Sadly it doesn’t look like much now but 15 years ago to this day, March 1, 2003, the John H. Lewis Gymnasium was rocking as the Morris Brown College Wolverines were playing in what would be the last Division I college basketball game ever at the building, for the school and for any basketball program in the Atlanta University Center (AUC).
The last Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Division I basketball program in Atlanta would win their final home game of the season, a 72-71 victory over the Texas-Rio Grande Valley University Vaqueros. It was the Wolverines eighth win of the season and their last.
They would play their 28th game of the year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and lose it to perennial NCAA tournament guest Southern University Jaguars 77-49 on March 3, 2003.
An independent, Morris Brown would have no conference tournament to prepare for and at 8-20, certainly no NCAA tournament to ready themselves for. The season was over and so was any chance of continuing to play at the highest level of the sport, with all due respect, Division I.
Once upon a time in the AUC there was a Division I men’s basketball program that dared to schedule any and everybody, both far and wide. Waiting on either the MEAC or SWAC conference to grant entry, the Morris Brown Wolverines and head coach Derek Thompson were an independent without fear.
Asked what he remembered most about that one point win at home, the last win as a Division I program Thompson, an assistant coach on the men’s staff at Alcorn State University said, “I remember the guys being really excited, we had guys that, no matter who we played they competed.
The guys on that team really appreciated putting on that uniform and representing Morris Brown College.” Thompson was the youngest Division I men’s head coach in the country at the time and with the late Russell Ellington, the longtime Wolverines head basketball coach, giving him the blessing a season and a half earlier he would coach his alma mater all over the country for two and a half seasons.
“Coach Ellington just walked into the locker room one day after practice and told us that he was moving upstairs to be the athletic director and that I was going to be the new head coach,” said Thompson. “And that was that. We had to learn and learn fast.”
Flash forward to the 2001-2002 with the Wolverines opening the season at a tournament in the Virgin Islands against Clemson, LaSalle and Eastern Michigan. Morris Brown lost all three games by an average of 15 points but the experience for a group of players that were assembled to compete at the Division II level in the SIAC was something that Thompson considered then ( and still does) to be a blessing.
“We played teams with open dates in their schedules and could squeeze in a game,” he said of the hodgepodge schedule that would have the Wolverines play their next game at home, their season opener against Lipscomb, a 71-70 victory, before heading back out on the road to play at Tulsa, Mississippi and Boston College in a week and half span.
The Boston College Eagles were ranked 13th in the country at the time and defeated the Wolverines 90-65. The game wasn’t an entire loss as Morris Brown College would gain thousands of dollars for the program via the “paid games” that they scheduled during the three years the program as on the Division I level.
“Because of the money we made from those games we didn’t really have much control over where we were going to be,” says Thompson. The experience of playing at Oregon (a 96-50 loss at mcArthur Court on Dec. 27, 2001) or in Ames at Iowa State (a 69-45 loss on New Year’s Eve 2001) was something kids from Atlanta would never forget.
In some cases it would be experiences that they would never have again. “I had guys on that team and the team after that one that had never even been to an airport before,” said Thompson in a voice that sounded as straightforward as it had at any time during our hour-long conversation. Players like Amien Hicks, Larry Washington, Joseph Dunn, the Wolverines leading scorer during the 2001-2002 season and Anthony Adams, the team’s leading scorer during the final season, 2002-2003, with a 16.8 points per game average.
The Wolverines played three consecutive games in the state of Colorado at Colorado State, the University of Denver and at the then named Coors Events/Conference Center against the University of Colorado Buffaloes.
That 2001-2002 season would end with three consecutive road games in Alabama at Jacksonville State and Alabama A&M University and in Lorman, Mississippi at Alcorn State University. A 5-24 overall record might signal failure to some but to Thompson it symbolized something entirely different for the basketball program.
“It was a proud moment for everybody, win or lose, because Morris Brown College alumni got a chance to see their team play all over the country.”
While on the road Thompson would make the most of the trips out of town by scheduling meetings with different Morris Brown College Alumni Chapters. “We would have alumni invite players over before and after games and a lot of alumni would come to the games,” said Thompson. “I used our schedule as a recruiting tool.”
The 2002-2003 season began with a game in Miami at Florida International University (a 60-52 loss) and the specter of the college potentially losing its accreditation and along with that the basketball and football programs, which played on the Division II level and managed to send a number of players to the NFL during its illustrious tenure.
It would take a separate story to tell the tale of the world famous Morris Brown College Marching Wolverines marching band. If there was ever a institution that could support a Division I basketball team it was Morris Brown but that would not be enough to keep the 2002-2003 season from being the Wolverines last.
The accreditation issue didn’t stop Thompson, whose father Greg Thompson not only played football at Morris Brown but had also held positions of athletic director, head football coach and as a coordinator, from setting up a murderer’s row of a last ride down the Division I road.
From that season opener in Miami to the two-game trip to California to play USC and Cal State Fullerton (both losses) to New Jersey to play Rutgers (a 68-48 loss) and on to New Orleans (by bus) to play Tulane (another loss, this time 88-30), the Wolverines were playing everybody, everywhere. I use to love to get the kids an opportunity to get out and see the different cities,” said Thompson of the times he schedule side trips to historical monuments and tourist spots for his player’s educational benefit.
“I gave those players a lot of credit because I was witness to the hard work they put in everyday.” The hard work on the court and in the classroom didn’t change the situation in the boardroom however and the program would play another series on the road in Nashville against Lipscomb ( a 75-69 victory on Jan. 21, 2003) and down the road at Tennessee State University two days later (another victory, 73-68) before staying close to home and playing three more home games mixed in between games at Florida A&M, Mercer University in Macon, Alabama A&M, Savannah State, Bethune-Cookman and at Southern University in Baton Rouge to end the season.
“Sometimes because of the accelerated class schedules some of our guys were taking we didn’t have enough guys to practice. We would leave for games with six or seven guys and meet up with the rest of the team later,” said Thompson of the schedules his players were taking in order to graduate before the ball dropped.
As a Morris Brown alum Thompson was more worried about get his players diplomas than winning games but the games mattered. They all mattered. “Originally we were approached by the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and had worked on a proposal and I also remember paperwork being worked in for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC),” said Thompson. “The MEAC was looking to get into the Atlanta market.”
The loss of accreditation put all of those discussions to a screaming halt. Asked if he thought Morris Brown could have competed in either conference, the last man to coach a Division I game in the AUC says, “I felt really good about where we were and where we were headed. I believe we would have. For the most part the athletic department was in good shape.”
Fast forward to 15 years ago on Mar. 3 in Baton Rouge where the Wolverines lost to Southern and to the woes of many other HBCUs. The accreditation has not been fully restored but if it ever was and another shot at a Division I or more realistically a Division II men’s basketball program were to ever be formed they will know where to get a head coach.
“After the 2002-2003 season, that would have been my first full recruiting class as a Division I program,” said Thompson. “I always felt good about the kids we had and felt good about how good a program we could have become. I know we would have been successful.
“I’d be right back there wanting the opportunity to pick up where we left off.”
The Morris Brown College Wolverines finished that last season with an 8-20 record. Six of their wins came against teams from Historically Black Colleges and Universities including a sweep of Clark Atlanta University, last year’s SIAC tournament champion.