This acronym now formally introduced to some has been around for decades. February was Black History Month, a month dedicated to highlighting the achievements of black Americans due to their achievements often neglected in American history books. This creates the perfect opportunity to learn about a HBCU and in the sport of volleyball.
In case you didn’t already take the time to google HBCU, it stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines a HBCU as, “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary of Education.” One of the many misconceptions is the idea these schools are only for black students but HBCUs are open to all students regardless of race.
There are presently 102 institutions that fall under the defined criteria. HBCUs were instituted due to a large majority of predominantly white institutions (PWI) of higher education would not accept black students during segregation. While most HBCUs were established after the Civil War, the first was established in 1837 in Pennsylvania. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, originally called the Institute of Colored Youth was started by Richard Humphrey, a philanthropist who dedicated an amount of his wealth to start a school to help African-Americans develop trade skills to help enter the job market.
In the early decades of the 1900s sports became an important addition to many institutions. Sports would grow into a popular activity at many schools however the top black athletes were not recruited and given the opportunity to showcase their abilities. Today a large number of HBCUs participate in intercollegiate athletics across many divisions.
The NCAA Division 1 has two historically black athletic conferences in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). Except for Hampton University and Tennessee State University, these conferences host all Division I HBCUs, though some sports at these schools crossover to different conferences. As captured in the fictional film Drumline, the bands are even viewed as a sport in itself. The halftime competition at many of the football games are often labeled as the main event.
While most national sports platforms focus on the larger universities many HBCUs have made notable headlines in the past for their athletic endeavors. In 1997, Coppin State College of the MEAC entered the NCAA basketball tournament as the 15 seed and knocked off 2nd seeded South Carolina. Most recently in 2017, the Howard Bison would beat the UNLV Rebels in what many would call the biggest win in HBCU football history. While Howard was in the news for football, the volleyball team had just completed a west coast trip preparing them for a season in which they would earn their 3rd consecutive MEAC title and trip to the NCAA tournament. Welcome to Howard Volleyball.
“One of the things often not discussed is Howard University is one of the top academic institutions in America,” stated Howard Head Volleyball Coach Shaun Kupferberg, who just completed his 7th year leading the Bison program. Howard University (HU) is located in the heart of the District of Columbia not far from historic Ben’s Chili Bowl, the famous eatery known for playing an important role in the race riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
The latest US News Report on universities list Howard as the 89th ranked university in the United States. Its extensive alumni list features names like the star of the hit movie Black Panther; Chadwick Boseman, author Toni Morrison, and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “One of my main goals was getting some of the smartest, best volleyball playing African-American girls to consider making Howard their destination and we’ve done a pretty good job of making that happen and the Howard legacy has helped,” shared Kupferberg.
Few can argue with that statement considering the success Howard has obtained in his tenure. Fresh off of its 4th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, Howard is primed to continue its growth into a nationally respected program. “On the bus ride after the game my immediate thoughts were getting our girls ready for finals then already looking at next season and how we can improve,” Kupferberg said.
The 2018 season produced many highs for the program. In May they became the first HBCU program to take an international tour. It has become accustomed for many programs to embark on such a trip every four years to not only play volleyball but immerse in the culture of the chosen destination. Many programs visit European locations but Howard, known for making history decided to visit Africa. While in the country they played matches against opponents from Botswana and Zimbabwe. They also visited rural communities and spent time with the locals learning about their customs.
If that wasn’t enough, in August Kupferberg’s program would have a packed gym as the eventual 2018 national champion Stanford Cardinal would trek across the country to battle in Burr Gymnasium. Yes, the national champion traveled across the country to play at a HBCU. “It was a great opportunity for our team as we always look for chances to elevate our play. We actually had a close 2nd set and held them (Stanford) to one of their lowest hitting percentages in three years,” Kupferberg said.
What was also apparent was the interest piqued by the campus community to have such a large program venture to the nation’s capital. “When we arrived it was important to reintroduce the fans and campus community to volleyball. I remember vividly when I took the job one of the returning players shared with me one of her goals was to start the season without having the feeling we were going to lose every game when we stepped on the court.” Coach Kupferberg went on, “We won one game that year but today we are a program that in 2018 not only hosted Stanford but teams like Penn State and America University, which shows our program has come a long way.”
Howard University may not be on some volleyball coaches’ potential job radar. Howard is a school not known to all. The hit television show This Is Us introduces Howard University to a new demographic as it highlights the school as Randall’s preferred choice in many episodes. Shaun Kupferberg knew in 2012 Howard was a place that would become a successful program. “I strongly believed we could win here,” he proclaimed. “It would take time but like any program it’s about having the support of your administrators, getting buy-in from your athletes, resources, and working towards a common goal and we’ve gotten that. There are a lot of very good volleyball players who often are introduced to the sport later than most so once we worked to continue their development as players, the program would develop itself.”
Over the course of the five segments, we give you an in-depth look inside the Howard University volleyball program.