In the United States, historically black colleges and universities have been a major part of the fabric of American society. These schools have played an integral role in shaping African-American culture, providing a unique educational experience for students, and producing some of the best athletes in history.
The best hbcu football teams 2023 is a ranking of the best HBCU football teams of all time. It includes information on each team, their conference, and how they did in the history of college football.
Perhaps your parents went to a Black college. Perhaps you did the same thing. Perhaps you grew up watching the Bayou Classic on television every year. Perhaps you were able to attend the Bayou Classic. (Perhaps you watched Southern’s Human Jukebox perform “Purple Rain” during the Battle of the Bands and wondered, “How in the world are they going to do justice to the high notes at the end?”) And, boy, did they give the high notes at the finale justice. It’s possible that it made you cry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Perhaps you were a latecomer who wasn’t drawn in until the Celebration Bowl began a few years ago. Maybe you were captivated by this spring’s SWAC showcase, which featured Alabama A&M vying for a thrilling conference title and various coaches dunking on Jackson State’s Deion Sanders in a passive-aggressive manner.
You’ll be hooked on HBCU football for the rest of your life. It has everything of the passion, history, large crowds, rivalry, and attitude that you’d expect from college football, but none of the pretension or $5 million salary. During FCS’ one-time-only spring season in March and April, it did indeed have a spell in the football limelight, with frequent ESPN appearances.
The MEAC/SWAC Challenge, which will be held in Atlanta on Saturday, will feature Alcorn State and North Carolina Central, with College GameDay and hip-hop trio Migos in attendance.
Let’s take a look back in history to mark the event. The following are the top 30 HBCU football teams of all time.
Teams during the years 1955 through 1980 often appear on the list, when a slew of great coaches led teams stacked with future All-Pro talent. After complete college football integration, a lot of that talent moved on to other institutions, but every decade, period, and almost every great coach are represented on this list.
30. Jackson State University, 1978
10-2 record W.C. Gorden is the coach.
Despite losing major players like running backs Walter Payton and Wilbert Montgomery, as well as legendary tackle Jackie Slater, to the NFL in recent seasons, JSU still had enough talent to finish second in the first year-end FCS (then I-AA) poll, losing a nail-biter to Grambling State but winning ten of their other games by an average of 35-11.
The Tigers were a favorite in the inaugural FCS playoffs, headed by defensive lineman Robert Hardy and quarterback Tony Harris, but they fell behind Florida A&M in windy, sloppy conditions in the semifinals, losing 15-10. (In a moment, you’ll hear from the Rattlers.)
Rod Broadway’s 2017 North Carolina A&T team won the Celebration Bowl by defeating Grambling. USA TODAY Sports/Brett Davis
December 29th, 1984 Mississippi Valley State University is a public university in the Mississippi Valley
9-2 record Archie Cooley is the coach.
Rinse and repeat from Willie Totten to Jerry Rice. MVSU had arguably the greatest-ever HBCU offense, averaging 52 points per game with Jerry Rice receiving 112 passes for 1,845 yards and 27 touchdowns at what is now Rice-Totten Stadium. (Those figures are absurd now, and they were absurd 37 years ago.) On their route to a 7-0 start, the Delta Devils hung 63 points on Southern and 48 on Grambling in Indianapolis’ Circle City Classic, and they only lost to top-five Alcorn State and Louisiana Tech in the FCS playoffs.
Tuskegee, Alabama, 28. 1930
11-0-1 record Cleveland Abbott is the head coach.
Cleveland Abbott’s Golden Tigers were unbeatable with Shorty Shanklin rushing behind a mammoth-for-its-time line — the average weight per player up front was more over 200 pounds, which was a huge thing at the time. They won 10 regular-season games by a total score of 319-37, thrashed Alabama State by 26 in the Turkey Day Classic, and only had a 0-0 draw against Wilberforce after a grueling journey to Chicago mar their flawless record. Shanklin stole the show in a 19-7 victory against host Prairie View A&M in the Prairie View Bowl on January 1st.
Alcorn State University was founded in 1969 and is located in the state of Mississippi.
8-0-1 is the team’s record. Marino Casem is the coach.
Alcorn came into 1969 with a strong squad headlined by future All-Pro linebacker Dave Washington and five other players who would be selected in the following two years, coming off a 9-1 season and its first and only Orange Blossom Classic victory.
