Mississippi Valley State and Central State face off in Chicago Football Classic

The game, the season opener scheduled for Saturday, will be broadcast on HBCU GO.

Unlike a few foes in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Mississippi Valley State can’t put checkmarks on two prestigious football lists, one for SWAC championships and the other for Hall of Fame alums.

The Delta Devils came close to snagging a ring in the ‘80s as their star wideout, future NFL great Jerry Rice, shattered NCAA records in a historically prolific offense.  But Walter Payton’s alma mater (Jackson State) won six titles that decade and Doug Williams’ school (Grambling State) won or split three. Steve McNair hadn’t arrived yet, but Alcorn State balled out to capture the remaining crown.

Mississippi Valley State will face Central State in the Chicago Football Classic on HBCU GO. Above, Valley lined up against Jackson State last September. (Source: YouTube screen grab via ESPN College Football)

However, Mississippi Valley can always point to Rice as evidence of past greatness. No one has to explain the possibilities to first-year head coach Kendrick Wade. The two-time graduate was a star wide receiver for the Delta Devils and later served as an assistant coach before returning to accept the top job in December. He has a direct connection to the glory days, as his high school coach and his coach at Valley was Willie Totten, the Black College Hall of Famer who passed the ball to Rice at what’s now named Rice-Totten Stadium.

“It’s great to be back and be part of this great history,” Wade said this week as his team prepared for Saturday’s season opener against Central State in the Chicago Football Classic on HBCU GO. “I was always told if you’re at a place where they’ve won before, then you can do it again,” he said on this week’s SWAC media call. 

Kevin Porter is similarly optimistic as he enters his second season at Central State. 

The Marauders won NAIA national football titles in 1990, 1992, and 1995, but they haven’t won much since. They prevailed in their opener last year but finished with a 3-7 record. That improved on the 1-9 team Porter inherited in 2021. His mission is to replicate the success he enjoyed while leading Fort Valley State, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe that won the SIAC in 2016 and was runner-up the following year.

Incremental progress is movement, nonetheless. The victory against Winston-Salem State in last year’s HBCU Hall of Fame Classic made Central State 1-0 for the first time since 2014. The Marauders ended the campaign on a high, too, sealing their first home win since 2019. “It gives our guys a lot of confidence going into our second season,” Wade told WKEF-TV.  “We played a lot of close games last year, a lot of games we could’ve won.”

Any confidence within MVSU and Central State isn’t widely shared in preseason predictions from respective peers. The SWAC poll has Mississippi Valley finishing next-to-last in its division. Central State fared roughly the same in SIAC rankings, placed ninth among 13 squads in the league’s new single-division format. 

Central State University’s Kevin Porter is optimistic as he enters his second year as head football coach. (Source: YouTube screen grab via the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Porter is banking on dividends from his 2022 investment in green players. Central State boasts two sophomores – defensive lineman Mike White and linebacker Jalil Lenore – who were voted first-teamers in SIAC’s preseason honors. The pair reflect last season’s youth movement when 17 first-year players saw extensive time. Lenore led the league in tackles and was fifth nationally in Division II. 

With the Classic’s resumption after a three-year hiatus, he can share his city with teammates and celebrate the event with his village. The weeklong activities help raise $250,000 in scholarships. “It’s important for me to play in the Classic,” Lenore told the Chicago Crusader. “I get to show off my talent and display my skills in front of family, friends, and the community that raised me.”  

Wade knows that feeling well, and he relishes it, a driving factor in accepting the job as Mississippi Valley’s 18th head coach. His predecessor, Vincent Dancy, won 10 games in five seasons before resigning to join Deion Sanders at Colorado. Wade eagerly assumed a program that last posted a winning record in 2006 at a school that routinely scrapes the bottom of Division I athletic budgets. One reason is clear: The campus is a mere 40 miles from Cleveland, Mississippi, his hometown.

“I have dreamed of this moment,” Wade said in a statement after his hiring was announced. “I saw it before it became a reality. I always felt I would have the honor of returning home to elevate this program to compete for championships, and that’s what we’re going to do. I know it will not happen overnight, but the ‘Process’ of that elevation begins now. Valley, ‘THE TIME IS NOW.’”

The process bears a resemblance to Sanders’ methodology out West. 

Wade has added more than 60 new players since January, over a dozen from the junior college ranks. Other newcomers transferred from Division I or Division II, including a pair who followed him from Delta State, where he coached receivers last year.  “We’ve been heavy on recruitment,” he said during SWAC Media Day. “We had to flip the roster and get some better players in there.”

In that regard, Central State doesn’t have much to go on as it prepares for the game. MVSU has the advantage of watching Marauders tape from last season. Either way, both coaches are striving to prove that these teams aren’t the same old also-rans of recent vintage. Forget about the history and gloomy forecasts.

“I’m excited,” Wade told reporters this week. “I’m tired of talking.”

Now it’s time to be about it.

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