In December 2015, a crowd of 35,000 in the Georgia Dome and a national television audience watched as a diminutive North Carolina A&T State University football player named Tarik Cohen ran for three long touchdowns against Alcorn State, including the game-winner as the clock wound down.
Winning that inaugural Celebration Bowl, and in the process claiming the Black College Football National Championship, sent applications to A&T soaring the following year, a trend that continued as the Aggies won three more Black national titles in football. Applications to A&T have doubled since 2015 to more than 30,000 this year.
The leaders of A&T, the largest HBCU in the country with 13,500 students, quickly realized the academic benefits of sports success. More student applications gave them a deeper reservoir of prospects. Sports could be a useful plank in advancing A&T’s plan to reach a higher academic station.
Since the landmark 2015 victory, A&T’s ambitions have risen. Last year, the university left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, an association of historically Black schools that it helped create more than 50 years ago, to join the Big South, a conference of historically white schools.
Then in February, A&T said it would join the Colonial Athletic Association, another conference of predominantly white schools that ranks higher in the pecking order of college sports. Hampton University, a private HBCU in Virginia, joined the Colonial Athletic Association in July.
Sports are just part of A&T’s motivation. The university is currently a Research 2, or R2, school—a reflection of factors like doctoral degrees conferred and research spending. A&T isn’t just trying to play in a higher sports league; it wants to compete in a higher academic league. Colonial members include Elon, William & Mary, Delaware, and UNC Wilmington.
“The Colonial league has several of the doctoral research universities with R1,” Hilda Pinnix-Ragland, the A&T grad and corporate executive who chairs the university’s Board of Trustees, told The Assembly. “Our student-athletes can compete at a higher level, and we can continue our pursuit of R1 status.”
But in this calculated play for the big time, some alums feel the university is turning its back on its Black college past. To play in a new conference, A&T has dropped many of its HBCU football rivals, such as Delaware State, Howard, and Morgan State.
A&T’s homecoming, known to alums as The Greatest Homecoming on Earth, has long been a huge social event, bringing $10 million in economic impact to the city of Greensboro as the Aggies took on another Black college. For this year’s homecoming on Oct. 29, A&T will play Campbell, the Baptist university in rural Buies Creek, North Carolina. It’d be difficult to find two universities more culturally different.
The move by A&T illustrates what can be gained and lost when an historically Black institution merges into the broader, whiter world. When A&T bolted the MEAC, the website Andscape, which covers Black colleges, noted the university’s deep roots in HBCU sports and culture.
“All of that won’t necessarily translate with their [new] brethren, and the culture clash will be noticeable, in the stands, at tailgates and elsewhere,” wrote David Steele, who has written two books about activism by Black athletes. “The ties with other Black schools, including the ones in their own state, won’t necessarily be severed, but they will be stretched.”
When A&T announced it was leaving the historically Black conference, Cohen, the 5-foot-6-inch bolt of lightning who went on to play for the NFL’s Chicago Bears, tweeted, “A&T hurt the culture with that move.”
The euphonious sound of Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, poured out of the speakers as revelers, clad in gold and Aggie blue, partook in tailgating fare and the post-pandemic simple joy of being together on Labor Day weekend.
This invitation-only, pre-game gathering of some of A&T’s most significant athletic financial supporters took place in a private club, just a few hours before the renewal of the Aggie-Eagle Classic. That game featured A&T and North Carolina Central University at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
For Shamika Pyfrom, it was—to borrow from radio personality Tom Joyner—a party with a purpose. Pyfrom, the executive director of the Aggie Athletic Foundation, deftly moved about the room visiting, but never lingering. Her job as the point person for athletic fundraising has taken on urgency since the school announced it was joining the Colonial Athletic Association.
Upward mobility in college athletics comes with a price tag. To compete for national championships, a stated goal of A&T administrators, the university needs a much larger athletic scholarship endowment, which now is $250,000 for 17 sports.
Compare that to North Dakota State, which has won nine of the last 11 national football titles in the Football Championship Subdivision (the second-highest level), and is again ranked number one in the nation. Its athletic scholarship endowment is $71 million for 16 sports. The Bison easily beat A&T, 43-3, on September 10 in Fargo, North Dakota.
Delaware, which is ranked 13th nationally and has won 17 football CAA championships in addition to a national title, has the conference’s largest athletic budget at $48 million; A&T’s is $15 million.
Earl Hilton, A&T’s athletic director, let out a wry chuckle as he acknowledged the numbers. He expects the athletic budget to increase over the next couple of years by $3 million to $4 million.
The university is assessing its sports facilities and how to upgrade them. He insists the move to the Colonial conference is the right pathway for A&T and its students.
He also acknowledges the move to a higher level of competition may not be universally greeted with open arms. “There are plenty of people and predominantly white institutions who don’t want us there,” he told The Assembly, “and there are allies who are uncomfortable that we’re trying to go there.”