The Braves started the season by thrashing GSU in front of 62,292 in the L.A. Coliseum, and they haven’t slowed down since. They won four away games by a total score of 110-28, with the lone blemish coming against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (formerly Arkansas AM&N) when they fell asleep with a double-digit lead and had to settle for a 23-23 tie. They won their second consecutive national title as a Black college team.
Howard was born on December 26, 1993.
11-1 record Steve Wilson is the head coach.
Only a year before, Steve Wilson’s Bison had broken a 10-game losing skid behind quarterback (and current ESPN commentator) Jay Walker. Walker was hampered by a severely injured ankle when the Bison survived an early 38-36 thriller in St. Louis against Steve McNair’s Alcorn State, but he and the Bison offense averaged 45 points during the last four games of the regular season. Howard completed the regular season 11-0, with Walker throwing for 3,508 yards. In the playoffs, it was matched up against reigning national champion Marshall and lost 28-14.
Hampton, 25. 1994
10-1 record Joe Taylor is the head coach.
In 1993, when Howard produced its greatest team in decades, Real HU rival Hampton retaliated in like, perhaps even outperforming the Bison. Joe Taylor’s Pirates defeated Howard then fell by three points to Eddie Robinson’s final great Grambling squad in front of 64,315 at Giants Stadium as they prepared to move up the FCS levels. By 1997, they had annihilated seven CIAA opponents by an average score of 50-12, and Taylor had them in the FCS playoffs. If ever there was a smooth transition, this is it.
24. Central State, 1990
11-1 record Billy Joe is the coach.
The most famous HBCU assault of the 1980s was at MVSU, but the most consistently ludicrous occurred at Wilberforce, Ohio. From 1983 through 1992, Billy Joe’s Central State Marauders won 10-plus games eight times and shared five Black college national championships. In 1983, they advanced to the NCAA Division II championship game before dropping to NAIA and destroying the field.
Joe attracted future NBA players Hugh Douglas and Erik Williams to town, and his 1990 Marauders averaged 51 points per game while sweeping FCS rivals Morgan State and Tennessee State 98-27 to win the NAIA championship. Joe transferred to FAMU in 1994 and almost won an FCS championship with the Rattlers.
Coach Willie Jeffries led South Carolina State to its first bowl victory and a Black college national championship in 1976. Gado/Getty Images/Afro American Newspapers
South Carolina State University, 1976
10-1 record Willie Jeffries is the head coach.
When SC State went on a 55-game winning streak from 1976 to 1981, including an 18-game undefeated record, it had already given the football world Deacon Jones and Harry Carson, among others. Following a one-point loss to North Carolina A&T early in 1976, RB Ricky Anderson, tackle Mickey Sims, and the rest of the team outscored their next nine opponents by a combined 234-29, winning the Black college national championship and their first bowl game, a 26-10 victory over Norfolk State in the Bicentennial Bowl.
In 1977, Jeffries led SCSU to another Black national championship, and after stints at Wichita State and Howard, he returned to Orangeburg in 1994 to lead the team to a third.
22. Florida A&M University, 1938
8-0 record William M. Bell is the coach.
Prior to the great Jake Gaither taking over in 1945, “Big Bill” Bell led FAMU to two undefeated seasons (1938 and 1942) and five Orange Blossom Classic wins. In 1938, his greatest squad hit the field: the Rattlers’ backfield was dubbed the “Four Ghosts,” and the line was dubbed the “Seven Rocks,” and they racked up a total 180-0 win over their first seven opponents. They eventually let up a touchdown early in the Orange Blossom Classic against Kentucky State, but fullback Stanley Strachan knotted the game, and a safety sealed a flawless season with a 9-7 final score.
Southern 21. 2003
12-1 record Pete Richardson is the coach.
Richardson was the most successful HBCU coach in the 1990s. The former Buffalo Bills defensive back came to Baton Rouge in 1993 after winning three CIAA championships at Winston-Salem State. He guided Southern to five Black national titles in 11 years.
It’s difficult to choose a highlight from this run, but we’ll go with the last of the champions. After a two-point loss to forever-spoiler Alcorn, the 2003 Jaguars recovered with five victories and a 20-9 victory against Alabama State in the SWAC title game.
Kentucky State University was founded in 1934.
8-0 record Henry Kean is the coach.
