now," Mo Williams adds. "We just want a seat at the table. Well, we’re at the table.”
Collins always has offered scholarships to the nation’s best players, but this was more lottery ticket than strategy. As attitudes change, though, he believes this recruiting cycle may be a chance to alter history and level a playing field that’s been unbalanced for decades. The way Collins sees it, this moment — this movement — might be remembered alongside “Glory Road,” “Phi Slama Jama” and the “Fab Five,” a cultural crossroads that can change universities, lives and minds.
That is, if all goes right. And not just tomorrow.
“They’re awake now,” Collins says of elite basketball prospects. “All it takes is one.”
A few hours before his call with the recruit, Collins drives toward the railroad tracks that divide the two Nashvilles. There’s this side, closer to Tennessee State, and the rest.
Collins, who has spent most of his life here, points out places that were once vibrant cultural landmarks, Black-owned businesses and sites of parades and celebrations. He passes through Hadley Park and the Jefferson Street neighborhood, whose R&B clubs Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix once played. Now, after decades of government neglect, one in seven young people born in this Zip code are incarcerated by their 30s, a recent study found. A major landmark is the Jefferson Street Bridge, where some nights a few hundred homeless Nashvillians make camp.
“I’m trying to change this,” Collins says, before the tires of his university-issued Ford Explorer rumble over the metal and onto the other side.
There’s a dog park and volleyball courts here, touristy honky-tonks and historic mansions. Two years ago, Woolworth, where Black activists had hot coffee dumped on their heads during Civil Rights Era lunch counter sit-ins, reopened as a restaurant where happy hour begins at 3 p.m. and avocado toast starts at $5.49.
Eventually, Collins makes a left and points out Belmont University, his alma mater. Collins says he was often the only Black person in his classes. He could always count on professors calling on him to answer questions about Jack Johnson or Thurgood Marshall. “Like I was the Black delegate,” he says.
There’s the university library, where someone once tapped him on the shoulder to remind him that the library was for Belmont students only. Not far away is where six police cars arrived to search him and two Black friends and where Collins says he “felt it — that fear.”
Collins had grown up dreaming of attending Tennessee State, as many neighbors and relatives had. But the Tigers didn’t offer him a scholarship.
Many HBCU athletic departments long ago stopped recruiting players of a certain skill level. Mo Williams, an HBCU legacy kid who grew up a few miles from Jackson State, says part of him regrets attending the University of Alabama. “Man, that experience alone — the games, the band," he says of HBCUs. "It’s kind of like your culture, and I missed all that.”
Then again, he was the nation’s top point guard. His hometown school didn’t recruit him. “They didn’t waste their time,” Williams says.
Collins has no such regret. He slipped back across Nashville to spend weekends and homecoming week on Tennessee State’s campus. Meanwhile, Belmont broadened his world view and expanded his basketball knowledge. And his senior season — when the Bruins, with Collins as a captain, won the 2006 Atlantic Sun Conference tournament to reach their first NCAA tournament in school history — changed him, proving success is possible anywhere.
He also believes reaching that first of three consecutive tournaments changed Belmont. As he drives past campus, he notices gleaming apartment buildings, structures with stately granite pillars and manicured green spaces that didn’t exist when he was a student here. Mid-major programs reap significant rewards from nationally televised games and Cinderella runs, and two years after that first NCAA tournament appearance, Belmont’s enrollment increased by about 15 percent. Though the school’s endowment seems paltry compared with some schools’ — Harvard’s is $41 billion — it has nearly quadrupled in the past dozen years, to $252 million. That’s about four times Tennessee State’s.
When Collins was named coach in March 2018, he began trying to modernize a program that had fallen into disrepair. He commissioned a painter to cover drab walls with a colorful mural of the Tigers’ history, and he asked a friend to replace the locker room’s blue carpeting with faux wood tiling. “The same losing s---,” Collins says. “A little wood here and there can change that.”
He hung signs honoring Tennessee State’s conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances, the most recent of which was in 1994. (The program has been in Division I since the 1977-78 season). He left plenty of space for future banners.
He has also frequented businesses on this side of the railroad tracks, too, taking guests to a Black-owned pizza shop and raving about a restaurant that specializes in “urban cuisine.”
