BLUEFIELD — The ghosts of bygone days will be watching when the football program at Bluefield State College emerges from a 41-year hibernation next year.
If they could talk, several of those ghosts would likely consume hours telling the Big Blues’ newest recruits about their back-to-back national championships in the autumns of 1927 and 1928.
The college, then known as Bluefield Colored Institute (BCI), was undefeated in 21 consecutive football games in that span. That got the attention of the nationally-prominent newspaper of the African-American community in Pittsburgh, the Courier, which bestowed those two national titles — a reasonable function in a time before integration and formalized college playoffs.
“Whenever you have a national championship, it’s a source of pride,” said alumnus Ergie Smith, who attended BSC in the 1950s on a football scholarship.
“There’s been a lot of good football teams at Bluefield State, but there’s been no other that won consecutive national championships,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “So, invariably, when you talk about football at Bluefield State, you automatically talk about these teams.”
“That team will always be remembered by their spectacular play and their achievement — and for bringing national recognition to Bluefield State. They were also the standard by which we measure the quality of teams that followed them at Bluefield State College.”
Football has for decades been “the major sport for people,” he said. He noted that when he was growing up, “You didn’t have TV; you couldn’t watch it on TV. There were no big colleges around close by, so the local colleges like Bluefield State was where you went and what you watched.”
Looking at a bigger picture, having a football team was “a cohesive thing,” he said, that would “pull people to Bluefield State” from throughout southern West Virginia.
“It definitely was, and will be, whenever we get that football team back … ,” he said.
Smith, who has engaged in dozens of recent discussions about the future of his alma mater, said, “I do think the addition of a football team, and all of the new sports teams, plus construction of the on-campus housing, will be a huge recruiting tool.”
He predicted “a significant increase in enrollment, and in financial support for the college.”
The current mecca for football fans in our region, Mitchell Stadium, was not even a dream when BCI began football in 1914 and made its national headlines in the Roaring Twenties.
A natural hollow on the western edge of campus, beside the Norfolk & Western railway tracks, was excavated to create a football field, according to BSC’s “Centennial History” volume. The enclosure was dubbed the “BeCeEye Bowl.”
The rough-hewn stadium was “noted for its rock-hard turf surface,” the book stated.
The authors of the history quoted from the institution’s alumni magazine, “The mighty rocks that frame this pretty field seem forever to tell the players of old BCI that they shall stand similarly firm against all opponents.”
Into this setting, in 1925, stepped a new head coach for Bluefield: Harry R. “Big Jeff” Jefferson. The Parkersburg native was a graduate of West Virginia Colored Institute (WVCI) in the Kanawha Valley, and of Ohio University.
Using an unbalanced line and what the school history called “a devastating off-tackle offense,” the Big Blues began to roll against a quality schedule of opponents including WVCI, Morristown, Morehouse, Wilberforce and Howard.
In 1927, the upstarts from Bluefield traveled to Washington, D.C., and handed the Bisons of prestigious Howard University their first home loss in three years, according to the history volume. It also reported that the Big Blues defeated Morristown College 129-0, generating 1,215 yards of total offense.
Over the two-year span, BCI turned back 16 opponents, outscoring them by a cumulative total of 516-53, and posting three shutouts.
“Jefferson’s Machine Runs Wild,” ran a headline in The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper in the Windy City. That publication accorded first-team all-America honors on three Bluefield stalwarts — Fred Buford, quarterback Herbert Cain and tackle Ted Gallion. Rugged fullback Artis Graves was subsequently added to the list.
Bluefield, exclusively enrolling African-Americans in those segregated days, usually had no more than 30 young men on its football team.
Jefferson got it done despite Bluefield’s small enrollment and limited athletic facilities at the time. He posted an 8-0-1 season in 1932, then left the school for good in 1934 for Virginia State University, where his teams won four conference championships and one black college national title of their own, in 1936.
The coach died in 1966, five years after his induction into the hall of fame of the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). He was inducted into the Virginia State Hall of Fame in 1980.
In 2010, the American Football Coaches Association honored him with one of its Trailblazer Awards, which recognize early leaders in the football coaching profession who coached at historically black colleges and universities.
Former West Virginia State coach Oree Banks, in his book “Trailblazers: From Black Colleges to the NFL,” wrote, “Coach Jefferson was truly a trailblazer in Black College Athletics, but more than that, he was a trailblazer in helping young men to become productive and useful citizens.
“By bringing national attention to small schools, Coach Jefferson also brought attention to the skill of black athletes.”
It is no surprise that Jefferson’s national championship teams at Bluefield were the first groups inducted into the Bluefield State College Hall of Fame when it began a few years ago.
Smith, also a member of the hall, said that memories of the national championships were brought up when he was playing for the Big Blues. Moreover, he added, “It’s still talked about, even now. When we have meetings, the first thing they talk about is the 1927-28 teams.”
“People with memories of that team will always make sure that people will discuss and talk about them,” he said.
The ghosts, it appears, will have some flesh-and-blood help communicating with the 2021 edition of Bluefield State College football players.
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