As a track star at Melrose High School in the 1980s, Rochelle Stevens had athletic scholarship offers from multiple big-name colleges and universities.
Given her talent, she may well have won Olympic Gold anywhere she laced up her cleats.
But Stevens chose to lace ‘em up at Morgan State University, an HBCU. And now, as head coach of LeMoyne-Owen College’s rebooted track and field team, she’s asking a new generation of track stars to make the same choice she did: Choose an HBCU — specifically, of course, LeMoyne-Owen.
“I am so excited to be able to give back to the community on a larger scale,” Stevens said at her introductory press conference in October 2021. “I am looking for the diamond in the rough for LeMoyne-Owen College.”
It’s a full-circle metaphor that’s not lost on LOC Athletic Director William Anderson.
“Being a former HBCU athlete, a lot of people don’t tell that part of her story,” Anderson said. “She did what a lot of kids are talking about doing now (in choosing an HBCU). She did that when it was unpopular, and still was able to be one of the best at her sport.”
That narrative — that student athletes (or for that matter, just students) shouldn’t overlook LeMoyne-Owen as a place where they can excel — has helped the tiny college in South Memphis attract some big names as coaches.
Among them is former Grizzlies star Bonzi Wells, who is entering his second season as head coach of the LOC mens’ basketball team. For his first season with the Magicians, Wells was flanked by Lionel Hollins, the beloved former Grizzlies coach.
Hollins won’t be back this season, instead accepting an assistant’s job with the Houston Rockets. But Wells is committed to using whatever star power he can muster to shine a light on the 160-year college.
“The way the world is changing, it’s HBCUs’ time,” Wells said upon accepting the job in 2021. “We’ve promoted these other colleges that are not HBCUs long enough. So now it’s time to get the revenue and all that stuff directed to the HBCUs. We need to get all the media attention.”
The moves are splashy but calculated.
LOC’s leadership wants to parlay a higher sports profile into more recognition and respect across the board, Anderson said.
Syreeta Dodson and the LOC Cheer and Pom Squad are doing their part. In addition to recruiting and training the pom squad as dancers, she’s been working to remind people that pom squads do more than just cheer on their teams.
They practice, sweat, and compete just like any other athletes at LeMoyne-Owen.
But she’s making them stretch in other ways as well. The squad has represented LOC at college fairs, community events and has been busy on social media.
“I am showing these girls how to be ambassadors for their school,” said Dodson, who has booked the squad for appearances at college fairs and community events. “They know they are students before they are athletes. We want them to know that academics is as important to us as your talent. As long as you can find the balance, you’re going to be great.”
To be clear, Dodson may not be a celebrity but she’s no slouch. A dancer and professional choreographer, she was among the original “Grizz Girls,” has toured with the Bar-Kays, and performed in music videos on MTV and BET.
“I’m just blessed to be one of those people that can be spoken of like that,” Dodson said. “Some of these girls, you never know who you are inspiring.”
If it seems like it’s personal for LeMoyne-Owen coaches, well . . . it is.
“I’m just about my (students),” said Volleyball Coach Reginald Morris. “I’m about them graduating from college. I (say) it all the time: You may not make the pros, but you can be a pro in the professional community. Doctors, lawyers, teachers.”
Like any other college sports program recruiting athletes, LOC is competing against colleges with bigger fan bases, nicer facilities, and deeper pockets.
“We’re the city’s only HBCU and we’ve been playing in Bruce Hall for 70 years,” Anderson said. “Why don’t we have one of the top facilities in the city just like Christian Brothers, Rhodes or (The University of) Memphis?”
But the tides are turning.
Earlier this year, Stevens connected LOC President Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs directly with Marvin Ellison, the CEO of hardware megastore Lowe’s. Their conversations led directly to Lowe’s donating $1 million each to both LeMoyne-Owen and Tennessee State University in Nashville.
Anderson hopes a sense of civic pride when it comes to LeMoyne-Owen can lead to more gifts like that — from every corner of the city.
“It’s so important that the city of Memphis realizes that we are the city’s only HBCU,” Anderson said. “Not investing in Lemoyne is actually a travesty for the city of Memphis.
“No matter what race, color or creed you are, this is our HBCU,” he continued. “And (because it’s in Memphis), it’s better than Jackson State, better than Tennessee State, better than Florida A&M.
“That’s the type of commitment we need from the (people) of Memphis.”