When LeVelle Moton was promoted from assistant coach to head coach in March 2009, the basketball team had just completed its second season as an independent Division I team.
And as with many athletic programs that reclassify to a higher division, the process was brutal. N.C. Central went 8-53 the first two years with an average loss of 30-plus points.
After Moton’s promotion, he received a congratulatory text from North Carolina coach Roy Williams: “Coaching at your alma mater gives us a passion advantage,” it read. Then, in Moton’s first game as the head coach of his alma mater, the Tar Heels beat NCCU 89-42.
The Eagles went 7-22 that season – almost as many win as the previous two combined.
Season two saw an even bigger turnaround of 15-15, NCCU’s first .500 season since its Division II days in the CIAA. Yes, there were still major beatdowns like an 88-65 loss to Miami, but a trip at Oklahoma on Nov. 15, 2010, shined a light at the end of a long tunnel.
“We led from start to finish and lost in overtime, but felt we turned a corner,” said Moton at Tuesday’s press conference. “As disheartening as it was, it sparked in our guys that we could compete despite having less resources, less money and less privilege.”
Moton didn’t just go for a quick fix with junior college transfers. Two of his best high school recruits came from in-state.
Senior guard Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman of Raleigh’s Enloe High – where Moton played his high school ball in the 1990s – helped get the turnaround started.
Overlooked by the Triangle’s ACC schools despite averaging 15.7 points and 8.7 assists per game, Chapman came to NCCU with a major chip on his shoulder. After suffering through his first two seasons, he’s now reaping the rewards of a championship program.
“My first game in this (McDougald-McLendon) gym, we had nine or 10 people, counting my mom,” said Chapman who is the school’s all-time assists leader. “Transition is a process. That’s the beauty of this program – no one-and-dones, no instant success.
“He (Moton) gave me and Jeremy Ingram a chance. He trusted us and now we’re here.”
Despite averaging 23 points, six rebounds and four assists per game at East Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, Ingram was also overlooked by major Div. I schools. Four years later, he’s the second-leading scorer in the MEAC (20.2 ppg) and a favorite to win offensive player of the year.
“When we first got here, no one was really supporting us, but we rebuilt the program and became winners, and seeing the change as far as the fans’ part and people supporting us is really big,” Ingram said.
In just their second season as a full Division I member, the Eagles (25-5, 15-1) are the Mid-Eastern Conference champions and have earned an automatic bid to the NIT. They have won 17 consecutive games and 23 straight at home.
But the season isn’t over yet.
They are the No. 1 seed heading into the MEAC Tournament. N.C A&T’s Aggies upset NCCU last season and its chance for an automatic seed to the NCAA Tournament. Lesson learned.
Last year “we went into the tourney as No. 2, and we were going to show everybody (but) everybody showed us,” Chapman said. “It was immaturity. Anybody can be beaten on any day; we’re going in with that mindset. We don’t want to let the fans down.”