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The Chicago Football Classic is celebrating 20 years of hosting its annual weekend of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) collegiate excellence and entertainment. Chicago businessmen Everett Rand, Tim Rand and Larry Huggins are the founders of the CFC, which has become reputable for inspiring African American high school and college students.

On September 30, CFC will host two powerhouse football teams and their marching bands–Clark Atlanta University and Grambling State University at Chicago’s Soldier Field. As the only northern city to host a collegiate Classic football game, the CFC steps beyond the playing field in working with multiple HBCU athletic programs to facilitate with months of preparation–securing the right teams to compete.

Former NFL player and Clark Atlanta University’s Athletic Director, J Lin Dawson

The Defender talked with Clark Atlanta’s Athletic Director J Lin Dawson.  A former player for the New England Patriots for ten seasons, Lin Dawson has worked in administrative and academic roles for other collegiate programs. He’s worked as an ADA at North Carolina Central University and  Grambling State University , winning several conference championships. His in-depth knowledge, experience and award-winning approach to building great athletic programs have earned Dawson a solid reputation.

What have been the changes to the athletic department in the last few years, particularly the football program?

Clark Atlanta University is the result of the merger of two universities in 1988. Unlike Grambling, we are establishing the legacy. Clark College had a legacy of winning championships. Atlanta University was the first graduate school for Blacks in America. When the universities merged, we’ve been building a legacy. Some of the changes we began to see, we’re recruiting a different type of student athlete. We’re seeing a different student–students who primarily raised themselves. Our coaching techniques and recruiting methods have to change and adapt to that. This year is the first year of generation Z’ers. They are different from the baby boomers and millennials. We have to teach the same standards, but our process has to change. We can’t just lecture and speak to them.

One of the things, we’re trying to do is to make sure we have “touch” points when they come on campus. Not only making those connections during orientations–but mentoring and following them. I also teach in the business school. We have Saudi Arabian, Hispanic, and African American students. Ninety percent of our campus is made up of African American enrollment. We have to engage our students much differently than before.

Are there other character-building lessons you teach to students?

On our campus, one of the things I teach is a leadership course to all freshman males. I pull them away on Thursday night for about 35-40 minutes. We talk about the dynamics of leadership.

Leaders are those who select, train, equip, and influence. What we try to do is take our young people from where they are and teach them and bring them through the character traits of leadership. That’s important for us, particularly when so many of our young people have raised themselves.

I came from a household where my father moved out when I was in the first grade. I was the youngest of three boys. I had to grow up a little earlier than perhaps I was supposed to. We have young people on our campus who have those same experiences. We try to look at the personal development, athletic development–those things are a part of life skills. If they fail, it’s because they make a wrong decision in some social dilemma. Not because they can’t hit a curveball. Atlanta has several distractions outside of the campus, but it’s a great place to be.

Clark Atlanta Panthers Football Team

What sets apart the new generation of students compared to previous generations you’ve taught?

They want it now, and they want it when they want it. If students are going to complain, they will complain in “real” time. The previous generations would complain to each other; they write a letter or go to the dean’s office. Not this group. They will Facebook live; they will put it on right now. What we have to do is use that–that’s important. As an instructor, I know that my students want to engage at 3 a.m. in the morning, so I have to have some resources or something online where they can engage with me. I’m not going to be up at 3 a.m. but I have to have a system in place where they can still interact. 

Do you find there’s more pressure on HBCUs to excel as opposed to the Big Ten college programs?

I don’t think there’s so much a trade secret. You still have to beat the bushes to find talent. You have to recruit the same people that Oklahoma, North Carolina, and others are recruiting because everybody is not going to Oklahoma or won’t do well in North Carolina. You still have an opportunity for these same young people.

Our place in history dictates that we don’t have to prove our relevance anymore. When we sing the Negro Anthem, when we stand–that’s a Clark Atlanta alum who wrote the song and his brother made the music. Across the board, both institutions can provide a history of legacy beyond sports. One of the things that is important for us, our coaches still have to do the same thing as the major teams. There are so many people that we recruit because our coaches make contact as opposed to getting a letter. If the coach never comes to a practice and tries to close the deal in the wee hours of the morning, it’s probably too late for that.

Pictured l-r: CFC Co-Founder Everett Rand; Alderman Greg Mitchell, Grambling State ADA, Paul Bryant; Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Clark Atlanta ADA, J Lin Dawson; Alderman Michelle Harris; CFC Co-Founder, Larry Huggins; and CFC Event Co-ordinator, Donna Hodge.

How do the school’s resources assist young people who are not used to being away from home?

We understand, parents lend us their kids, and we see this as a partnership. You have a responsibility, and I see these young people like my sons and my daughters. For me, it’s a ministry. I have to be able to embrace and take care of somebody’s kid as I would hope they would take care of mine. That’s number one for me.

What is so powerful about the Clark Atlanta’s influence on Chicago student enrollment?

They talk about the Grambling alums; there’s several HBCUs that can speak about the alumni. We made the Chicago connection at Clark ATLANTA. The school is the second destination that Chicago students come to; number one in Atlanta, Georgia. So, we’ve been in this market. There are several famous alums, but perhaps the one that comes from Chicago is Ms. Marva Collins. She learned her techniques at Clark Atlanta. We have several VPs here; our alumnus organization is in the 700-member range. Many of them grew up in Chicago.

What are some of the benefits of doing the Classics? There is plenty of them in the Southern region, and it has become a high-profile event throughout the Black community.

For Clark Atlanta, we chose wisely regarding the Classics offered to us. I’ve created Classics before; I was an ADA at Grambling and won three Bayou Classics. I think for us, [Classics] allow us to build a national stage–expanding the brand, expanding our territory of recruiting students. The most important thing for us is the scholarships and other opportunities that other young people experience. The Chicago Football Classic is a natural for Clark Atlanta.

What is your motto and the school’s motto? What do you feel has been something that you live by on a personal level?

Clark Atlanta’s motto is “Find a way or make one.”

There is a difference between what we do on our campus and what AD’s do at a majority school. They are more fundraisers and managers. There is nothing outside of my area of athletics. We want to be sound and perfect in every aspect of game operations– fan’s experience to making sure our timelines are correct.

We have to satisfy the people that hire the people we work for and us. There are about 32 job responsibilities that we have to do, from personnel to evaluations to fundraising. From a visionary standpoint, if we don’t make it happen–it’s not going to happen.

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