Former Tennessee State lineman Otis Lewis hasn’t stepped on a football field in years — since the glory years of the TSU Tigers and their legendary coach, the late Big John Merritt. Time doesn’t impede Lewis from recalling the message Merritt ingrained on his team’s psyche at the start of every season.
“He told us to always remember that every time we came to The Hole and stepped on the field, we were standing on holy ground.’’
Holy ground, indeed. The Hole, aka William J. Hale Stadium, was a sanctuary for TSU’s football team, their fans and the community. Built in 1953, it was abandoned in 1998 when the Tigers moved across the Cumberland River to LP Field, home of the NFL Tennessee Titans. The Hole is where TSU’s opponents came to die. Few got out alive, at least on the scoreboard.
“You come up out of The Hole with a win, you were a hell of a team,’’ said former Tigers player Daryl Caldwell, who played there from 1980-83.
TSU legends played at The Hole, legends labeled with unforgettable nicknames. Ed “Too Tall’’ Jones. “Jefferson Street’’ Joe Gilliam. Joe “747’’ Adams. Joe “Turkey’’ Jones.
Big John christened quarterback Eldridge Dickey with arguably the best one ever — “The Lord’s Prayer.’’ When the Tigers were in danger of losing a game, it was Dickey who answered Big John’s prayers.
Empty for two decades, the stadium will come alive Saturday when the Tigers bring in Austin Peay for the first of three Ohio Valley Conference games on campus.
For years, TSU’s home field has officially been LP Field, part of a bargain to get the NFL stadium built with public money. But it’s not really home to those who lived out their dreams at The Hole. The Titans fill LP every game they play there, but the Tigers fan base rattles around in the 68,000-seat stadium — just a little more than 15,000 showed up two weekends ago for the season opener.
The program has experienced hard times — a losing record in seven of the last 10 seasons will do that — and attendance has dropped. Many of those who go to the games at LP Field spend the majority of their time in the concourses, socializing with friends and catching up on what classmates are doing. There is also a significant contingent of fans who choose to remain in the parking lots, tailgating and perhaps listening to the game on radio. They are the ones who remember the glory days of yesteryear.
They want to restore the roar, and what better place to start than The Hole? After a $1 million renovation, TSU fans are anxious to return. The changes include expanded seating, which pushes the capacity to 18,000, new scoreboards, new restrooms and an updated press box.
“You think about the legacy of TSU and The Hole is where it’s at,’’ said Gary Burke, a TSU alumnus who is safety coordinator at General Mills in Murfreesboro.
“Back in The Hole we go.’’
Others have mixed feelings. Yes, they want to play football games in an on-campus facility. TSU is the only OVC school that does not play in an on-campus facility. But many are worried that the improvements — mostly cosmetic — aren’t enough to make a significant difference on the condition of a stadium that has been empty for 14 years. Hale Stadium was deteriorating before the move, and the years have taken further toll on the facility.
“If they are truly going to fix it up, then I’m all for it,’’ former TSU lineman Sylvester Jarrett said recently while watching the John Merritt Classic at LP Field.
“But it needs to be first-class. Not only will they have to fix the field, they have to provide more parking if they are going to have games over there. I would like to see them build a parking garage. That way they would be going up and not out and using more space.’’
That first-class facility would come at a steep price. TSU athletic director Teresa Phillips tells The City Paper that a “new stadium at The Hole would be between $25 million and $45 million.”
“Economically, I don’t see it now,” she said. “We need to build our program and win more games. It’s an exciting thing to think about doing, but we have to prioritize as a university what is most important.’’
Lynn Kennedy was introduced to The Hole as a freshman at TSU in 1971. She met Merritt’s wife as a work assistant in the library and became a chauffeur for Merritt from 1971 until 1981.
“I learned Nashville like the back of my hand,’’ Kennedy said. “I did a little bit of everything for Coach Merritt. He was fun, and I really do miss him. He taught me a lot.’’
A Detroit native, Kennedy is all in favor of returning to The Hole.
“It’s a good move in the sense that we would be coming back home. We should never have left. It is holy ground, like Coach said. Those players knew where all the rocks and dips were on the field. It’s important to have a stadium where the students can walk to the games.’’
TSU Olympian Ralph Boston, who broke Jesse Owens’ world record in the long jump while winning medals in three Olympic Games, is all for moving back to The Hole, but with some stipulations.
“If [The Hole] is really going to be renovated, they should move back there,’’ said Boston, now an Atlanta resident. “It is always nice to play at home.”
“Our tradition is to play on campus,” he added. “I remember there were times I thought The Hole should be bigger. People would fill up the seats, and they would be five and six deep
standing around the field. I stayed on campus. When those [football players] walked across that street from Kean’s Little Garden and those cleats were hitting the pavement, it was an absolute glorious sound. They always talked about enlarging it and closing in that open end, but it never happened. It was a special place.’’
Homegrown TSU wide receiver Anthony Owens, who played in The Hole from 1986-90 under coaches Bill Thomas and Joe Gilliam Sr., said the fans and students need to do their part in proving there is a need for an on-campus football stadium.
“Going back is good, but if we don’t come out, it’s not good,’’ Owens said, “We need to have at least 12,000 fans there for that [Austin Peay] game. If we get 6,000, it won’t look good. We need to go over and above that.’’
A winning tradition is most important in rebuilding a fan base. Back before Southern schools integrated their football teams, TSU was able to recruit the blue-chip African-American players in the South.
The Tigers not only won, they won big. They had 10 undefeated teams. They won 10 Midwestern Conference championships. In the final year in The Hole, they won the OVC championship.
It wasn’t just the football games at The Hole that attracted fans. Football weekends were as much about social activities as the game.
