- Carmen renee Thompson
This article appears in the October 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The ballroom at the Westin Galleria in Houston is filled with well-dressed young men on banquet chairs. All is quiet save for the voice of Texas Southern football coach Johnnie Cole. From the podium, Cole implores his Tigers to show good sportsmanship to rival Prairie View A&M the next day in the Labor Day Classic at Reliant Stadium. He rehashes the Oregon-Boise State postgame fracas that led to the suspension of Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount. Suddenly, a player yells, "He'll be playing here next year!" The room erupts in laughter, before a satisfied Cole says: "Now you're seeing the bigger picture!"
Welcome to Second Chance U., where a rocky past can be the first step on the road toward redemption. Hired by his alma mater to revive a program that had become the punching bag of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the 46-year-old Cole has imported 20 hard-luck transfers over the past two years, from football powers like Arkansas, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, Texas, Texas Tech, Arizona and Notre Dame. Some landed at this historically black college in Houston after being arrested or injured. Others had simply become homesick, slipped down the depth chart or fallen out of favor with coaches. But whatever their situation, Cole came calling with a chance for salvation -- a chance to play for a man whose own history makes him less likely to judge theirs.
Yes, Johnnie Cole knows what it means to need a second chance, having endured NCAA scrutiny at three universities. Tennessee State and Alabama State -- where he was an assistant under older brother L.C. -- received three and five years' probation, respectively, for a variety of rules violations. Johnnie, who was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, finally landed his first head coaching job in 2005, at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. He revived the D2 program, improving the Dragons from 0-10 to 8-3 by his second season. But that record was revised to 2-9 following NCAA sanctions for a "lack of institutional control" across the athletics department. Once again, Cole found himself surrounded by controversy, and once again he emerged with nothing charged against him. "I was able to bounce back and rebuild my reputation," says Cole. "If it weren't for Lane, I don't know if I'd be here now."
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