Bears Athletics’ New Era

Athletics / Volume 2023 / January 2023

By: Chris Murray, MSU Class of 1986

Morgan Athletic Director Dena Freeman-Patton Breaks Ground for a Culture of Champions

Even as a three-sport athlete at the former Lake Clifton High School, in northeastern Baltimore City, Dena Freeman-Patton felt at home at Morgan State University. In May 2022, the veteran sports executive and administrator strengthened that longtime bond to Maryland’s largest Historically Black College or University when she accepted an appointment as Morgan’s new vice president and director of Intercollegiate Athletics — making her the first woman in the University’s history to hold the position of athletics director.

“The school has been a part of her family since before she was born, Freeman-Patton says: “Morgan was that first campus that I stepped onto as a teenager, and so this is like coming full circle. My mom (Doris Freeman) is an alum, and my niece is a freshman here this year. As soon as I came back, I realized how many people connected to me are connected to Morgan.”

From her success as a basketball scholar-athlete at Liberty University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in sports management, to her 25 years’ service as an athletic executive and administrator at universities across the country, Freeman-Patton has witnessed the University’s growth and has spent the last 25 years admiring her mother’s alma mater from afar.

“Every time I came home to visit, I’d always see this growth going on at Morgan State on the academic side,” she said. “I’d see these new buildings going up and hear about new programs and academic success and growing prominence.”

My vision is that athletics is just as prominent as our academic programs and that athletics is contributing to Morgan’s status as ‘the National Treasure.’

– Dena Freeman-Patton, MSU Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics

Dena Freeman-Patton

A Winning Culture

When it comes to being able to run a successful collegiate athletic program, Freeman-Patton brings a wealth of knowledge and accolades. Before coming to Morgan, she served as associate vice president and athletic director at California State University – Dominguez Hills. Among the many honors she has received, she was named the Woman Leaders in College Sports Administrator of the Year in 2018. In 2020, she served as chair of the NCAA’s Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee.

Freeman-Patton’s focus is on the total student-athlete and making sure they achieve success on and off the field. She also wants the Athletics Department to be held in the same esteem as the University’s successful academic programs.

“My vision is that athletics is just as prominent as our academic programs and that athletics is contributing to Morgan’s status as ‘the National Treasure,’ ” Freeman-Patton says. “Our student-athletes already are achieving higher grade-point averages than the student body, and we want to continue that as well as student development, meaning enhancing their lives after college and their career and leadership skills.

“And then we want to win, of course, because that’s what athletics is all about,” Freeman-Patton continues with a smile. “That’s a part of that student-athlete experience: when they can look back at their careers and say that they gave it their all and that the Athletics Department and the University provided those things that they needed to be successful.”

Bringing in coaches who come from winning programs is something Freeman-Patton values as the key to building a winning culture at Morgan.

“It’s a mentality,” Freeman-Patton says. “When we bring in new people, they must have that winning mentality. A winner is a winner at whatever level. As we hire and develop staff, we’re developing them with that championship culture in mind.”

Coach Kenny Monday

We want to build a winning tradition, a winning program, and bring in some really good kids of great character and a good work ethic.

– MSU Head Wrestling Coach Kenny Monday

Seeking Sustainability

WrestlingOne of those new winners is Kenny Monday, head coach of Morgan’s newly restored wrestling program. As a former world-class wrestler at the collegiate level, Monday brings a wealth of success to his new post. A National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee in 2001, he was a three-time All-American during his time as a scholar-athlete at Oklahoma State. On the world stage, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1988, becoming the first African American in his sport to do so; a world championship in 1989; and an Olympic silver medal in 1992. He also won five U.S. wrestling championships.

Before the program was disbanded after the 1996–1997 season, because of a lack of resources, Morgan had one of the most successful HBCU wrestling programs and arguably one of the best in the nation. Under legendary Head Coach James Phillips, Bears Wrestling won 13 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and produced four national champions and 25 All-Americans, from 1975 to 1994.

