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Photo: John Davis (left), a two-time NCAA Division II national champion from Morgan State, welcomed Kenny Monday as the new coach of the Bears wrestling program that will officially restart after a 25-year absence in 2023-24.
By Mike Finn
When the legendary wrestler Kenny Monday announced in August he was taking the head job at Morgan State, which was bringing back the sport after a 25-year hiatus, one of the happiest Bear alums was John Davis.
That’s because he finally got Monday to come to Morgan State.
That thought was first brought up when the two former talented high school wrestlers competed together at the 1980 Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh, where the nation’s top high school wrestlers would take on the best preps from Pennsylvania.
Monday earned the right to compete in the event as a highly-touted wrestler from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. Davis was a four-time Virginia state champion. They also both went on to wrestle collegiately. Monday became an NCAA champion and three-time All-American at Oklahoma State; Davis earned two NCAA Division II titles at Morgan State, located in Baltimore, one of the 100-plus “Historically Black Colleges/Universities” in this country.
But after that first meeting, they had hoped to become teammates.
“(Davis) was a weight class above me, so we were roommates and workout partners,” recalled Monday. “We hung out together and got to know each other. I was trying to get him to come to Oklahoma State and he was trying to get me to come to Morgan State … and we would give each other a hard time about it.”
“That is correct,” said Davis. “In fact, we kept trying to recruit each other while we were in college. I could have gone to Oklahoma State, but I told him we were going to do some great things at Morgan State and I had too much respect for James Phillips, who was the coach at Morgan State.”
And indeed, this HBCU school and Davis did excel in the early 1980s, where the 150-pounder won Div. II nationals in 1983 and 1984 (after finishing sixth and third in 1981 and ’82, respectively) and got a chance to compete in the NCAA Div. I Nationals after winning the two Div. II titles. (The NCAA, at that time, allowed champs and highly-ranked wrestlers from lower-division schools to compete in the Div. I Championships.)
Morgan State, which finished as high as fourth in Div. II, was the most successful of the HBCU schools that sponsored wrestling. In addition to winning four individual titles and 27 All-American honors on that level of wrestling, the school also produced the only NCAA Division I All-Americans that came from HBCU schools in William Smith (sixth in 1978 and second in 1980), Emmanuel Yarbrough (eighth in 1986) and Chauncy Wynn (sixth in 1990).
Unfortunately, like many programs around the country, wrestling was cut at Morgan State in 1996 as did 19 other HBCU schools that featured wrestling; the last being Delaware State in 2009. Sadly, none of the HBCU schools — first created during segregation in this country to provide higher-educational opportunities for black Americans — has had wrestling in the two decades since then.
That is until now … or at least until next season when wrestlers from this school will once again wear the Morgan State singlet … after the “HBCUW (Historically Black College/University Wrestling) Initiative” and the Black Wrestling Association played a big part in getting the school to restart its program
Bluefield State in West Virginia has been wrestling in NCAA Division II, while Arkansas Baptist is an NAIA school with wrestling. And, Allen University in South Carolina is starting a Div. II men’s and women’s program at a time when the sport has earned NCAA “emerging-sports” status among women’s sports.
Kerry McCoy, the former NCAA champion and Olympian who later coached at Stanford and Maryland, helped found both the BWA and HBCUW, in hopes of getting an HBCU school to start a program on the Division I level … and create more opportunities in the sport for younger black athletes. They are currently trying to raise $16 million to launch and build endowments to start a Division I program at least six different HBCUs.
“It was a collaboration that started with (former Oklahoma All-American and current actor and director) Nate Parker, who had a relationship with Mike Novogratz (a former wrestler and current benefactor in wrestling, who also helped start the “Beat the Streets” program in urban areas),” recalled McCoy. “Nate told me Mike was on board and helped fund the project.”
This has also been a great time for this project as a number of current high-profile wrestlers are black, like Tamyra Mensah Stock, J’den Cox and Jordan Burroughs, who recently set the record for the most World/Olympic championships. In addition, black wrestlers won nine of 20 NCAA Division I titles the past two years.
And one of the first things McCoy did was find an executive for HBCUW in one of his former Maryland wrestlers, Jahi Jones, a native of Maryland who also graduated with three degrees from the Big Ten school.