At A&T, the shift has broad, though not complete, support. Sam Washington, the Aggies football coach who played in the NFL in the 1980s, didn’t want to leave the MEAC. “As far as acceptance, sometimes you have no choice,” he said. “I understand. I view it as a challenge.”
A&T began playing in the Colonial this year in all sports except football, which will begin next year. The Aggies will still play in the Football Championship Subdivision (it used to be called Division I-AA), but will be in a tougher conference with wealthier opponents. This year, the Aggies football team has three wins and three losses.
Washington worries about having the resources to compete. “Don’t have me fight in a war with a bow-and-arrow, and they got guns,” he said. “[Recruits] love things that are shiny, and right now our facilities are not shiny. The people that we’ll be playing against, their facilities are shiny.”
Can A&T’s teams succeed in a tougher league? The Aggies had no problem holding their own at the NCAA Track & Field championships in June. All-American Randolph Ross Jr. won his second consecutive outdoor 400 meters national title.
But the touchstone of athletic success for A&T will be football and, to a lesser degree, men’s basketball. Charles Pinckney, author of a book about Black athletes and a scholar of HBCU sports, is blunt: “Ain’t no way in hell they’re going to compete for national championships in [revenue-generating] sports like football and [men’s] basketball. Not going to happen.”
The imbalance in finances and resources will block the Aggies from being a serious factor in either sport in the CAA or nationally, he said.
Unlike some recent conference shifts, such as UCLA and Southern Cal joining the Big Ten, A&T’s affiliation with the Colonial isn’t likely to produce a windfall for the university’s athletic budget.
The conference uses money from a media rights deal with Flow Sports to pay production costs for putting men’s basketball games on the CBS Sports Network. After that, the conference will determine if any payments are to be made to member schools.
Meanwhile, the university has had to pay exit and entry fees associated with switching conferences.
Leaving the MEAC cost $250,000, followed by an entry fee to the Big South of $381,000. The move to the Colonial meant an exit fee of $500,000 from the Big South and another $500,000 to enter the CAA.
Many universities have increased student fees to raise money for the athletic budget, and Hilton said A&T could seek to increase those fees. Athletic officials say those fees represent a small portion of the department’s budget, and that most of the funds will come from fundraising.
All this means events like the Aggie-Eagle Classic pre-game party, and other forms of outreach, will increase in number and intensity, eventually transforming into an athletic capital campaign in the neighborhood of $70 million.
Pyfrom, wearing a pendant honoring the school’s 2018 HBCU football national championship, realizes she must educate donors and recalibrate their mindset on what it will take to compete.
As she continued her goodwill tour of the room, she found her way to a table anchored by Hope Rush, a former co-captain on the A&T women’s basketball team, whose commanding presence suggests someone still capable of ruling the backboards. Now she’s focused on a different type of board. She is a member of the school’s Board of Visitors and, maybe most important, chair of the Aggie Athletic Foundation board.
Rush recognizes the learning curve facing the Aggies’ donors. “It’s going to be steep, especially for our younger donors because they don’t really understand what real giving is,” she said. “A lot of people think you can’t have endowments unless you’re filthy rich. We have the alumni with the potential to do that, but how do we get them to actually give? It’s a heavy lift.”
Of the nearly 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities, only 3.7 percent have R1 standing. Four of those schools are in the Colonial Athletic Association. The MEAC and Big South have none.
There are no R1 HBCUs.
Moving from R2 to R1 translates into more funding for research and a higher academic profile. Chancellor Harold Martin, now in his 13th year as leader of his alma mater, appears focused on taking the school to unprecedented levels of academic recognition for an HBCU.
Beyond R1 is membership in the elite Association of American Universities. Consisting of just 65 schools—63 in the United States and two in Canada—it is the touchstone of academic achievement.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University are the only AAU members from North Carolina. Membership, by invitation only, is based partly on the overall quality of a university’s programs of research, as well as graduate and undergraduate education. Since its founding in 1900, there has never been an HBCU member of the AAU.
Martin, who was not made available to comment for this article, has not publicly stated a desire to pursue AAU membership.
Listening to A&T’s leadership, however, it’s hard not to imagine that as a goal.
“If there is a measurement [or] metric of a university’s excellence, it is our goal to reach that level. We acknowledge that we’re in a place where no HBCU has ever been,” said Todd Simmons, who serves as associate vice chancellor for university relations.
Charles Clotfelter, an economist at Duke University, is the author of a book about why American universities play big-time sports. He said A&T’s decision to join a new conference is about who it considers its peers.
“A&T’s mission statement probably doesn’t mention football, but trustees can argue this will, figuratively and literally, put them in a different league,” he said. “Do you want to be in a prestigious club or one that’s not so picky? If you look at some of the other schools in the CAA, these are pretty prestigious places. You’re judged by the friends and associates you have.”
Joe D’Antonio, commissioner of the Colonial conference, began his pursuit of A&T two years ago. “Their commitment to academics and student-athlete growth fits with our philosophy,” he said. “And the bands and spirit squads are at a whole different level.”
Earlier this month, A&T announced that it would create an honors college for high-achieving undergraduates.
Chancellor Martin said the honors college was part of its commitment to position A&T “as a nationally recognized competitive university that recruits outstanding students to the university and prepares them for a rapidly changing global society.”
The announcement followed a wave of good academic news for the university, with A&T students winning prestigious awards, including a computer engineering major winning a scholarship to study at the British university of his choice. A&T received another burst of media attention this month when a Nike basketball shoe designed by an Aggie senior hit the market; the shoe includes the A&T logo and colors.
With A&T’s endowment of over $180 million, a recent $23 million grant to create a training program for a clean-energy workforce, record student enrollment, a position as the nation’s largest HBCU, and the quest for R1 status, the decision to join the Colonial reflects a university in aggressive growth mode.
But to some, A&T leaving an HBCU league simply doesn’t seem right.
It’s the university that produced the Greensboro Four, the students who energized the civil rights movement with their sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth’s counter in 1960. The university’s most prominent graduate is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and presidential candidate who quarterbacked the football team in the early 1960s.
When A&T announced it was leaving the MEAC, “it was a seismic event,” said Mark Gray, a well-known broadcaster in the HBCU sports world. “We all hurt when A&T left.”
Before the Aggie-Eagle Classic, an A&T fan dressed in blue and gold made her way on the streets of uptown Charlotte toward the stadium. “We’re closing the door on our culture, I don’t like it,” said one alum, who asked that her name not be used to avoid publicly stepping into a contentious debate. “It’s just that we’re losing something. It just doesn’t feel good.”
Lazaire Brown Jr., a 2020 graduate, said leaving the MEAC “messed up the school spirit overall from a fan’s perspective” because Aggie fans enjoyed watching their university compete against its traditional opponents.
“It also made it a lot harder to travel to away games to support the [Aggies],” he wrote in an email. The universities of the Colonial conference stretch across more than 1,000 miles from Maine to South Carolina.
His reservations reflect those of many college sports fans, including in the Atlantic Coast Conference, who miss playing traditional rivals as conferences have expanded in membership and geographic footprint.
Donna Burke Richardson, a 1987 graduate and passionate college football fan, said A&T’s departure from an HBCU conference is a dominant point of conversation among her friends. “We’re still talking about it. The MEAC was ingrained in us,” she said. “It’s really hard to let this go.”
She speaks with the devotion of an enthusiastic alum: “I understand the desire to give the athletes a larger platform to compete on, but it’s still disappointing [and] just not the same.”
Not all alums are opposed. Charles Mitchell, a 1989 grad, said he knows the Aggies are giving up some strong traditions and rivalries. But Mitchell, a businessman, said in an email that with the changes in big-time college athletics, “A&T needed to make some strategic moves/decisions in order to remain competitive (again, academically and athletically) and financially sustainable over the long-term.”
Rush, the Aggie Athletic Foundation board chair, said A&T is making a natural evolution. “I try to focus on the difference between legacy and tradition,” she said. “We tend to get stuck on traditions, that we have to do the same thing, the same way all the time. We’ll always have our HBCU legacy, but the traditions are changing, the times are changing.”
Certain connections will remain. The annual football game with N.C. Central will continue well into the next decade. Supporters of the move to the Colonial say A&T will preserve its history as a leading HBCU.
“Our student body is 80 percent black,” said Pinnix-Ragland, the board chair. “We produce more African-American engineers than anyone else in the country. When I’m on campus, I visit the student union. They are having a ball. There’s nothing missing.”
When Washington, the 62-year-old football coach, speaks of HBCUs, it sparks magic memories from his childhood, growing up in Tampa, Florida. After he played his Police Athletic League game on Saturdays, he’d rush home to watch perennial Black college powerhouse Grambling State University on an obscure TV station.
He went on to play defensive back at Mississippi Valley State, an HBCU, where he was a teammate of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Since then, he has coached at five HBCUs. His entire journey has been through Black colleges. “It’s been my whole life,” Washington said.
In competing for talent against other Colonial teams, he knows he can’t win recruits by showing them A&T’s football facilities, at least as they are now. So he will sell them on what HBCUs have long promised: community.
“We have a place where you’ll be loved,” he said. “Where you can grow and prosper, that will be our message. Given the proper resources, we will get there.”
Dwayne Ballen, a former sports anchor for ABC11/WTVD, has more than 30 years of broadcast experience. His resume includes CBS Sports, the ESPN networks, TNT, the Golf Channel, Fox Sports, and the USA Network. He lives in Durham and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.