Wrestling Newspaper ArticleMorgan’s wrestling program was revived thanks to a $2.7-million donation in 2021 from billionaire philanthropist Mike Novogratz, in collaboration with HBCU Wrestling. When the program begins competition during the 2023–2024 academic year, Morgan will be the only Division I HBCU in the nation with a program in the sport.

“Coach Monday brings the gravitas and experience to lead a Division I program and attract the top talent in the nation to come to Morgan,” Freeman-Patton said in a press release announcing Monday’s hiring, last August.

Monday says that when he met Freeman-Patton for the first time, during his job interview, he found they shared the same values.

“The first thing is to build a great foundation at Morgan State for the wrestling program so that we have that sustainability for years to come,” Monday says. “We want to build a winning tradition, a winning program, and bring in some really good kids of great character and a good work ethic.… The bottom line is…she’s a winner. As athletes, we get into sports because we’re super competitive…and just want to get into that winner’s circle.”

I think (she is) bringing a new standard, a new level of expectations. She’s looking to have winning programs not just with the new sports but across the board.

– MSU Tumbling and Acrobatics Head Coach Regina Smith

Regina Smith

The Holistic View

Beginning with the 2023 season, Morgan will become one of five NCAA Division I schools — and the only HBCU — to have a team in the sport of Tumbling and Acrobatics, which combines gymnastics and competitive cheerleading. Regina Smith, the recently hired head coach for the new program, is fully invested in Freeman-Patton’s vision for Morgan Athletics.

“I think (she is) bringing a new standard, a new level of expectations,” Smith says. “She’s looking to have winning programs not just with the new sports but across the board. She’s setting a new standard academically for our athletes to make sure they are moving in the right direction.”

In the short time Freeman-Patton has been in charge of MSU Athletics, Morgan scholar-athletes say, they have begun to feel the impact of her comprehensive view of their success.

“She really is big into the holistic aspect of being a student-athlete,” said senior Business Administration major Jourdan Page, a member of the Bears’ volleyball team. “(Our coaches have placed) a lot of emphasis on being a well-rounded person, athletically and academically, and then they also have a really big focus on just taking care of your mental health. That’s really been a big topic, especially since (Freeman-Patton) has been here.”

Page says Freeman-Patton, as Morgan’s first woman athletic director, has proven to her that women can succeed as athletic administrators.

“For me, personally, I already knew that I wanted to go into a career in professional sports once I graduate, but she’s showing that is attainable, to be a woman and be in charge of a sports program,” Page says.

Coach Xiomara Ortiz

I believe in being a competitor in life and pursuing your competitive drive in different aspects of life, whether that’s academically, athletically, socially or professionally.

– Xiomara Ortiz, Head Coach, MSU Volleyball

Morgan’s volleyball team began a new era in May of last year, under the leadership and guidance of first-year Head Coach Xiomara Ortiz, who is filling the shoes of the team’s legendary, recently retired head coach, Ramona Riley-Bozier, the winningest coach in Morgan’s history.

Ortiz says she also shares Freeman-Patton’s values of building a winning program and developing students who are competitive in sports as well as other areas of their lives.

“I think that is the one thing that we are really emphasizing here as far as values. I believe in being a competitor in life and pursuing your competitive drive in different aspects of life, whether that’s academically, athletically, socially or professionally,” Ortiz says. “The value of grit and will power is driven into all those different areas, and how we can be successful on and off the court is something I want to continue.”

In spite of a tough year on the volleyball court in 2022, both Ortiz and Freeman-Patton can be proud of the fact that 11 Morgan players made the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s All-Academic team: the most of any team in the conference. The players on that list maintained a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher. In July 2022, the team was honored by the American Volleyball Coaches Association for the third consecutive year.

“I want to continue that and to continue to push that threshold academically. I think that’s definitely the vision of Dena Freeman-Patton,” Ortiz says.

Dr. Wilson and Coach Wilson

A Different Game

Earl Banks

Head Coach Earl C. Banks

Second-year Morgan State Football Head Coach Damon Wilson praises Freeman-Patton’s understanding of the student-athlete experience.

