For Tennessee State football coach Rod Reed, this has been a long time coming. Not just for Richard Dent, but for Tennessee State football.
When Dent is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday (see related story below), he’ll make history. The explosive defensive end for the Chicago Bears will become the first former TSU player honored alongside the sport’s all-time greats.
Reed said it’s a moment that should’ve already happened. The current Tigers coach points out that Ed Too Tall Jones, Jim Marsalis and Claude Humphrey all enjoyed careers worthy of enshrinement.
There are a bunch of them up there that we could talk about that I think should be in the Hall of Fame already, Reed said. We’re glad to have Dent in the Hall of Fame. Hopefully with him being there, it will open up the doors for the ‘Too Talls’ and the Claude Humphreys to get in there.
So it is that there is no underplaying the significance of Dent’s induction.
Back in April, he was honored by TSU at the school’s annual spring game. This weekend, nearly 200 school administrators, students and fans will bus up to Canton, Ohio, for the ceremony. That includes the marching band, which was supposed to perform at the annual Hall of Fame Game the night after the induction. Because the NFL lockout ended just last week, that game was canceled.
For those who can’t make the trip — including members of the football team, because fall practice starts the same day — the ceremony will be shown live on campus.
I think it’s a big moment in the university for football on campus, TSU offensive coordinator Mike Jones said. To be able to celebrate that and be able to understand the history behind Tennessee State, I think, is unbelievable.
The moment is perhaps bigger than Dent, who played 14 years in the NFL before he retired in 1997. He represents TSU’s past, the last of the John Merritt era. Before Dent made a name for himself with the Bears — most notably earning MVP honors of Super Bowl XX in 1985 — he thrived under Merritt.
Dent was a three-time All-American at TSU and finished with 39 sacks. He played for the Tigers from 1979-82 and was drafted in 1983, the same year Merritt died.
The legendary coach guided the Tigers from 1963 through 1983 and compiled an astonishing record of 172-33-7. He coached five undefeated teams, won seven black college national championships (as awarded by The Pittsburgh Courier), and 144 of his former players (that includes his time at Jackson State) played professionally.
Fortunately for Jones, he experienced some of that success. He was an All-American wide receiver at TSU in the early 1980s under Merritt and longtime assistants Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman. He also was a teammate of Dent’s before playing six seasons in the NFL.
We learned football, Jones said of the Merritt era. We learned what hard work meant. We learned what it took to be a Tiger. We tell our young people today, it is so hard to be a Tiger, and it’s because it takes a great deal of sacrifice. For us, it shows by the many young men who have gone on to the NFL, they had to lay down some sacrifices to get to that point.
Jones is in his second season as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, returning to his alma mater when Reed was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach before the 2010 season. Even with a generation of TSU players who were born well after Merritt’s death, they quickly learn about their predecessors.
That is one of the first things we do, said Reed, who was an All-American linebacker at TSU from 1984-88. We teach those kids about that the day they step on campus.
The history lesson serves as a reminder of what TSU football was — and what it still could be.
The Tigers suffered through a 3-8 season in 2010, including a winless mark in the Ohio Valley Conference for the first time since joining the league in 1986. But with 16 starters returning, Reed is hopeful the tide will turn.
Maybe Dent’s induction won’t just open the door for “Too Tall” Jones and Humphrey and Marsalis and others. Maybe revisiting the past will spark a new era.
There is a level of expectation that is expected out of a TSU football team, Reed said. We have to return this team to those glory years and get back to tradition.
Dent did dirty work with tenacity
The moniker wasn’t flattering, but it fit.
“His nickname was ‘Dirty Dent,’ and obviously there was a reason why we said dirty Dent,” Mike Jones said with a laugh.
Richard Dent, the former Tennessee State and Chicago Bears defensive end, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.
Jones was on the opposite end of the ball at TSU. He played wide receiver while Dent flourished from 1979-82, and he witnessed Dent’s tenacity firsthand. He also played against Dent in the NFL, spending his first three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, who played the Bears twice a year.
“He was just a player that was hungry to be the best on our team, and obviously it showed in the games that we played in,” said Jones, now the offensive coordinator at TSU. “I thought we had a great defense, and he was a great part of it.”
Current TSU head coach Rod Reed arrived there in 1984, just after Dent left. Still, he was well aware of Dent’s reputation as a sackmaster.
“Dent was very relentless,” he said. “I remember watching him when I was high school and a young kid. He just had a passion for sacking the quarterback, and that passion didn’t stop when he got to the pros.”
Dent accumulated 137.5 sacks with four teams over 14 seasons, including a then-record 17.5 in 1984.
Jones actually spent most summers during his six-year NFL career in Atlanta, conditioning and staying with Dent at his house.
“He was a great guy off the field,” Jones said. “The bond of playing together here in college and in the NFL, that relationship hasn’t changed.”
Jones will make sure he’s there for his friend on Saturday. He’ll fly up for the ceremony in Canton, Ohio, to witness Dent become the first former TSU player inducted into the hall.
“Here is a young man that came here 6-5, 225 pounds soaking wet,” Jones said. “To do what he has done in college, then in the NFL, and now to top it off with the Hall of Fame, I just think it is unbelievable.”
— Jerome Boettcher