Greatest HBCU Football Teams of All Time
You can't tell the story of college football without including the great teams from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). HBCUs date back over 100 years and include some of the greatest players in football history.
The HBCU national championships have been awarded by various news services and media outlets since 1920 through the present day and have come to define many HBCU football programs in that time. It's a separate championship from the divisional national titles some teams win, even though some teams have won both.
These are the college football programs with the most HBCU national championships — the greatest HBCU football teams of all time.
9. Morgan State — 7 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
National titles: 1933, 1937, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1949, 1967
Notable coaches: Eddie Hurt, Earl Banks
Notable players: Leroy Kelly, Roosevelt Brown, Willie Lanier, Raymond Chester, Len Ford, Visanthe Shiancoe, Dave Meggett
Bottom line: Morgan State has been playing football for a long time — since 1898 — and its heyday came in the 1930s and 1940s, when the school won six of its seven HBCU national championships.
No player in Morgan State history stands above middle linebacker Willie Lanier, who was an All-American in 1965 and went on to become one of the greatest players in NFL history. He led the Kansas City Chiefs to a Super Bowl championship in 1969 and is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
9. Howard — 7 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Washington, D.C.
National titles: 1920, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1987, 1993, 1996
Notable coaches: Edward Morrison, Louis Watson, Steve Wilson
Notable players: Antoine Bethea, Marques Douglas, Jimmie Johnson, Tracy White, Steve Wilson, Ron Bartell, Billy Jenkins
Bottom line: While Howard won four of its HBCU national championships in the 1920s, the program experienced a resurgence in the late 1980s, winning three more titles in 1987, 1993 and 1996.
Howard's success on the HBCU level isn't what the school is known for to modern college football fans. In the last decade, they've become known for pulling off the greatest (gambling) upset in college football history.
That occurred on Sept. 2, 2017, when Howard defeated an FBS opponent for the first time in school history with a 43-40 win over UNLV in Las Vegas. Howard entered the game as a 45.5-point underdog, making their win the biggest point spread upset of all time.
9. Hampton — 7 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Hampton, Virginia
National titles: 1922, 1985, 1994, 1997, 2004-06
Notable coaches: Gideon Smith, Fred Freeman, Joe Taylor
Notable players: Reggie Doss, Isaac Readon, Jerome Mathis, Darrell Flythe, Alonzo Coleman, Justin Durant, Kendall Langford, Chris Baker
Bottom line: Hampton won HBCU national championships in three consecutive decades after a 63-year title drought from 1922 to 1985, capped by three consecutive titles form 2004 to 2006.
Hampton's dynasty in the early 2000s was defined by a bevy of NFL talent, including 11-year NFL linebacker Justin Durant, a three-time All-American, NFL All-Pro return specialist Jerome Mathis and 10-year NFL defensive end Kendall Langford, who were all teammates on Hampton's 2004 squad.
6. South Carolina State — 8 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Orangeburg, South Carolina
National titles: 1976, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1994, 2008, 2009, 2021
Notable coaches: Willie Jeffries, Bill Davis, Oliver Pough
Notable players: Harry Carson, Shaquille Leonard,
Bottom line: Former South Carolina State head coach Willie Jeffries had two stints at the school and won HBCU national championships in each stint — first in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. This was all sandwiched between Jeffries becoming the first Black head coach at an NCAA Division I-A school at Wichita State in 1979.
South Carolina State's football history isn't complete without telling of a shameful moment in school history, when school officials revoked the scholarship of sophomore defensive end Deacon Jones after they discovered he'd participated in protests backing the civil rights movement.
Jones transferred to another HBCU, Mississippi Valley State, and became a Pro Football Hall of Famer and is widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.
6. North Carolina A&T — 8 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Greensboro, North Carolina
National titles: 1951, 1968, 1990, 1999, 2015, 2017-19
Notable coaches: Bill Bell, Hornsby Howell, Bill Hayes, Rod Broadway, Sam Washington
Notable players: Elvin Bethea, Chris McNeil, Tarik Cohen, Brandon Parker, Connell Maynor, Demetrius Harrison
Bottom line: North Carolina A&T has seen its program rise to prominence again. They've won four HBCU national championships in the last decade, including three consecutive titles from 2017 to 2019.
No player in North Carolina A&T history has defined that resurgence more than 5-foot-5 running back Tarik Cohen, a three-time All-American and three-time MEAC Player of the Year from 2014 to 2016.
Cohen, one of the shortest players in NFL history, led North Carolina A&T to its first HBCU national title in 16 years in 2015 and was an NFL All-Pro with the Chicago Bears in 2018.
6. Central State — 8 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Wilberforce, Ohio
National titles: 1948, 1983, 1986-90, 1992
Notable coaches: Billy Joe, Rick Comegy
Notable players: Hugh Douglas, Erik Williams, Vince Veflin, Vince Buck, Marvin Coleman, Marvin Pope, Larry Kelly, Charles Walker, Charles Thompson
Bottom line: The story of football at Central State — a tiny, NCAA Division II school in Ohio — is the stuff that movies are made of. And the main character in this story would have to be former head coach Billy Joe, who led Central to an NCAA Division II runner-up finish in 1982 and a pair of NAIA national championships in 1990 and 1992.
Two players in Central State history stand out to us for being absolute monsters on the defensive line and offensive line. Defensive end Hugh Douglas was a two-time All-American who was a first-round pick by the New York Jets, named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1995 and was a two-time NFL All-Pro.