“I see her spending time with each coach and each program and developing those relationships with the student-athletes,” Wilson says. “Oftentimes in that position, you can get caught up in administrative roles and not feel the pulse of the students and what they need. I think she is definitely establishing that connection early in her tenure at the University, and I think that’s really positive.”

Eddie Hurt

Head Coach Edward P. (Eddie”) Hurt

Morgan’s storied tradition of athletic success in football began with legendary Head Coach Edward P. (“Eddie”) Hurt, whose teams won 14 CIAA titles and had 11 unbeaten seasons during his 29-year career, from 1930 to 1959. Under Hurt’s successor, Earl C. Banks (1960–1973), the Bears won five CIAA championships and had three unbeaten seasons. Banks sent 41 players to the NFL, including Hall of Famers Len Ford, Roosevelt Taylor, Willie Lanier and Leroy Kelly. From 1965 to 1968, the Bears won 31 consecutive games.

Freeman-Patton believes Morgan’s football program will return to winning ways under Coach Wilson.

“I envision us being a very successful program,” Freeman-Patton says. “When we were a storied program, you also have to remember there weren’t a lot of options for (Black) people. Everybody went to the HBCUs. We got the best players in the country, because they were not going to the (predominantly white institutions).

“We have to play this game differently in order to be successful across all levels,” she adds. “…I think Coach Wilson is definitely going to be a champion again, at Morgan, but it is a building process. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are seeing some immediate success. I think we’re going to win some championships.”

“…I think Coach Wilson is definitely going to be a champion again, at Morgan, but it is a building process. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are seeing some immediate success.”

Dena Freeman-Patton

Wilson is a proven winner. During his 13 years as head coach at Bowie State University, the Bulldogs were one of the dominant teams in the CIAA, compiling an 89-45 record and earning four trips to the NCAA Division II playoffs. Under Wilson’s leadership, Bowie State won three consecutive CIAA championships (2018, 2019 and 2021) and five CIAA North Division titles. In 2021, Wilson was named the American Football Coaches Association Division II Coach of the Year.

Wilson took the helm at Morgan in June 2022, one month after Freeman-Patton took the top Athletics post, and the Bears did make progress. After taking nine losses in 2021, the team improved to 4-7 last season, with Wilson as its head mentor.

“I know we’re headed in the right direction,” he says.

Freeman-Patton says that before hiring Wilson, she talked with members of the football team to learn what they were looking for in a new head coach.

“I had a meeting with the football team before I hired him to see what the student-athletes’ experience had been. ‘What are you looking for? What has been your experience?’ ” Freeman recalls. “With that, I’ve seen their attitude and mentality change for the better. They’re excited, they’re motivated, and you could see it on the field.”

Lawrence Richardson

Lawrence Richardson

Bears’ linebacker Lawrence Richardson, a junior biology major, said Freeman-Patton’s hiring of Wilson was a game-changer for the MSU football program.

“Bringing in Coach Wilson really changed a lot,” Richardson said. “This is the most I’ve ever won since I’ve been here. (Coach Wilson) has made so much of a difference. That just reflects that (Freeman-Patton) is about business, and that’s what Coach Wilson is about. She hired him because she saw what he could do. She saw that experience and saw that was winning, and I’m glad she did that.”

Despite all the things she has accomplished in her first few months, Freeman says there is still much to do to elevate Morgan State University Athletics to join the best programs in the country. She said she is still in the evaluation stages.

“All of our student-athletes are excited about the future, and that’s where it starts. The rest is the hard work that goes into it. You have to be motivated and do what you need to do in the classroom,” Freeman-Patton says. “My job is to make sure they’re prepared for the next steps in their lives and create a culture around them, meaning the support staff and making sure we have things available for them, making sure we have facilities available to get what we need to get done.”

I know we’re headed in the right direction.

– Damon Wilson, MSU Head Football Coach

Coach Damon Wilson


Jamal Harris

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