He uses his own experiences to teach players how to respond during a traffic stop or when a house party gets busted. And after Floyd’s death, he called an emergency Zoom meeting with his team and invited everyone to talk. He dreamed up a possible “social injustice game” against Vanderbilt (discussions remain in progress, he says), and he had his program’s motto, “Deserve to win,” plastered all over the basketball facility. He thought of ways to associate Tennessee State’s homecoming, usually tied more to football season, with basketball — complete with guest comedians, step shows and a gospel explosion.
He thought about how he’d describe these ideas to elite recruits and their families.
“It’s not that I’m selling the Blackness,” he says. “I’m just selling us.”
Back on the Tennessee State side of the tracks, the coach is still talking, planning, imagining. He sees things not as they are but how they used to be, and how they could be again. It’s clear he doesn’t see blight. This, to him, is a blank canvas.
“These are my people,” he says. “This is my community. Ain’t nothing like making history in your own city.”
Two months ago, Collins got a new boss. Mikki Allen, a former college football player and fundraiser at the University of Tennessee, was introduced as Tennessee State’s new athletic director. On Allen’s first day, he received some sobering news.
The novel coronavirus had crippled the U.S. economy, throwing into fiscal chaos higher education and college sports. Allen had been hired in part to strengthen the financial core of an athletic department that traditionally breaks even. Now his administrative budget would be cut nearly in half, and the two most important football games on Tennessee State’s schedule — neutral-site “classics” against Jackson State and Southern, expected to generate a combined $750,000 in revenue — were canceled.
“Where is that going to come from?” Allen recalls thinking.
The Ohio Valley Conference would eventually postpone fall sports, but Tennessee State is still required to provide biweekly coronavirus testing for the athletes on campus. That’s about $16,000 per month, Allen says.
What happens when one crisis creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity and another makes it almost impossible for cash-strapped institutions to pursue? Allen and Collins are both visionaries, not just with hopes of pushing Tennessee State into the future but with mental blueprints of how to execute it: a new basketball practice facility, a state-of-the-art video board, a digital check-in table.
“Coaches want it now,” says Allen, and he’s right: Collins walks fast, talks fast, constantly checks his smartwatch. He has a tattoo on his left shoulder of the grim reaper peering over a ticking clock. “Every now and then,” top assistant Ben Walker says, “we have to reel him in. ‘Okay, Coach, let’s take baby steps here.’ ”
It’s hard, though, perhaps now more than ever. Allen’s plan, to spend years assembling a network of deep-pocketed alumni, has been upended by the pandemic. Collins, though, feels an urgency to begin positioning Tennessee State for his endgame immediately: nationally televised games, the top 25, even another Final Four.
“My goals here are so crazy,” he says, “people don’t even believe it.”
Collins realizes, or says he realizes, that waging an attack on the college basketball machine won’t be easy. It will take more than a few top-ranked players signing with Howard and Alabama State over Kentucky and Duke — whose men’s basketball programs generate a combined $90 million in annual revenue, according to Forbes — to turn HBCUs into a threat to the current system.
Siphoning off one recruit, difficult as that has traditionally been, would merely be Step 1, followed by developing that recruit into a top NBA draft pick, followed by repeating that process again and again. In April, Maker declared for the NBA draft before withdrawing his name and committing to Howard. If he enters the 2021 draft but is not selected or slips to the second round or shows little visible growth, college basketball’s fiercest and most protective sharks will attack — and not just the player but a Howard program that hasn’t produced a draft pick since 1983.
Keith Sparks is a co-founder of the Professional Collegiate League, which in 2018 became the latest institution that tried — and failed — to capsize the college basketball model. Its idea was to split HBCUs off from the NCAA to form a league, pay its players and attack not just a powerful structure but its primary business model: the illusion of amateurism. Sparks and his associates had discussions with 20 interested HBCUs, he says, but nothing materialized.
“They were afraid of leaving the established NCAA model,” he says. “They didn’t want change.”
