A once-proud HBCU program in Georgia is back on track with first-year coach Shawn Gibbs

By John Brice

Fort Valley State is off to its best start in more than a decade and has playoff hopes alive.

Sitting on his porch staring at the ocean off a balcony at a condo in Jamaica, Rod Broadway laughs about his favorite Shawn Gibbs memory.

A legendary coach at multiple Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Broadway helped mold Gibbs’ coaching career when Broadway tabbed Gibbs for various roles on his staffs at Grambling and North Carolina A&T.

But the startling move that Broadway made – to go from a veteran, nine-win Grambling program to rebuild A&T on the heels of the nadir of that school’s football history – was ripe with obstacles, even as it meant a return to the home states of both Broadway and Gibbs.

“One thing that comes to mind, when we left Grambling we had a championship football team at Grambling,” Broadway told FootballScoop. “And to come to A&T, they had gone like two-and-a-half years without winning a game, 10 years without a winning season. They were bad, awful. But I told the coaches one thing I wanted to do was to get back in North Carolina, get back to family and help A&T become a good football program.

“We were leaving spring practice one day that first year, I was beat up and down, because we were so bad. And Coach Gibbs looked at me and said, ‘So, you wanna get home to family, huh?’”

Funny how history repeats itself when a challenge is presented.

On February 10, 2022, Gibbs vaulted into a similar leap to become the head coach at Fort Valley State University, an NCAA Division II program some 100 miles south of Atlanta that has a strong history but a less-successful recent past.

“It was about what I wanted to try to build Fort Valley State football into,” Gibbs told FootballScoop. “Something more than being known as just an HBCU school. We don’t want to just be known as an HBCU program, but as one of the better Division II programs in the country.

“Tradition, not just Rayfield Wright, Tyrone Poole, Ricardo Lockette, Nick Harper, Marquette King, but also some great head coaches. So the tradition is here, the talent pool in the state of Georgia is second to none. In my opinion, it’s the most talent-rich football state in the country. And there’s tremendous support from community and alumni; it means a lot.”

That’s the backdrop, then, as the community rallies around Gibbs’ first iteration of Wildcats amidst the program’s first 4-0 start in 15-plus years and its best overall start, now 5-1 courtesy last Saturday’s 32-17 win against fellow Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe Central State University.

Yes, in eight months Gibbs, his staff and increasingly tuned-in players are doing things the Wildcats haven’t done since these current players were barely in elementary school.

“He’s got his own program, and he knows anytime he needs advice I’m here, but Coach Gibbs knows what he’s doing,” said Broadway, an assistant coach at Duke, Florida and North Carolina as well as a 125-game winner as a head coach. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he was going to be successful as a head coach because he can handle people, he knows Xs and Os, strategy, all those areas. He’s good at motivating and relating to people.

“Now, he’s putting all those pieces together.”

In a time when plenty of college coaches treat their program tenets, as well as offensive and defensively philosophies, like red-taped NSA documents, Gibbs speaks plainly about his approach.

He knows no other way after Gibbs and family grew up on the grounds of a juvenile detention center where both his parents, Nancy and Stanley Jr., worked in Black Mountain, N.C.

“It’s about doing the right thing all the time, and not just on the football field,” said Gibbs, who ran for more than 4,600 yards in his high school career and had a star turn in college at North Carolina Central when he twice led the Eagles in scoring. “How you do anything is how you do everything. We’re trying to make sure these guys understand that we’re on time for all meetings, the weight room. We’re making sure you’re doing everything right in the locker room, carrying ourselves the right way off the field. We want to develop that championship mentality on and off the field; be able to build the program into a program that we think represents Fort Valley State, our administration, our community and our players and their families the right way.”

On the field, it’s a similarly no-nonsense, straight-forward approach.

“I would say probably the most influential from a coaching philosophy would be Coach Broadway, and I still use some of those same things as far as goals each week,” Gibbs, whose work as an understudy to Broadway consisted of turning multiple running backs into conference offensive players of the year and was highlighted by helping develop Tarik Cohen into a prominent NFL running back. “Of being stout against the run, winning the turnover battle, being sound in the kicking game. Not only Coach Broadway but my high school coach, Coach Ken Ford, is somebody I talk to pretty regularly, and he’s always giving me advice and nuggets. I think I picked up a lot from him and just trying to be like he was as far as loving the players, because he poured his heart and soul into each player and that’s what I want to do.”

Four games remain in Fort Valley’s regular season and Gibbs’ inaugural one as a collegiate head coach. His Wildcats have just one true home game left, Saturday against Morehouse College, but they also do not have to leave the Peach State the remainder of this campaign.

Unless, that is, the Wildcats can claw their way back into the NCAA D-II Playoffs for the first time in years. The hope is still there, with all four games against SIAC opponents and postseason aspirations not out of reach.

Regardless, Gibbs isn’t expecting overnight success – even in this 5-1 opening. More importantly, he wants to build back Fort Valley State by cementing community impact.

“That’s the thing about it, in this community, Fort Valley is more than just a university,” Gibbs said. “It’s a place that has had tremendous impact in our community and the surrounding areas. These guys do serve as role models, and at Fort Valley, we’ve got quite a few kids on team from Peach County (the home county of the school).

“We’re going to build a program to be influential not only on the field, but in the university and out in surrounding communities. Then when guys do leave Fort Valley, they can go back to their communities and share those values and spread them and try to make the world better. Maybe that sounds like lofty ambitions, but I think that’s what we all should try to do, just make this world a better place.”

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