HBCUs have a legacy of bringing top football talent to the NFL. Although its contributions have been at times overlooked, Mississippi Valley State University has produced multiple Pro Football Hall-of-Famers! Read below for the recent NFL profile that delved more into the histories of the 2 great players, and how they have put respect on their alma mater’s name.
Below, Pioli discusses the history of Mississippi Valley State, from which Pro Football Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Jerry Rice hail.
No football series about HBCUs would be complete without discussing Mississippi Valley State, which produced two of the NFL’s greatest and most celebrated players: Deacon Jones and Jerry Rice. And as a football history buff, I found myself in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1990 during my coaching days at Murray State.
I went on a lot of recruiting trips, with one being to all the Mississippi community colleges. And on this particular trip, I was scheduled to go to Mississippi Delta Community College. I’ve mentioned before how I often wandered to indulge my fascination for football history, and I was always interested in the influence HBCU football had on the AFL and NFL. So naturally, having heard so much about Itta Bena — Rice, who’d become an NFL star by that time, really put the little town on the map — I drove the extra 15 miles to see the university. To learn and see the place where Rice, Jones and so many others had played prior to their great NFL careers was a highlight of that trip.
The reason for the school’s existence derives from our country’s sad history when it comes to civil rights. Renamed Mississippi Valley State University in 1974, Mississippi Vocational College was originally opened by the state in 1950 in an attempt to deter Black students from applying to public schools (Mississippi State, University of Mississippi and University of Southern Mississippi), as the Mississippi legislature expected that legal segregation of public schools was in danger.
Jones’ story is particularly interesting. He started his college career at South Carolina State, but left after his scholarship was revoked by the university for participating in a civil rights protest. He then spent one year out of college before enrolling at Mississippi Vocational College in 1960, joining one of his former South Carolina State coaches. He played just one season with the Delta Devils and was discovered by accident by the Los Angeles Rams, who were scouting the school’s opponents. The Rams ended up drafting Jones in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft. A way into the league was all Jones needed, as he quickly became a dominant defensive player and eventually would be considered the top pass rusher of his era. In fact, he is credited with coining the phrase “sack” because that’s what he called his tackles of the quarterback. Jones was also known for his violent — and highly effective — hand usage on the field. He mastered the head slap, a pass-rush move that has since been banned.
An eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro, Jones was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility. He also earned a spot on the NFL 100 All-Time Team.
While some may not be as familiar with Jones’ illustrious NFL tenure, Rice’s storied career is quite well-known, as he was the star wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers during their dynastic years with Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Steve Young. However, Rice’s college career at Mississippi Valley State was legendary on its own.
Rice played for head coach Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley, who played under HBCU coaching legend John Merritt at Jackson State in the late 1950s before going on to become the winningest coach in Mississippi Valley State history. Rice and his QB, Willie Totten, were known as “The Satellite Express” in Cooley’s innovative pass offense that featured five-receiver sets and the no-huddle offense. The pair rewrote the NCAA passing and receiving record books.
Although Mississippi Valley State University may not boast as high a volume of NFL draft picks as some other HBCUs, it provided two of the greatest players to ever come through the league.