The longtime coach, in his 16th season, is already in the record books
Willie Slater is a rarity.
The Coffeeville, Alabama, native is among a hierarchy of football coaches – at any level – to have spent the lion’s share of their careers with one program, with a record of excellence on and off the gridiron.
When his Tuskegee University Golden Tigers face the Fort Valley State Wildcats in the inaugural Boeing Red Tails Classic Sept. 5 on ESPNU at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, Slater will be entering his 16th season as the program’s head football coach.
That kind of longevity and success are nothing short of exemplary – particularly in the modern era, when about a third of head coaches either are fired within four years or jump to greener pastures.
Former North Carolina A&T head coach Rod Broadway has admired Slater for years. “He’s done an outstanding job,” explained Broadway, who retired in 2017 after an undefeated 12-0 season at N.C. A&T and a Celebration Bowl victory, with an overall record of 127-45 over 15 seasons.
“I used to preach all the time to coaches and players: To win a championship you’ve got to be good day in and day out. You have to repeat your performance. Willie is amazing,” said Broadway.
Slater, 65, has guided the Golden Tigers to seven Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) championships. Under his guidance, Tuskegee earned four straight conference titles (2006-2009) and claimed its eighth historically Black college and university (HBCU) national crown in 2007, when the Golden Tigers went 12-0.
Slater’s resume includes having been named to the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C., and the Sheridan Broadcasting Network (SBN) Coach of the Year in 2007 – besides being named SIAC Coach of the Year five times (2007, 2008, 2909, 2012 and 2014).
Simply put, Slater has built one of the premier Division II and HBCU football programs in the nation.
“I feel very fortunate to be here,” Slater said of his role at an HBCU. “It’s a great place for young men and especially women of color at this time and in the world. Our football players graduate with majors in engineering, occupational therapy, architecture and aerospace engineering, and I’m intrigued by that. I like smart young men. Smart young men make good football players.”
And, Slater has receipts.
“We’ve been able to win,” he continued. “Our last two years we’ve been mediocre, which is highly unusual for us.” He’s no doubt referring to 2018 and 2019, when his teams finished 5-5. “But being able to win while getting a good education has been special.”
Coaches don’t become great without great players, and Slater has had a good number of them. Quarterback Jacary Atkinson is at the top of that list.
Atkinson led the Golden Tigers to that 12-0 season and a Black college national championship in 2007, while being named to the SBN Sports Black College All-American Team. He was selected as the SIAC Offensive Player of the Year and was the conference leader in passing yards (2,979), passing touchdowns (34) and total offense (276.6 yards a game).
“Jacary Atkinson was one of the best players I’ve ever coached,” Slater said proudly. “He started out being coached by [former Auburn and NFL quarterback] Dameyune Craig, who was our first quarterback coach when I first took the job. Dameyune is at Texas A&M now [as wide receivers coach]. That makes you feel good, too. It lets you know you’re a pretty good judge of character.
“Jacary was a mechanical engineer. He could see the whole field. He was an awesome player, good person and a good kid.”
Slater’s record at Tuskegee is 120-39 – numbers he never dreamed of compiling after succeeding Rick Comegy in 2006.
Comegy coached the program from 1996 to 2005 – compiling a 90-26 record during his 10 seasons, which included four victories in the Pioneer Bowl.
But Tuskegee is accustomed to football coaching excellence.
The Golden Tigers’ most decorated mentor was Cleve Abbott, head coach from 1923 to 1954. In 32 seasons, Abbott had a 202-97-27 record with six Black college national championships and six undefeated seasons.
“Coach Abbott was here a long time,” Slater said. “He had a lot of championships. Coach Comegy is a great coach; I was fortunate to come behind him. He left some good players that really helped – especially at the beginning of my time.”
Slater will tell anyone who asks that success wasn’t handed to him. He started his college coaching career at Troy University, where he spent eight years as an assistant. Troy won two NCAA Division II national championships, in 1984 and 1987.
After his time at Troy (1983-90), he went to his alma mater, the University of West Alabama, for a stint (1991-92), and left for the University of North Alabama, which had a powerhouse Division II football program under coach Bobby Wallace. The Lions won three NCAA Division II titles (1993, 1994, 1995).
Slater, a five-time NCAA Division II National Assistant Coach of the Year, was at Jacksonville State from 2000 to 2003, then took a step up to Division I and became the offensive coordinator at Temple University, once again under Wallace, from 2004 to 2005, before coming to Tuskegee.
GAME RECOGNIZES GAME
Willie Jeffries, a Hall of Famer who was a longtime coach at South Carolina State, always believed Slater would be a great fit at Tuskegee.
“He’s at a nationally recognized school,” explained Jeffries, the first African American head football coach at a major Division I predominantly white institution, when he coached Wichita State from 1979 to 1983.
“You mention schools like Tuskegee and Howard, most families and kids know about them,” continued Jeffries, who, over 29 years as a collegiate head coach, compiled a 179-132-6 record. “He’s at a great school – I said that when he went there. He’s concerned about academic, social and athletic development.”
While he’s in the twilight of a magnificent career, Slater is still driven. The inaugural Boeing Red Tails Classic against Fort Valley State will not only shine a light on his Golden Tigers, but will also honor the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor of the U.S. Air Force.
“I’m excited about the Red Tails Classic,” said Slater, who was appointed the school’s athletic director in 2017. “A lot of people jumped on the board with that one. It’s a great tribute to our Red Tails and the former Red Tails of Tuskegee University at the same time. It will give us a little prestige in our program.”
Willie Slater and prestige go hand in hand.