Even if many top players commit to HBCUs, he says, the power conferences won’t panic. They simply will find ways to expand players’ slice of the pie just enough, whether with benefits tied into scholarships or additional compensation for their name, image or likeness. “There’s too much money leading to the other side,” Sparks says. “I can’t emphasize this enough: They don’t feel threatened.”
Collins, though, can’t shake the notion that if the balance of power shifted before, it can again. He believes the machine became vulnerable three months ago, when he began seeing social media chatter about four- and five-star players considering HBCUs. When he used to offer scholarships to top players, they rarely engaged. Now, Collins says, they and their families are calling him. “They’re listening,” he says.
Allen, the new athletic director, is encouraging Collins to go for it — but to understand realizing their shared vision won’t be quick or easy. Or cheap. “You’re trying to capture the momentum,” Allen says, “and we have a lot of momentum.”
Collins says if he could travel, he’d dip into his $200,000-a-year salary and book a flight himself. But neither the pandemic nor NCAA rules are easily bargained with; a recruiting “dead period” is in place until at least the end of September. Still, he has to get in the same room with intrigued, highly talented recruits so they can see his face, hear his voice, feel his urgency — even if it’s only virtually.
So what will he say? As the meeting approaches, Collins won’t reveal what’s in his head. He claims he doesn’t know. But maybe, considering the realities surrounding him, he’s still worried about it falling apart.
“I’m going to tell him he should come play for me,” he says.
A Tuesday at 4 p.m., showtime, and Collins pulls on a blue Tennessee State zip-up and sits at the desk in his home office. Two weathered seats from Kean Hall, the Tigers’ old arena and the site of so many program triumphs, are in the room with him.
Collins’s laptop chimes. The recruit and his guardian are here. Collins welcomes them before assistant coaches begin making their pitches: a four-year academic plan, an introduction to Nashville, the first play they would draw up for the kid.
The head coach makes notes, picks at his beard, gets up to pace between the kitchen and the office. Finally, it’s his turn. He leans forward. Citing NCAA rules, Collins has agreed to let a Washington Post reporter watch the meeting so long as the recruit isn’t identified by name.
“You coming to Tennessee State is like a movie,” Collins says. “And me personally, I like scary movies. I want you to be that villain. I want you to be that monster.”
An assistant plays a video, soundtracked by a haunting version of the rap song “I Got 5 On It” from the film “Us.” The video weaves footage of the recruit dunking over defenders with images of Tennessee State’s marching band and members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. The recruit’s name is on a pizza box from Slim & Husky’s and a sign for Prince’s Hot Chicken. When the violins slow and the video fades, Collins begins.
“It’s time, man,” he says. “It’s time for it to come back home.”
“Word,” the recruit says.
Collins talks about the importance of loyalty, a family atmosphere, of being a pioneer. Then he brings up the NBA, and by now his voice has gone up an octave; he’s preaching into the laptop’s microphone.
“That can happen right here,” he says. “You didn’t have to run nowhere to get that to happen. You didn’t have to run to the biggest program.”
Collins takes a breath. A decade from now, he says, his 7-year-old son will be a freshman at Tennessee State. Will his professors talk about how college basketball changed, and who changed it? Will his son remember when a five-star recruit who could have gone anywhere chose to play for his dad?
“If I’m in your shoes,” Collins says, “I could go to a Power Five school and be the 168th NBA player from there and lead them to their 45th NCAA tournament and go on to become a pro and continue to let that money and all the great things that you do for that program funnel right back into those programs.”
“Or I can have the opportunity, right here at Tennessee State,” he says, “to rewrite history.”
Soon the meeting is wrapping. The thing about sales pitches is that you rarely know how they were received until later. Did Collins’s message land? Did he say the right things? He can’t know, at least not yet, and it’s just as impossible to know whether recruits’ interest in HBCUs is a fleeting moment that will inevitably fade — or the first crack in a powerful structure’s foundation.
All Collins wanted was the attention of kid whose suitors include several of college basketball’s giants. And for about 40 minutes, he’s had it. But now it’s time to go, to end this meeting, to see what happens next. Before coaches click out of the Zoom window, Collins has one last message for the young man.
He removes his glasses. This time, his voice is soft.
“You can make your own way,” he says. “We can change a whole community, son.”