“I’ve been given the task to lead this initiative,” said Jones, who said he takes pride in being born about the same time Morgan State dropped its program. “It’s an extreme honor for me to do this and it is important work. I came on to be the glue, spear-headed this and really took it personal.”
At a time when smaller schools are starting wrestling to increase enrollment, Jones believes the HBCUW has a message to HBCU administrators that goes beyond adding financial incentives for the school.
“When we look at the sport of wrestling, there is this mutual respect that wrestlers have for each other,” Jones said. “They understand the basic life lessons that you get from the sport. We know winning is important, but that’s not our sole focus. We want to be able to provide scholarships for these kids and give them that basic educational background from an HBCU, which was originally started for the black community in the post-slavery era to help black individuals transition to the middle class.
“Now kids can go and get a college education and go back and transform their family lives. That is what we are really trying to push here.”
The HBCUW also knew it was important to find someone like Monday, the first black American wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal in 1988.
“I had just taken a new position at Spire Academy in Ohio and wasn’t really looking for a college coaching job,” said Monday, who’s had two sons also wrestle in college: Kennedy at North Carolina and Quincy, the nation’s top-ranked 157-pounder from Princeton.
“Nate Parker was also instrumental in my decision. He said, ‘With you at the helm, it will make a bigger impact across the country and that it’s crucial to have the first HBCU on the Division I level be successful and sustainable. It got deeper in my soul and I understood what it meant to start the program back up.”
Monday has big hopes in making Morgan State a national power within his first 5-10 years, but also calls the task, “humongous.”
“I think starting any program across the board is a huge task,” Monday said. “It’s a big task to manage 30 young men, have a successful program, graduate athletes to become successful. It’s really a big business. A lot of people have to dust off their shoes and get back in the game. I like it because a lot of the alumni are coming back, getting in touch with me and showing their support.”
Davis later coached wrestling at Howard University before working with Pepsi. He now runs a transportation business with his wife. He said he’d love for Morgan State to take on the attitude that was created by the late coach James Phillips, who started coaching in 1975 and first recruited Davis when he was 14 years old.
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“I got a chance to go to an NCAA wrestling tournament and saw Coach Phillips,” Davis said. “Everyone was discounting Morgan State at that time and Old Dominion was on the horizon for me. When I signed with Morgan State, he talked about the vision. It was something about the conversation I had with Coach Phillips, who said, ‘You have a chance to do something great, no matter what school you go to.’ He said he did not have the resources to compete against them, but countered ‘You will be able to graduate, have great friends and partners and still wrestle for an HBCU.’”
While the HBCUs were created primarily for black Americans, the schools have become more racially diverse and Monday also hopes to get white wrestlers to join the Morgan State program.
“I think our softball team is predominantly white,” Monday pointed out. “I’m looking for any athlete who we feel comfortable with and feels like they can come to Morgan State and thrive in the environment. Of course, we are a predominantly black school and will have a predominantly black team and coaching staff. Those things are the reality of the situation, but we’re not turning any athlete away. Any athlete who feels like he can come here and be successful, my door is open.”
Jones pointed out that the HBCUW is also trying to get these schools, many of which have a 70-30 enrollment margin of women over men, to start women’s programs to help battle the on-going Title IX issues.
“It’s about starting men’s and women’s programs,” said Jones, pointing out that he believes Morgan State will also start a women’s program in the future. “We are looking to fund equitably both programs.”
Neither Jones, McCoy nor Monday went to an HBCU, but many of their family members have and still do. McCoy’s father played football at Morgan State and Monday’s daughter graduated from Howard University. All of them believe the tradition of family will also play a part in creating more wrestling opportunities in the future.
“I don’t want to simplify this too much, but it’s family,” said McCoy. “It’s not that it doesn’t exist on other campuses, but when you go through a homecoming at an HBCU, you get people that celebrate the brotherhood and sisterhood at a deeper level. When you talk on a cultural level, there is a different perspective to your place in history.
“We are learning more about our culture and what we can do to help support each other. That’s the foundation of the culture. Every time I got back to the Morgan State campus and saw my dad’s fraternity brothers, I saw how much pride they had in going to an HBCU.”
And soon they will get to wrestle again.