College football: Livingstone returns to action Saturday afternoon

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2021

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Livingstone College attracted a fair amount of attention when former NFL player Sean Gilbert was announced as the new head football coach at a press conference on Jan. 30, 2020.

Finally, this Saturday, 19 months later, Gilbert will get to lead the Blue Bears in an actual football game.

The 2020 CIAA season was wiped out by COVID, but the Blue Bears are back.  Livingstone takes on Clark Atlanta at 1:30 p.m. at Alumni Memorial Stadium in a game billed as the West End Classic.

Gilbert is a native of Alquippa, Pa., the same Pittsburgh-area town that gave the world all-time tight end and coach Mike Ditka. The town also produced Tony Dorsett, who scored 77 NFL touchdowns, and five-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champ Ty Law.

In the small-world department, one of Gilbert’s Alquippa High teammates, Mike Warfield, ventured to Salisbury to play quarterback for Catawba College. Warfield and Gilbert are still friends. Warfield is now Alquippa’s head coach.

Gilbert ranks high on an impressive list of Alquippa legends. He was regarded as one of the nation’s marquee high school players, was a collegiate All-America for the Pitt Panthers and played on defensive lines in the NFL from 1992-2003. Mostly he competed for the Los Angeles Rams, who made him the third overall pick in the 1992 NFL draft and the Carolina Panthers, with whom he found a home from 1998-2002.

Gilbert was credited with 10.5 sacks in a Pro Bowl season for the Rams in 1993. He totaled 15.5 sacks in five seasons with the Panthers. Gilbert finished his NFL career at age 33.

He got into coaching at the high school level as an assistant in Charlotte, with stints at South Meck and West Charlotte. Among others, he coached his son, Zack.

He enjoyed helping build teams from the ground up, and when the Livingstone job came open, he sought out a new challenge. He was hired to lead the Blue Bears, despite zero college experience and zero head-coaching experience. His background in the NFL, his ability to motivate young men and his life experience — he’s 51 now — were enough to get the chance to build a winning program.

Livingstone does have some football tradition. Livingstone produced All-Pro tight end Ben Coates and experienced serious glory days in the 1970s and the late 1990s. But it’s a program where winning has usually been difficult against CIAA rivals that are bigger, have greater resources and are located in metropolitan areas.

Previous head coach Daryl Williams made some progress and guided respectable seasons, including a 5-4 record in 2015, but success was hard to sustain. Seasons of 2-8 and 0-10 followed.

There was excitement when Livingstone started off 4-0 in 2019, but that season slowly crumbled and concluded at 4-6 with a  34-6 home loss to rival Johnson C. Smith.

That was the last time Livingstone played an opponent in football.

Since then it’s just been work and practice and intrasquad games.

Clark Atlanta, a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, would seem to be an ideal opponent for Livingstone’s return to the field.

The Clark Atlanta Panthers turned in an 0-10 season in 2019, although most of their losses were close. One of the Panthers’ 10 setbacks came at the hands of Livingstone. The Blue Bears beat Clark Atlanta 24-13 on the road on opening day.

In this year’s preseason polls for their respective conference, neither team was held in high esteem, although it’s close to impossible to assess the talent that’s been recruited, especially when two classes have been brought in since either of the HBCU schools played a game.

The presence of Gilbert should be a boost to Livingstone’s chances in recruiting battles. He’s even recruited a tight end from Alquippa.

The Blue Bears are reporting that they have over 40 returning players, which sounds encouraging.

Livingstone was snubbed as far as individuals on the preseason All-CIAA teams and was rated 11th out of 12 teams by the league’s coaches.

But that won’t matter after the ball is kicked off on Saturday afternoon.