While You Were Away
By Craig R. Turner
Published: August 19, 2021


December 19, 2019 was the last time that North Carolina A&T played a competitive football game when the Aggies knocked off Alcorn State in a 64-44 offensive shootout to win its fourth Celebration Bowl title and it’s third straight Black College National Championship. Since then, for nearly 19 months, the Aggie football program has remained dormant due largely to the world wide Covid-19 pandemic.

Compounding the issue even more was that during that same period arguably the three strongest athletic programs within the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference decided that their individual athletic program goals and their institution’s financial futures would be best served elsewhere other than in the MEAC.

After announcing its intentions to move in early February of 2019, the 50-year association between charter member N.C. A&T with the MEAC came to a rather unceremonious end this past month as the Aggies became official members of the Big South Conference joining former MEAC member Hampton as the second HBCU to join this league in the last three years.

Bethune Cookman and Florida A&M soon followed suit but decided to take their Florida foot print to the Southwest Athletic Conference(SWAC) which has always been the long time favorite preference among both of their fan bases and a better geographical fit.

Right off the top there is a markedly stronger corporate sponsorship infrastructure for all three in their new homes with a more pronounced national media footprint that simply could not be ignored.

As much as this area was somewhat downplayed by the administrators at each of these institutions, their new conference affiliations gained each one of them larger and more generous revenue sharing plans, the accessibility to multiple regional TV markets, the addition of unrestricted nation wide ESPN streaming packages, and in the Big South that will extend to all sports.

The greatly reduced travel costs, at least for A&T, will equate to a budget “increase” of roughly 8 percent because of divisional play in most sports. It will mean that student athletes won’t be having continuous 3-4 day conference road trips during the season for winter and spring sports which means more time in the class room, and for participation and social interaction as ordinary students on campus.

Did I personally have mixed feelings on the move to the Big South? A few. Mostly because its unfamiliar territory in unfamiliar surroundings. Sure, I’ll miss the weekly camaraderie of visiting the various HBCU schools and returning the favor in-kind. And to be honest I was concerned for a while that traditional rivals might become kind of far and in between given the new affiliation and already scheduled FBS money games.

But as we’ve also seen A&T’s administration has kept true to their word about continuing many of the most storied relationships as possible with the scheduling long time rivals on regular basis like WSSU, Norfolk State, South Carolina State, and NCCU through the end of this decade.

Now there was and still is, to a limited degree, a small faction of A&T fans and alumni that remain vehemently opposed to the idea of moving away from an exclusively HBCU athletic conference, that we will lose our identity as an HBCU, that we somehow were forsaking our mission and turned our backs on our HBCU brethren to leave a historic conference to wilt and die. Not to say those concerns are completely without perhaps some historical merit but those arguments are largely based on the traditional accepted racial realizations born from the heaviest transitional movement period of segregation to integration from the late 60’s through to the mid 1980’s and but is now often being re-packaged in the present day as something new and novel – they call it “Being Woke.”

Even today while we are witnessing the unmasking of white nationalism in the age of Trump, the decisions we will make as a university should never be a by product of a visceral response to the same. There’s no internal dismantling of our university’s historical origin or history going on just because of a move to an athletic conference that is structurally and economically a better fit for this institution aspires to be. The decisions we now must make must be based on the day’s current academic, political and financial realities with an eye keenly set on our future growth goal – in this case a nationally competitive mid level Division 1 athletic program.

The mission statement of N.C. A&T reads as follows:

“North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University advances knowledge through scholarly exchange and transforms society with exceptional teaching, learning, discovery and community engagement. An 1890 land-grant doctoral research institution with a distinction in STEM and commitment to excellence in all disciplines, North Carolina A&T creates innovative solutions that address the challenges and economic needs of North Carolina, the nation and the world.”

The end game for A&T should always be to remain not only as this nation’s flagship HBCU but to continue take risks, to willingly assume our leadership role in breaking new ground by expanding into new uncharted waters, setting higher standards of excellence and yes, while upsetting the apple cart from time to time in this forever changing, evolving, often times befuddling and exasperating American mosaic.

Look, I know there will people who will strongly disagree with me for a variety of reasons and and I accept that some will interpret my words far differently than I intended them to be and that’s okay too. I just know its time to acknowledge the fact that the debate has long since passed. We are now committed to the journey. Our sensibilities have been awakened and I can assure you they will be surely challenged going forward. Whether you were for, against, or hung out on the fence about the move it’s forever now a moot point.

We need to have as many Aggies as possible to put their personal feelings aside because where we’re going on this new journey together and where it will take us is just as much an unknown to me as it is to you. What I do know is this. What A&T will be seeking to accomplish in the near future is to expand its athletic brand beyond the moniker of being the best HBCU out there. The mission now is become one of the most recognizable national brands out there, athletics notwithstanding, and that will be something far larger than anything anyone of us could have possibly imagined just 18 short months ago.

Just one guy’s opinion.

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