Mary Carver-Parker worked for 32 years in the Metro schools system before retiring. She volunteered for 10 years at her alma mater doing “whatever they wanted me to do.’’ She now works as an event planner.
“I grew up in The Hole,’’ she said. “We’d have Thanksgiving Day dinner at The Hole. It was very dear to a lot of us. It was a total campus experience. I would put on high-heel shoes and dress clothes to go to the games. I was dressed to the nines. It was a social event.’’
Former Pearl-Cohn football coach Maurice Fitzgerald, a TSU walk-on defensive end from 1974-79, remembers it like it was yesterday.
“When that fog rolled in off the Cumberland, you could smell those burgers and hot dogs. Both bands played for hours on campus. The ladies were hanging out the windows of the dorms. You would see everyone in their Sunday best. You knew it was a community event. It was show time,’’ Fitzgerald said.
LP Field is nice, but it doesn’t create a college football atmosphere. At kickoff for the season opener, the fans in the stadium for the Big John Merritt Classic against rival Florida A&M were dwarfed by the empty seats. FAMU didn’t bring its band, which was suspended indefinitely after the hazing death of a drum major. The traditional Battle of the Bands between TSU’s “Aristocrat of Bands” and its rival from the ranks of Historically Black Colleges and Universities is legendary.
During one game played at Vanderbilt Stadium, the opposing HBCU bands were in marathon shape for the night game. They played back and forth the whole game. They played after the game. After some time, then-Vanderbilt athletics director Roy Kramer had the public address announcer tell the bands and fans that it was basically time to shut down and clear the stadium. The warning fell on deaf ears. The bands played on. And on. And on.
Kramer finally turned off the stadium lights, thinking that would get the desired results. It failed to phase the bands. They didn’t miss a beat. It was part of their tradition, and as Kramer learned the hard way, you don’t mess with tradition.
Football games in The Hole were a tradition, too, but is it one that time has passed by?
“As a player, the tradition was passed down to you,’’ Owens said. “Everyone talked about it. You were told from Day 1 you didn’t lose in The Hole. That tradition kind of waned when they went into the OVC.’’
And the three games that will be played in The Hole this season are all OVC games. Since joining the OVC, TSU has had trouble attracting visiting fans as well as their own. TSU fans would rather spend their money on traveling to the “Classic’’ games against HBCU schools at neutral sites such as Atlanta and Memphis, where they draw much larger crowds and fans of both schools make it a weekend trip including shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
TSU drew a record Classic crowd of 67,712 at the 2004 Atlanta Football Classic against FAMU.
Last year the John Merritt Classic game against historically black Southern University drew an announced 25,209 at LP Field. Even though TSU held off a late rally by Florida A&M this year, the 23-21 victory attracted almost 10,000 fewer fans.
“LP Field is a great recruiting tool,’’ Lewis said. “But the atmosphere is missing. The Hole was home, and you protect your home.’’
It seems former players and older alumni are in agreement that playing in an on-campus stadium would revive the program and bring the community together as one.
Consuella Buford went to high school at Overton and is a freshman at TSU. For Buford, the tradition is now.
“All my family was TSU,’’ Buford said as she and her friends walked the LP Field Concourse during the Merritt Classic game. “It’s more convenient to play on campus, a lot more convenient.’’
Others in the TSU community see the process of reviving Hale Stadium as a risk. Nashville’s Randolph Williamson is widely known as the tailor of choice for a number of professional athletes and other celebrities. Former Titans great Eddie George is a devoted customer. Williamson is now working with recently retired Pittsburgh Steelers star Hines Ward as Ward starts his broadcasting career on TV.
But before all that, Williamson was a Big Blue Tiger wide receiver from 1973-78. He played professionally with the Philadelphia Eagles and in the Canadian Football League with Vancouver and Ottawa. He knows this season’s moves back to The Hole represent a trial run toward possibly playing most or all of TSU’s home games there.
“There is a lot at stake,’’ Williamson said. “If we don’t fill it up this year, the [politicians] will think we don’t support our team. If there’s a no-show, that’s the way they’ll treat us. I wish one of the games [in The Hole] was homecoming.
“These kids today don’t know the history. We have to rejuvenate that history.’’
Bill Thomas knows that history from both sides. He played at TSU from 1966-71 and later joined the staff as an assistant before succeeding Merritt as head coach. He lasted five years, then served as athletic director for the next five years.
Getting back in coaching, Thomas became head coach at Texas Southern and in 1998 brought his team to The Hole.
“They called two or three touchdowns back on us,’’ Thomas said. “I don’t know where those flags came from. … Strange things happen in The Hole.’’
As a TSU player and coach, Thomas said he benefitted from playing in The Hole.
“It elevated your confidence level. It was not whether you were going to win, but by how much. But the level of competition got tougher. They had to play OVC teams and still played their rivals from the historically black schools.”
He added: “The resources didn’t go up like the challenges did.’’
The question of resources leads to the issue of how many games TSU will play in The Hole each season going forward. Will the university commit to giving The Hole more than a facelift? Even with a major renovation to the stadium, it’s doubtful the program could ever completely reclaim its glory days, since many of the best African-American players are now drawn to SEC schools and other rosters across the country.
And yet for TSU, The Hole is “their real home,’’ said Dallas Cowboys assistant Hubbard Alexander, a former TSU linebacker. “It was our 12th man.”
At The Hole, “Everyone gets involved and feels a part of the program,” Alexander said. “It would be a great move.’’
Dwight Beard, a music major at TSU who had to give up football to play in the band, states the case for moving back to The Hole quite simply: “We ain’t got no choice. We need to be in the black community and be on our campus.’’