Archdeacon: Central State football makeover includes $1 million new field

Central State University head football coach Bobby Rome with the new football field at McPherson Stadium behind him. Nick Novy/Central State University
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Central State University head football coach Bobby Rome with the new football field at McPherson Stadium behind him. Nick Novy/Central State University

WILBERFORCE – While other colleges around the state and especially in this area have retreated from sports, Central State University – in the words of new football coach Bobby Rome – has “rebranded.”

Some other schools may have downgraded their athletic programs, done away with them all together or now seem to be doubting their viability, but CSU has gone in the opposite direction.

“Our athletic director (Tara Owens) and our president (Dr. Jack Thomas) have done a tremendous job investing in the student athletes and making sure their experience is a priority here,” Rome said. “At Central State we believe athletics is a gateway to the university. Like they say, it’s often the front door to your school.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world of college athletics the past 17 months, CSU has completed hiring new head coaches for each of its sports and has added men’s volleyball.

But the most eye-popping change has come with the Marauders’ football program which, Rome said, has undergone a complete “makeover.”

Among the changes are:

»Thanks to a $1 million gift from NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier and his Honey Bear Project, CSU has replaced the potholed and well-worn field in 72-year-old McPherson Memorial Stadium with a vibrantly colored, state of the art, synthetic turf field that Rome said now gives the Marauders one of the best playing surfaces in all of NCAA Division II football.

In addition, a new running track along with multiple long jump pits and other field event areas is being completed at the stadium and will give CSU a championship facility that can host regional meets while providing an impressive and long-needed home for its nationally-celebrated track program.

»Drawing on funds also raised by the school, CSU football now will have newly refurbished locker rooms, meeting rooms and offices.

»There are new coaches: Along with the 34-year-old Rome, the new offensive coordinator is Erik Highsmith, a teammate of Rome’s at the University of North Carolina and one of the most prolific pass catchers in Tar Heels’ history. And former Ohio State linebacker Curtis Terry, a product of East Cleveland’s Glenville High, has been promoted to the defensive coordinator.

»There are new “jazzed up” (again Rome’s words) uniforms that he said are “a little like the Minnesota Gophers since we have the same colors.”

»Wearing those new threads will be a few key returning players – especially All-American linebacker Kailen Abrams, All SIAC first team wide receiver Dalane Brown II, SIAC second teamers defensive lineman Donta Marshall and kick returner Derell Williams – and several new players, including some Division I transfers from places like UNLV and the Cincinnati Bearcats.

»The gala coming out party for CSU football begins Aug. 28 when the Marauders – whose 2020 campaign was canceled by COVID concerns – open the new season against longtime rival Kentucky State in the HBCU Classic For Columbus played at Ohio Stadium.

The high-profile showcase includes at least 20 other events over four days, everything from a battle of the bands, drumline and Greek Step Show to a golf outing, college fair, Soul Wars cookout competition, pregame tailgate and an after party .

But the focal point is the football game.

“We’re playing the first football game of the college season and we’re doing it at Ohio State,” Rome said. “We’ll have all eyes on our program and it also gives us the opportunity to let everybody into our world and experience a little of what an HBCU is all about.

“It’s a huge deal.”

Central State University's new synthetic turf football field at McPherson Stadium Nick Novy/Central State University
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Central State University's new synthetic turf football field at McPherson Stadium Nick Novy/Central State University

‘Tremendous gift’

Rome was hired to replace Cedric Pearl in February of 2020 and tasked with reinvigorating a program that won three NAIA national titles in 1990, 1992 and 1995, but then was shut down for eight years due to finances and other reasons.

Since its football reboot in 2005, CSU has not had a winning season and has lost 107 of 146 games.

Rome is the fifth head coach in that time.

And a month after he got the job, the COVID pandemic laid siege to the nation.

The CSU campus became a ghost town as students were eventually were sent home to finish their classes online. The pandemic forced the school to shelve a plan formulated in 2018 to raise funds and make the long-needed upgrades to the football field.

