Despite storied athletic histories, most historically Black colleges are struggling to stay relevant in today's NCAA.

Dr. John Rudley needed some coaxing. The Tigers were gathered in an unruly knot at center court. One of them was holding the tournament trophy. Two held a Texas Southern banner that stretched across the entire front row. They were trying to get Rudley, the school’s president, to join them for photographs. Rudley, who already was wearing a SWAC champions baseball hat, demurred for a moment and then, shyly, took his place at the far left of the front row, behind the banner. “I’m elated,” he said. “It just takes your breath away.” He came to Texas Southern in 2008, after a career that included a stint at the Department of Education, and a long stretch in the administration of the University of Houston. He understands all too well the unique history, and the unique challenges, that exist at a place like Texas Southern.

“All historically Black colleges have been struggling over the years financially and, in the 85 years of our history, we are all in this struggle together,” he said. “And having our teams come here to play today, to give them the opportunity to play in Houston, and to be seen in the fourth-largest city in the country — I mean, what else can I say?”

Some of them, like Alabama A&M and Prairie View, are land-grant schools, products of the second Morrill Act in 1890, which extended the original act to the states of the former Confederacy with a provision that race not be a factor in admissions. Some of them are simply state universities, like Jackson State and Alabama State. (In Mississippi, for example, Alcorn State is the land-grant school and Mississippi Valley State and Jackson State are state universities, the way Ole Miss is.) And some are private. What they all share is a history of having lived through nearly a century in which separate was quite definitely — and quite deliberately — not equal. (At Southern, for example, they still talk about the time, decades ago, when the school choir was invited to sing at an event up north and the Louisiana Legislature wouldn’t fund the trip unless the choir sang, for free, in its chambers.) The purely state schools among their number always have been the most vulnerable; in 2009, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour proposed to fold Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State into Jackson State, creating one university with three campuses. The ensuing political uproar sank the plan for the moment, but people like Rudley know the futures of their schools remain uncertain. “Finances are a part of our lives,” Rudley says. “We don’t have the deep pocketbooks like the big schools do. So we struggle along, and it’s all about trying to make quality programs for our students.”