What could be more impressive than surrendering 0 points in a season? Allowing for two people. It’s simply a matter of science. Kean’s Thorobreds accomplished just that, defeating Tuskegee 6-2 in Cincinnati and winning seven additional games by a total score of 187-0, including fights with strong Wilberforce and Wiley teams. Even better, they accomplished it with just 33 of the school’s 150 male pupils on the roster. That is efficiency in action.
Alabama State University (1991)
11-0-1 record Houston Markham is the head coach.
ASU only has two Black national championships on its resume (1991, 2011), but the first one was significant. Markham’s Hornets escaped a number of early scares before catching fire later in the year after winning their last seven games of 1990. They won their final six games by an average of 60-11, led by future pro linebacker Eddie Robinson Jr. and dual-threat quarterback Ricky Jones. Yes, they thrashed lowly Prairie View A&M 92-0, but they also thrashed NC A&T 36-13 in the first Heritage Bowl. Their domination was undeniable down the stretch.
Jerry Rice, a future NFL Hall of Famer, was a member of Archie Cooley’s 1984 Mississippi Valley State squad. Getty Images/Denver Post
North Carolina, year 2017 A&T
12-0 record Rod Broadway is the coach.
From 2015 through 2019, NC A&T won four Celebration Bowls. While the Aggies’ greatest squad came the year after Tarik Cohen departed for the NFL, the finest team of the Aggies’ run occurred the year after Cohen went for the NFL. For the second year in a row, A&T defeated an FBS team (Charlotte) and thrashed eight MEAC opponents by an average of 33-13 before defeating Grambling State 21-14 in the Celebration Bowl.
It was the final of Broadway’s 125 victories and five Black national championships as the best HBCU coach of the twenty-first century.
17. Florida A&M University, 1978
12-1 record Rudy Hubbard is the coach.
To keep Jackson State from becoming the inaugural FCS champion, it required a high-level squad. The Rattlers won their first five games by a total score of 187-14, and after a setback against an outstanding Tennessee State team, they regained their supremacy. They won at Southern, thrashed Grambling State by 24 points in the Orange Blossom Classic, and then beat Jackson State and UMass to capture the FCS title, led by Hubbard, defensive coordinator (and future Duke head coach) Fred Goldsmith, and 1,200-yard runner Ike Williams.
Oh, and their placekicker was Vince Coleman, who hit a game-winning field goal to defeat Miami in 1979 before going on to steal 752 bases in the big leagues. That earns you extra points.
Howard was born in the year 1926.
7-0 record Louis L. Watson is the coach.
Watson’s Bison were one of the first true black collegiate football powerhouses. From 1923 through 1926, they went 20-0-3, with the last squad being the best of the streak. With quarterback Jack Coles and halfback Clarence “Tick” Smith running roughshod over the opposition, they inaugurated famous Howard Stadium with a five-game winning streak, outscoring Wilberforce and Clark Atlanta 185-6. On Thanksgiving, they completed their undefeated streak with a 32-0 thrashing of a Lincoln club they hadn’t beaten in six years in front of 16,000 fans.
15. Tennessee State University, 1984
11-0 record William A. Thomas is the coach.
John Merritt, one of college football’s most famous and successful coaches, died of a heart attack in December 1983, at the age of 57. His TSU Tigers dedicated a season-long homage to him the following autumn.
Big Blue, led by former Merritt assistant Bill Thomas and quarterbacks Ken Biggles and Gilbert Renfroe, won nine games by 20 points or more, handed Grambling its first-ever loss in Robinson Stadium, and paused its HBCU schedule long enough to beat Louisville, snagging seven interceptions (three from three-time All-American Carl McAfee).
Grambling State University, 1977
10-1 record Eddie Robinson is the head coach.
Merritt’s Tigers were a continual thorn in the side of the G-Men, and he was a Barry Switzer to Eddie Robinson’s Joe Paterno. That was never more apparent than in 1977, when TSU thrashed GSU in a torrential downpour. On a muddy track, Doug Williams finished 9-for-33 with three interceptions.
By any standard, that was an outstanding performance. It was even more remarkable when you consider everything else GSU accomplished that year. Williams passed for nearly 3,000 yards, mostly to Mike Moore and Carlos Pennywell, while the Tigers defeated nine other regular-season opponents by an average of 47-13. GSU traveled to Tokyo to defeat Temple in the Mirage Bowl before Williams could go 17th overall in the 1978 NFL selection.
Grambling State University, 1960
9-1 record Eddie Robinson is the head coach.