Offensive lineman Erik Williams was an All-American at Central before becoming a three-time NFL All-Pro and winning three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s.
5. Southern — 11 National Championships
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
National titles: 1948-50, 1954, 1960, 1975, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2003
Notable coaches: Ace Mumford, Pete Richardson, Marino Casem
Notable players: Mel Blount, Aeneas Williams, Harold Carmichael, Isiah Robertson
Bottom line: Southern is best known for producing a pair of defensive backs who found their way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame — albeit from totally different eras.
Southern defensive back Mel Blount was one of the greatest HBCU players of all time, an All-American at both safety and cornerback in the late 1960s, before becoming one of the stars on the "Steel Curtain" defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Blount won four Super Bowls with Pittsburgh, was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1975 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On a side note, few people have ever looked cooler wearing a cowboy hat.
In the late 1980s, Aeneas Williams joined Southern's team as a walk-on before becoming an All-American — he attended Southern but didn't play until his junior season — and tied the FCS record with 11 interceptions as a senior in 1991. Williams played 14 seasons in the NFL and was a five-time NFL All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
4. Tuskegee — 13 National Championships
Location: Tuskegee, Alabama
National titles: 1924-27, 1929, 1930, 2000, 2001, 2007-09, 2015, 2016
Notable coaches: Cleveland Abbott, Willie Slater, Rick Comegy
Notable players: Drayton Florence, Ken Woodard, Anthony Mitchell, Ricky Jones, Cecil Leonard, Dennis Norfleet, Frank Walker, Jewell Ratliff
Bottom line: Tuskegee won four consecutive HBCU national championships from 1924 to 1927 and six titles from 1924 to 1930, then got back on the championship train 70 years later with another title in 2000.
That title in 2000 kicked off a renaissance of the program — the first of seven HBCU national championships over the next 16 years, including three consecutive titles from 2007 to 2009, and five with head coach Willie Slater.
The jewel in that period has been cornerback Drayton Florence, who set the school record with three interception returns for touchdowns in a single season and played 11 seasons in the NFL from 2003 to 2013.
2. Grambling State — 15 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Grambling, Louisiana
National titles: 1955, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1992, 2000-02, 2005, 2008, 2016
Notable coaches: Eddie Robinson, Doug Williams, Melvin Spears, Rod Broadway, Broderick Fobbs
Notable players: Doug Williams, Charlie Joiner, Willie Brown, Willie Davis, Buck Buchanan
Bottom line: Grambling State was home to one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports — not just football — with the late Eddie Robinson, who coached there from 1941 to 1997 with only a two-year break for World War II in 1943 and 1944.
Robinson won nine HBCU national championships and 17 SWAC championships in his time at Grambling and finished with a career record of 408-165-15, which places him No. 3 on the career list for coaching wins in college football history, regardless of level.
Robinson had an unbelievable eye for talent. He coached four Pro Football Hall of Famers and four College Football Hall of Famers. One of the players in the College Football Hall of Fame, quarterback Doug Williams, went on to be named Super Bowl XXII Most Valuable Player with the Washington Redskins and eventually became Grambling's head coach, leading the school to three consecutive HBCU national championships and SWAC championships from 2000 to 2002.
2. Florida A&M — 15 National Championships (Tie)
Location: Tallahassee, Florida
National titles: 1938, 1942, 1950, 1952-54, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1977, 1978, 1998, 2001, 2019
Notable coaches: William Bell, Jake Gaither, Rudy Hubbard, Billy Joe, Willie Simmons
Notable players: Bob Hayes, Willie Galimore, Ken Riley, Bob Paremore, Derrick Gainer, Nate Newton
Bottom line: If we were doing rankings of individual HBCU teams, we might put Florida A&M's 1978 squad at the top of the list. That was the year the Rattlers won the HBCU national championship. They also came away with the Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship as they went 12-1 under head coach Rudy Hubbard.
Florida A&M has a rich history of producing not only HBCU national titles but great players who win Super Bowls, including legendary wide receiver/kick returner "Bullet" Bob Hayes and offensive lineman Nate Newton.
Florida A&M is approaching almost 100 years of being a consistent winner. They've won an HBCU national championship in eight of the last nine full decades with the exception of the 1980s.
1. Tennessee State — 16 National Championships
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
National titles: 1946, 1947, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1979, 1982-84, 2012, 2013
Notable coaches: Henry Kean, Howard Gentry, John Merritt, Rod Reed
Notable players: Claude Humphrey, Richard Dent, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Joe Gilliam, Robert Drummond, Nathaniel Taylor, William Washington, Ray Whitmon, Eldridge Dickey, A.C. Leonard
Bottom line: Tennessee State's long history of football greatness puts it atop the list of HBCU national championships. That history includes the first HBCU picked No. 1 overall in the NFL draft with defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones selected by the Dallas Cowboys in 1974. He's also one of two defensive ends from Tennessee State to make NFL history as alum Richard Dent was named Super Bowl XX Most Valuable Player with the Chicago Bears.
Legendary Tennessee State head coach John Merritt spent his entire coaching career leading HBCU teams, with his first 10 years at Jackson State and his final 20 years at Tennessee State. Merritt won a whopping eight HBCU national championships in his career — one at Jackson State and seven at Tennessee State.
He died in December 1983 at just 57 years old. Merritt was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.