There were dark days. Very dark days. N.C. Central and its fans were used to winning, a lot, but in the muddy netherland of the transition from Division II to Division I, wins were hard to find. His first season at N.C. Central, as a transitioning independent without a conference or any hope of the postseason, LeVelle Moton’s basketball team won seven games.
That’s hard to believe now, with Moton taking his team to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years, with three MEAC regular-season titles and an NIT appearance in that span. Success has once again become the expected at N.C. Central, just as it once was in Division II before the school decided to make the jump.
N.C. Central has made it look easy: Another NCAA tournament bid in basketball, with the Eagles in the First Four against UC-Davis in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday; three straight MEAC football titles, the most recent outright; an HBCU national championship in men’s tennis; the first-ever player drafted out of the baseball program – all markers of immediate success after only six seasons in Division I.
“For our two revenue sports to achieve what they’ve achieved in this short period of time, it’s amazing,” N.C. Central athletic director Ingrid Wicker McCree said Monday, before leaving for Dayton with the team.
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It never was easy as it looks now. The Eagles are reaping the rewards of an administration committed to the transition and an alumni base that insisted the school be held to the same standards in the MEAC that it met in the CIAA, not to mention some savvy hires in Moton and football coach Jerry Mack. That didn’t make the transition any less painful.
When athletic director Bill Hayes left in 2007, just as N.C. Central was starting the move, he warned Wicker McCree it would only get worse before it got better. Wicker McCree, who had gone from coaching volleyball and softball to the athletic department, would become his successor. And as it turned out, Hayes was right. The football team went from winning 21 games in its final two years in Division II to winning 19 over the next five years. The basketball team won 15 games in three years before turning the corner.
“My job was very hands-on with everyone,” Wicker McCree said. “I was coaching the way I used to coach my team through those hard times to get back to success.”
She is enjoying the rewards now as N.C. Central enjoys nearly unprecedented success, the new powerhouse in the MEAC, with any number of victories over N.C. A&T to keep the alumni happy. The biggest came in November, when both football teams were ranked in the FCS top 25 and the title was at stake. The Eagles’ resounding win clinched the title and sent them to the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta.
Over the past 12 years, N.C. Central has seen its athletic budget go from $2 million to $11 million during the transition. The university provides $2.7 million of that, which goes to scholarships; student fees account for another $4.8 million. Wicker McCree would like to push the budget higher, to $13 million or $14 million, which would allow the university to undertake some facilities improvements.
This kind of continuing success in football and basketball could open the door to that kind of fundraising. A few boosters flew with the team and band to Dayton for the First Four; more are planning to meet the team there, then join it on the flight to Tulsa, Okla., if N.C. Central advances to face Kansas.
“We always talked about during the transition, ‘How do we bring back that winning tradition?’ Now we’re back there, in our FCS world,” Wicker McCree said. “That’s remarkable. It’s been our fans who have kept the pressure on as far as expectations, starting with the alumni putting the pressure on the trustees and the chancellor. They wanted our athletic program back to where we are winning – that legacy of winning.”
N.C. Central always expected to have this kind of success in Division I, even if it was never a sure thing. No one could ever have expected it to happen this quickly.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock