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From left: Fort Valley State University head football coach Shawn Gibbs, Shaw University head football coach Adrian “AJ” Jones, NFL Hall of Famer Larry Little, North Carolina Central University head football coach Trei Oliver and Norfolk State University head football coach Dawson Odums. Andscape Illustration
HBCU Football

Coaching legacy, brotherhood took root at North Carolina Central under Hall of Famer

Four friends who each lead teams played for Larry Little in the 1990s

Fort Valley State University head football coach Shawn Gibbs and Shaw University head football coach Adrian “AJ” Jones booked trips to the Cricket Celebration Bowl in Atlanta a week before their alma mater, North Carolina Central University, officially secured its bid. They had complete faith in Trei Oliver, their former NCCU teammate turned head coach.

After Oliver’s Eagles defeated Norfolk State University in November to clinch their berth, Spartans head coach Dawson Odums, another former North Carolina Central teammate, walked to midfield to hug and congratulate Oliver. Moments later, NFL Hall of Famer Larry Little, who coached all four men at NCCU in the early 1990s, sent Oliver a congratulatory text message.

Nearly 30 years have passed since Gibbs, Jones, Oliver and Odums competed on North Carolina Central’s football field, but the bond they forged as players under Little has surpassed the few years they played together and had a major impact on their personal and professional lives.

“I’m glad I can still be around at my age and seeing all of them are basically succeeding at their craft,” said Little, now 77 years old. “I’m just proud of what they have done, what they’re doing and what they’re gonna continue to do.”

In 1993, the same year Little was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, he took over North Carolina Central’s football program. 

“The only one that I recruited was Trei. So we signed him up, but Shawn, he was already there. AJ was already there. Dawson was already there,” Little said. “All I did … was try to mold them to what they could be. And they were all outstanding football players.”

North Carolina Central University players Shawn Gibbs (top row, second from right), Trei Oliver (second row from bottom, seated second from left) and Adrian Jones (bottom row, left), shown in an undated team photo. All went on to coach at historically Black universities after playing for North Carolina Central.

Adrian Jones

Memorable experiences, such as dumping water on Little after defeating reigning National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics champion Central State in a 1996 non-conference game, strengthened the friendship among the young men, particularly Jones and Oliver, who were part of a secondary that led the nation as the best pass efficiency defense in Division II football.

“We were truly friends more so than just teammates. Whenever one of us messed up or did something dumb, we would always call each other out on it,” Oliver said. “Nowadays so many guys watch their friends mess up or go down the wrong path and don’t say anything because they want to be cool. We genuinely cared about each other, and we’ll tell each other when we were wrong.

“We would be ready to fight and everything else like that, but we’d make up and be cool the next day. But we would always push each other and be honest and upfront with each other.”

Trei Oliver (standing second from right) and Adrian Jones (standing right) were part of North Carolina Central’s secondary that led the nation in 1996 as the best pass efficiency defense in Division II football.

Adrian Jones

Gibbs, Jones, Odums and Oliver take pride in having played for Little, a Bethune-Cookman University product and former coach. They are quick to note that decades before NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders accepted the head coaching job at Jackson State University in 2020, another NFL Hall of Famer coached at a historically Black college: Little, at North Carolina Central.

“I think what makes [Little] different than Coach Prime is that [Little] achieved that status from an HBCU,” Gibbs said. “To be able to play for somebody that has done it at the highest level, he’s the perfect example of if you work hard, and you put your head down and just work that you can accomplish anything that you want to in life.”

After their post-graduation playing careers ended, Little helped steer several of his former players into coaching. 

“Coach Little instilled in us to make sure that we have a plan,” Jones said. “I think listening to him and him kind of guiding us as that second father figure has us where we’re at now.”

The four friends have led teams in the four major historically Black college conferences. Oliver and Odums currently coach in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). Odums coached Southern University’s football team (2012-2021) in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Jones is in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and Gibbs is in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Lessons learned while playing under Little influenced the younger men’s coaching styles.

“Playing football, that’s probably the second coach that really poured into our lives, as a person that really loved us and cared about us tremendously, sort of how I try to coach today,” Odums said. “He was an unbelievable man [and] funny. Football was supposed to be fun, but he made sure we did all those other little things that we came to college to do and held us accountable.”

Little was “a player’s coach,” Oliver added.

”He was hard on us, but we knew that coach loved us,” he said. “I’m relatively hard on my guys, I guess, let them tell it, but they know I care about them and I love them.”

Despite the rigors of coaching, the four friends stay connected via a group chat where they exchange stories, congratulations and Bible Scriptures if needed. They have even served as best men and groomsmen at each other’s weddings.

Members of the 1996 North Carolina Central football team: They returned to their alma mater during the Eagles’ 2021 season to show support for former teammate turned head coach Trei Oliver (fourth from left). From left to right: Michael Wall, Ken Hill, Buddy Crutchfield, Oliver, Myron Flowers, Adrian Jones, James Grant, Anthony Love and Bernard Gaines.

Adrian Jones

Their brotherhood also has provided each coach with a valuable network of support. Little listened when Jones and Odums needed guidance about how to overcome injuries and youthful inexperience this season, while Gibbs, a first-year head coach, was thankful he had more experienced coaches he could call.

“I was just blessed to have the opportunity to reach out to some people that I was close with, like Trei and AJ and Coach Odoms, to get some advice, and they kind of helped me get through the process of being a first-year head coach,” Gibbs said. “Having the ability to reach out to guys that have some similar experiences that can kind of guide you through some of the potholes that come along, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.”

Odums and Oliver each have won a conference championship in the SWAC and MEAC, respectively.

“[It] gives me some drive to achieve some of the things that they’ve done. We’re all striving, it’s still a competition,” Gibbs said. “We all want to compete against each other, but we’re still pulling for each other except if we play against each other. I’m proud and inspired at the same time.”

That brotherhood also has yielded professional opportunities for the four friends and for other former Eagles players. When Oliver was an assistant at North Carolina Central in 2002, he tapped Jones as a volunteer coach in a move that would lead Jones to an assistant position. When Odums needed a defensive coordinator at Southern in 2015, he reached out to Oliver, who accepted the position.

This year, when a vacancy opened on Oliver’s staff, he filled it with Courtney Coard, one of the players whom Oliver coached as a defensive backs coach at NCCU 18 years earlier.

“When I got Coach Coard back I was really happy because we had to say we’ve been on the same system defensively. We had the same thought process,” Oliver said. “People talk about helping folks out in the brotherhood and the family and the networking and things of that nature, but, like, it’s real here [at NCCU]. We’re always reaching back and trying to try to help the next person come along.”

North Carolina Central has built its bloodline of homegrown coaches and administration. In addition to Oliver, its athletic department is filled with alumni: The athletic director, director of track and field and cross country, men’s basketball head coach and tennis coach are former Eagles.

“It’s big, you know. That’s something that people need to talk about more, like, here it is, four young men that went to North Carolina Central University that graduated, got their degrees, all got master’s, and we are head coaches now,” Jones said. “North Carolina Central feels like it’s Coaching U. You get good coaches coming out of North Carolina Central representing what we stand for.”

Liner Notes

Cricket Bowl Celebration

When: Noon EST, Saturday.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta.
Watch: ABC
Information: www.thecelebrationbowl.com

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."