At the start of the 1960s, professional football was just beginning to notice HBCU football; GSU forced them to take a closer look. The Tigers of 1960 had future All-Pro defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Ernie Ladd, as well as defensive back Roosevelt Taylor, and such incredible overall depth that Willie Brown, a future All-Pro cornerback and Super Bowl hero for the Oakland Raiders, had to split time between receiver and linebacker.
GSU dropped an early 16-6 decision to a powerful Southern team at Jaguar Stadium, but then went on to win its next seven games by a total score of 284-56.
12. Wiley, 1932
9-0 record Fred T. Long is the coach.
Wiley was the first Black college in Texas to have a team, and they were quite successful at it, too. The Wildcats shared four Black national titles (1921, 1928, 1932, and 1945) and had an almost flawless football squad in 1932. They only gave up eight points entire season — all against Langston in the sixth game — and improved late in the season, outscoring their last three opponents 174-0. Under Long, Wiley won two more times, but the school discontinued the sport in the late 1960s as the pool of potential talent dwindled due to integration.
Prairie View A&M University was founded in 1958.
10-0-1 record Billy Nicks is the head coach.
Between 1953 and 1964, Nicks’ Panthers won five Black national championships. Two of the winners (1953, 1964) had perfect records (the 1964 squad also included future All-Pro receiver Otis Taylor), but the 1958 team was the most remarkable, dominating at a time when skill levels were rapidly increasing. Early in the season, they drew with John Merritt’s Jackson State, but then found a high cruising altitude, pounding increasingly talented Grambling and Southern teams by a combined 64-20, thrashing Jake Gaither’s FAMU 26-8 in the Orange Blossom Classic, and finishing the year with a 34-8 romp over Langston in the Prairie View Bowl.
tenth of 1957 Florida A&M University
9-0 record Jake Gaither is the head coach.
How spectacular was PVAMU’s victory against FAMU in late 1958? Between 1957 and 1961, the Rattlers had just three defeats in a five-year span. Gaither’s previous success had aided in the construction of Bragg Stadium in 1957, and FAMU inaugurated it with Gaither’s greatest squad to date.
The Rattlers burned past eight regular-season opponents by a total score of 316-20, then overcame Maryland State (now Maryland-Eastern Shore) 27-21 in front of 37,000 fans at the Orange Blossom Classic, led by Lewis Johnson’s running. This was a dominating squad, and FAMU would only improve in the next years.
9. Southern in 1948
12-0 record Ace Mumford is the coach.
Mumford took over at Southern in 1936 after very successful experiences at Bishop and Texas College. He won his first SWAC championship in 1937 and won five of six games versus Eddie Robinson’s GSU. Southern’s late-1930s Jaguars were so good that white fans were allegedly accommodated in what is now Mumford Stadium, and in 1948, Southern shut out eight opponents, scored 30-plus points seven times, beat Grambling and FAMU by a combined 43 points, and finished the year with a 30-0 thrashing of San Francisco State on the road.
Mumford won his first of five Black national championships at SU before passing away from a heart attack in the spring of 1962.
8th, 1956 Tennessee State University is a public university in Tennessee.
10-0 record Howard C. Gentry is the head coach.
Gentry took over at what was then Tennessee A&I in 1955 after playing under Gaither at FAMU in the 1940s and immediately established a name for himself. The Tigers won their last five games of 1955, then dominated in 1956, outscoring nine regular-season opponents by a combined 353-25 margin, including GSU and Southern.
Their match with Gaither’s FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic was a classic. With FAMU facing a fourth-and-goal situation in the last minute, TSU held to a 41-39 advantage. “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” by Derrick White: Dennis Jefferson, a senior quarterback, attempted to sneak the ball into the end zone. In the stadium, there was a mound of corpses followed by a “ominous and resounding stillness.” The officials untangled the exhausted players and indicated that the ball was out of bounds. The Tigers’ band’started a rock ‘n roll battle cry with partisans… cranking it up brutally’ as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Gaither, the instructor, was educated by Coach Gentry, the student.
Morgan State went four years without losing a game under coach Earl Banks. Gado/Getty Images/Afro American Newspapers
Morgan State University, 1966
9-0 record Earl Banks is the team’s coach.
