Cheyney professor brings first-hand knowledge to quiz team

Hazel Spears, a Cheyney professor and quiz coach, on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" with Cedric the Entertainer.
Hazel Spears, a Cheyney professor and quiz coach, on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" with Cedric the Entertainer.
Posted: May 02, 2014

CHEYNEY Hazel Spears' mouth was dry. Her tongue kept sticking to her teeth; she didn't know the answer.

Not the look that the Cheyney University assistant professor of psychology wanted to affect - especially on national television.

But it happened to Spears, and on Wednesday her students got to watch it all in an auditorium at the university.

Their teacher, a Ph.D. from Princeton University, the woman who coaches a team of students who compete in brain-teaser competitions across the country, was stumped.

And the stumper was a TV celebrity - Cedric the Entertainer, host of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

The question: "According to historical novelist Lindsay Ashford, what author's untimely passing at the age of 41 was the result of arsenic poisoning?" The answer she did not know: Jane Austen.

"I knew my students might use this against me," said Spears, laughing before the showing of her taped appearance.

She went on the show in the fall, knowing that her position as the coach of the school's Honda Campus All-Star Challenge Team would mean greater scrutiny of her performance.

But a former student had encouraged Spears to audition, and she couldn't resist. A longtime fan, Spears applied and was accepted.

She did end up winning $15,300, giving $750 to Cheyney and the former student.

Her four-person Cheyney team competes in Jeopardy!-like competitions against other historically black universities and colleges.

The team recently returned from the national competition in Los Angeles, where Cheyney only lost two of five contests.

"I have to take the blame," Spears said. "They didn't lose on knowledge. They lost on buzzer."

Cheyney's team had not perfected the art of anticipating the end of the question and beating the opponent to the buzzer, Spears said, something any Jeopardy!-watcher knows is crucial.

Team member Holland Culbreath called Spears' job a tough one.

"It's not like there's a blueprint for it," said Culbreath, 26, a senior majoring in computer science.

The team scours trivia books and lists of presidents and state flags, flowers, and mottos. Spears uses candy rewards and adopts foreign accents - anything to make practice sessions fun.

Spears, a former disc jockey and actress (she had a featured role in the 1970s cult hit Penitentiary), became addicted to trivia as a youngster. She used Q&A as a way to amuse her siblings.

She's been coaching the college team for two years. Some of the team members came to the auditorium Wednesday to watch their coach, and cheer her on.

Spears talked her way through questions about the actor Brad Pitt, the rapper Biggie Smalls, and Austen.

During the hour, the students saw glimpses of the same nervousness they often fight.

"I told myself to 'Calm down, just play the game, do the best you can,' " Spears said.

That's the same thing she tells her students.


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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