NORFOLK, Va. — In 2016, the first — and last — time that North Carolina Central University went to Atlanta’s Cricket Celebration Bowl, Trei Oliver had just wrapped up his first season as defensive coordinator for Southern University and many of the players NCCU’s current roster was still in high school. f
North Carolina Central quarterback Davius ”Pee Wee” Richard didn’t watch the game but said he heard about how the Eagles lost: After NCCU scored a touchdown in the closing minutes and Grambling State with Leading 10-9, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty extended the extra point attempt to 35 yards. Grambling eventually blocked the attempt, resulting in the Eagles losing 10-9 and giving the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) their only Celebration Bowl win to date.
“I stood the whole time. [When he missed the kick,] I just sat in my seat. I was incredulous,” said former North Carolina Central player Joshua Sims-Crowell, a member of the Eagles team that made the leap from Division II to Division I to serve as a full-time member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) to join in 2011. “As an alum at the time, I had to see all these things from school down the hall [North Carolina A&T] really making fun of us [and] talking about how we’re the only school in the MEAC that lost like we lost, and they coined it as a sort of North Carolina Central fad. That touches me to this day.”
A graduate of North Carolina Central, Oliver is aware of the heartbreak the fandom endured six years ago. He’s hoping to lead the team to a happier end to the season after the Eagles’ dominant 48-14 win over Norfolk State on Saturday. The win secured MEAC’s automatic bid to the Celebration Bowl and the Eagles’ second trip there.
“I’m so excited. I thought we played well tonight, well [and] good enough to win the game,” said Oliver on Saturday. “But we worked really hard all offseason. The boys sacrificed their summer breaks and vacations to give themselves an opportunity to go to a league game and win a league.
“It starts all year and all summer in terms of culture and discipline. So I don’t think we’ll have those bone-hard penalties that cost us the game,” said Oliver. “You have to be able to handle the distractions. There will be many distractions in Atlanta. We just have to stay focused and I think the guys have done a really good job with that so far.”
Throughout the season, the Eagles have attributed their success to their focus, especially after early losses to South Carolina State and Campbell. A season ago, a loss to South Carolina State cost North Carolina Central a trip to the Celebration Bowl. This season, South Carolina State’s three losses and North Carolina Central’s ability to win the remaining conference games paved the way for the Eagles to win a chunk of the conference title and a spot in the bowl.
The Eagles will take on Tennessee Tech on Saturday with nothing but pride at stake, but Richard doesn’t think the team will lose focus after achieving their goal.
“That’s not really going to be the challenge, really. We’ve been through a lot this season. Keeping focus won’t be a problem. We could have lost focus when we lost to South Carolina State. But we’re going through with it. We could have lost focus when we lost to Campbell, but pull it through,” Richard said. “We will enjoy the win. Monday we’re back in the lab. It’s a whole different ball game. We fight out there.”
Sims-Crowell gives much credit to Oliver for turning the program around and to the next generation of Eagles players who are upholding the North Carolina Central standard.
“We assume that we will be in these situations. … We know we should be here most of the time. But this is an opportunity for us to really show the world… [A win] would mean we’re now back to standard and re-established,” said Sims-Crowell. “I’m excited that we’re getting the chance to really show the world who we are. That’s what we do.”
Earlier this season, after North Carolina Central defeated rival North Carolina A&T in the Duke’s Mayo Classic and upset New Hampshire, which ranked 25th, the Eagles briefly competed in the FCS Top 25 poll.
No other MEAC teams dominated the conference during the season. These circumstances and North Carolina Central’s tough schedule prepared the Eagles to defend the MEAC crown.
“We’re playing very physical football at this conference,” said Oliver. “It usually starts with running [and] usually pretty good quarterback game. But it’s a grind every week and you have to bring your A-game.”
Oliver will be heading to the Celebration Bowl for the first time as head coach, but he won’t lack for experience. He was the defensive backs coach at North Carolina A&T in 2015 when the Aggies played in the first Celebration Bowl. Oliver’s second had a distraction and anchored the Aggies’ goal line in the final minutes to lead them to victory, the first of four Celebration Bowl titles the Aggies would go on to win.
Oliver is familiar with SWAC football and its style of play from his Celebration Bowl experience and three seasons as defensive coordinator in the conference. Since Oliver became Eagles coach in 2019, he has drawn 1-1 against SWAC opponents: In 2021, the Eagles defeated Alcorn State in their season-opening cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge, but later lost a game by a point to Mississippi Valley State that season .
The Eagles’ Celebration Bowl opponent will not be known until the December 3 SWAC championship game.
“Regardless of who we play against, the fans will travel deep,” said Oliver. “They will try to create a hostile environment.”
The MEAC leads the Celebration Bowl series 5-1 and is currently on a four-game winning streak that one MEAC commissioner Sonja Stills believes will continue.
“North Carolina Central had an excellent team and had an excellent run this season. The best team will represent us at the Celebration Bowl and I couldn’t be happier,” said Stills. “MEAC has always had outstanding football and we showed that with our series at the Celebration Bowl and I expect nothing less by 2022 in Atlanta. The North Carolina Central Eagles will do their thing.”