Banks’ Bears were defeated 13-6 by Virginia State in the last game of 1964. For nearly four years, they would not lose. Banks unleashed a relentlessly talented team after a half-decade of program building; the 1966 squad was probably the pinnacle, with future NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, as well as future Super Bowl participants such as corner Mark Washington, running back Frenchy Fuqua, and tight end Raymond Chester.
Morgan State was still in the NAIA, despite its apparent skill; from 1965 through 1967, it outscored opponents 35-6 on average. But it cemented its reputation in 1968, when it defeated Grambling in front of a sold-out Yankee Stadium.
6th, 1933 Morgan State University
9-0 record Edward P. Hurt is the coach.
Hurt’s Bears, headed by halfback, three-sport standout, and future Winston-Salem State head coach Tom “Tank” Conrad, may have been the greatest of all the dominating teams from the early period of HBCU football. They defeated Howard and Hampton by a combined score of 40-6, and those were the only games that were close. Seven more opponents were defeated by a total score of 279-0.
In 17 years, Hurt would share six Black college national championships; he was an even greater track coach, producing eight NCAA champions, a slew of Penn Relay victories, and Olympic gold medalist George Rhoden.
5. Florida A&M University, 1959
10-0 record Jake Gaither is the head coach.
Gaither’s Rattlers were back in the wreck shop in 1959 after a two-loss reset in 1958. FAMU won seven of its ten opponents by at least 21 points, withstood a tough test against Mumford’s Southern (21-14 at home), and won the Orange Blossom Classic for the second year in a row, this time over the Prairie View A&M squad that had defeated them the year before. The Rattlers took an early 7-0 lead against the Panthers and subsequently cruised to a 28-7 victory.
4. Tennessee State University, 1966
10-0 record John Merritt is the team’s coach.
Eldridge Dickey may have been the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. At what was then known as Tennessee A&I, he passed for 6,523 yards and led the Tigers to their first flawless season in 1966. In a 31-23 comeback victory against Grambling, he passed for 343 yards and virtually no one pushed him — or the rest of Merritt’s incredibly gifted squad — to break a sweat. They outscored their opponents by an average of 43-3 throughout the regular season, earning a berth in the Grantland Rice Bowl, where they held Muskingum to just 76 total yards in a 34-7 victory.
3. Grambling State University, 1955
10-0 record Eddie Robinson is the head coach.
Robinson’s greatest squad may have also been his first Black college national winner. Following a dismal 4-3-2 season in 1954, the G-Men came out of the gate with the greatest offensive (33 points per game) and defense (five points allowed per game) of the Robinson era.
The Tigers gained traction during the season, led by future NFL Hall of Famer Willie Davis, Robinson’s first draft selection, and ultimately traveled to Miami to face Jake Gaither’s similarly stacked FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic. In front of a crowd of 40,319, GSU won a nail-biter 28-21, due to two touchdowns from running back Ed Murray, and claimed the national championship.
2. Tennessee State University, 1973
Coach: John Merritt, 10-0 record
Big John Merritt had an even more impressive squad that autumn after seeing five players be chosen in the 1973 NFL draft. Talented, as in “two of the top four selections in the 1974 draft.” Too Tall Jones (first overall selection), Waymond Bryant (fourth overall pick), and Cleveland Elam (ninth overall pick in 1975) led an unbeatable defensive front, and Big Blue found its stride following a dramatic 19-13 victory against Grambling in early October. They outscored their final six opponents by a combined 214-33 — at the pinnacle of HBCU football’s dominance, no less — and ended the year with not only a Black college national title, but also the top position in the NCAA’s small-school rankings.
They may have had a case for No. 1 in all-school rankings based just on high-end skill.
1. Florida A&M University, 1961
10-0 record Jake Gaither is the head coach.
Gaither’s eighth of eight Black college national championships was the zenith of not just his famous tenure at FAMU, but possibly all of HBCU football. Only once did the Rattlers concede more than eight points or score less than 32. They redefined “team speed,” not only by passing the ball to future 100-meter gold champion Bob Hayes, but also by handing it to Robert Paremore, Hayes’ colleague on the finest 440-yard relay team in the nation. They thrashed nine regular-season opponents by an average of 54-3, and when they were finally tested, against Jackson State in front of a record Orange Blossom Classic crowd, they rose to the occasion. FAMU triumphed 14-8, capping up its third flawless season in five years, with a 61-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jim Tullis.
The hbcu football conferences is a ranking of the best HBCU football teams of all time. The rankings are based on conference championships and national titles won.
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