Then the SIAC cancelled the fall football season and, unlike some conferences, decided not to play a truncated spring schedule.

Even so, CSU faired better that some schools during the pandemic.

Sinclair Community College has dismantled its athletic department. Urbana University closed down and all its athletes and coaches were left scrambling for new schools.

Cuyahoga Community College and Columbus Sate have postponed their athletic competitions for at least another year and now Wright State is reviewing the feasibility of its athletic involvements.

While Rome admitted the situation at CSU was “tough” to go through, it did not compare to his last two football stops.

He launched a college football program in Vladivostok, Russia, near the borders of China and North Korea and the players had no concept of American football. The few who showed up with headgear wore motorcycle helmets and the first practice looked like big time wrestling complete with body slams.

He produced a winning team that first season and after three years he returned to America and eventually took over a Virginia University of Lynchburg program that had lost 44 games in a row and was outscored the previous season, 428-28.

He won four games in 2018, his first season at VUL.

During the COVID shutdown, CSU got a huge win when it learned it would be one of the first recipients of Lanier’s Honey Bear Field of Dreams initiative to install modern, artificial turf football fields at three dozen HBCU’s across the nation.

The 75-year-old Lanier played at Morgan State, an HBCU in Baltimore, and then had a legendary career with the Kansas City Chiefs where he was an eight-time All Pro, was an integral part of the Super Bowl IV championship team, was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1972 and is a member of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.

“Willie Lanier gave us a tremendous gift,” Rome said. “And it came at just the right time.”

Following Lanier’s generosity, CSU decided to move forward with its other upgrade plans.

The new field gave Rome something special to trumpet when was trying to recruit players via social media and especially Zoom meetings because in-person contact was prohibited.

He said his wife, LaTosha, convinced him that some of the things he’d learned in the business world – he worked in the Raleigh area as a branch manager with PrimaCore Solutions and at Randstad USA between his Russian and VUL coaching jobs – would translate perfectly to football recruitment.

“When I was in the business world, we felt we had to touch a client eight times to get a commitment,” he said. “It’s the same now. We want to have eight solid conversations with a student athlete

“The first call you’re just getting the jitters out. By the third you’re down to business and by the eighth call, we’re speaking on a personal level.

“And during COVID that was important because so many things were changing. People moved, family members died. There were concerns and players wanted a place they felt comfortable.”

He and his staff have added 31 new players and they still hope to bring in several more before camp opens Aug. 6.

“I’m not allowed to speak on them directly,” he said with a smile. “But if it works out, it’s going to shock our entire conference.”

Head track voach Elliot Lightfoot, CSU President Jack Thomas. CSU Athletic Director Tara Owens, head football coach Bobby Rome at the March groundbreaking for the new football field and running track at Central State's McPherson Stadium. Nick Novy/Central State
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Head track voach Elliot Lightfoot, CSU President Jack Thomas. CSU Athletic Director Tara Owens, head football coach Bobby Rome at the March groundbreaking for the new football field and running track at Central State's McPherson Stadium. Nick Novy/Central State

‘This is my training camp’

His said his wife left this week with some of her girlfriends for a vacation to Belize. Before she departed, they took their 2-year-old son, Bobby III, to North Carolina to stay with his grandmother.

That has left Rome – they live in Huber Heights – on his own.

“For me it’s time to get down and dirty – this is my training camp,” he said. “I’ve already had our coaches over and we’re grinding and pounding, trying to cram as much preparation as we can into this week. We’re breaking down film and planning training camp, trying to get as detailed as possible.

“We have to look at it differently this year. We have to think of ways to keep guys fresh and still get them the work they need. Some of them haven’t played football in almost two years.”

He said it helps that they’re opening the season in a showcase game in the famed Horseshoe.

He said the players are excited about it and so are former Marauders like Hugh Douglas and Erik Williams, who starred in the NFL:

“They keep wanting to know how were doing. They’re so proud of where were at right now. And like everybody I think they can’t wait to see us take the field.”

Like everybody, they hope to see a Marauder makeover.