When people think of football in Maryland, their minds immediately arrive at one or two thoughts. The first thought is usually of the University of Maryland Terrapins and their history as a program. Secondly, people may think of the powerhouse high schools such as DeMatha, St. Frances Academy, or Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore. The key here is that these programs are located on the western side of the state of Maryland.
But when people think of the Eastern Shore, naturally their minds think of its prominence in the seafood industry or the bustling seaside town of Ocean City. Generally speaking, many outside of Maryland are unaware of that the Eastern Shore boasted a once-dominant college football program.
In the southernmost corner of the Eastern Shore in the town of Princess Anne, lies the University Of Maryland Eastern Shore or UMES for short. Living without a program for forty years, here is the history of UMES and college football.
Where It All Began…
Founded in 1886 by the Delaware Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, UMES was initially a land grant school in the University of Maryland system. For young African Americans who couldn’t enter UMD’s agriculture program, UMES was their destination.
In 1922, university principal Thomas H. Kiah hired Gideon Edward Smith to be the school’s first athletic coach. Early on, the then called Princess Anne Academy Trojans played against nearby HBCUs such as Bowie State University. In 1931 the school became a founding member of the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Association or M3A for short.
The Skip McCain Years
Later on, in 1947, the university hired John T. Williams, a former college football player as its new president. Setting out to improve the athletic department, Williams hired Vernon “Skip” McCain in addition to rebranding the team as the Hawks.
McCain came to Princess Anne by way of Tennessee State where he served as the head basketball coach and a football assistant. While also spending time as the UMES basketball coach and the athletic director, McCain was head football coach from 1948 to 1963. A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, McCain finished his time at UMES with a record of 101 wins and 16 losses.
During his tenure as head coach, McCain sent several of his players to the NFL. Notable names from that group included star running back and future sports telecaster Emerson Boozer, defensive backs Charlie Stukes and Johnny Sample, as well as six-time pro bowl defensive lineman Roger Brown. While Boozer and Stukes were drafted after McCain had retired, he left a lasting impression on both men.
The Post Skip McCain Years
Oddly enough the most famous player in UMES history came shortly after McCain had left. Arriving in 1964, Art Shell became a fixture of the Hawks offensive line for the next four seasons. Drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the third round of the 1968 NFL Draft, Shell went on to play in fifteen seasons and make eight Pro Bowls by the end of his career. Shell would go on to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
His former also hired Shell to be their head coach in the same year. Shortly thereafter, Shell became the first African American coach to lead the Raiders to the AFC Championship.
As for McCain, his replacement as head coach and AD was assistant Roosevelt Gilliam. Guiding the Hawks to 24 wins as head coach, Gilliam stayed on until 1968. However, the information regarding who would go on to succeed Gilliam is murky or not readily available.
But what was clear was that the start of the 1970s was the beginning of the end of the program. The team still had some success, as according to school accounts, the Hawks had 12 players earn all-conference awards. But on the eighth of January in 1980, the UMES football program was suspended.
The termination of the program can be linked to a few different reasons. Former UMES professor David Alston said at the time it was due to the high cost of joining the MEAC conference in 1970.
University accounts attribute the downfall to the retirement of President Williams in addition to poor management. There were also mentions of a conspiracy to bring the program down, given the public view of the university at the time. The university also cites the increased competition among other institutions in the recruitment of players “was too much to overcome.”
So Close Yet So Far…
In 2012, a university “task force” was assembled to explore the possibility of college football making its return to Princess Anne. Then-president Julliette Bell instructed them to work through the logistics of the move. But in February of 2013, Bell announced that the school would not reinstate the college football program at UMES. Bell said that the university could not sustain the move due to personnel and fiscal reasons.
To this day, the school remains without a college football program. The reinstatement report from 2013 reads that the university could revisit the issue in five years. However, the lack of discussion in that regarding the issue signals that the chance of the program’s return looks slim.
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