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Cricket Celebration Bowl is part of Dennis Thomas’ legacy of leadership in Black college sports

Thomas, retiring after 20 years as the MEAC commissioner, was critical in establishing the bowl game and the MEAC/SWAC Challenge

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Heading into the sixth annual Cricket Celebration Bowl — the final one before he retires after 20 years as commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) — Dennis Thomas remembered standing on the Georgia Dome field after the inaugural game in 2016 with the winning head coach, North Carolina A&T’s Rod Broadway.

“He called me over and he said, ‘Commissioner, I’m so happy that you didn’t give up on your vision,’ ” Thomas recalled last week. “ ‘Because see what our kids experienced, see what our alumni experienced, see the institutions, our branding, the promotion, the marketing — the world saw it. If you had given up on your vision, this wouldn’t have happened.’

“That crystallized everything for me.”

Vision was a theme repeated often by Thomas and those who paid homage to him on the eve of his retirement as commissioner, effective at the end of this academic semester and after Saturday’s Cricket Celebration Bowl in Atlanta between the MEAC’s South Carolina State and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champion Jackson State.

Thomas’ legacy and the MEAC’s present and future are hardly confined to football, much less to its marquee event, but the Cricket Celebration Bowl is the signature accomplishment of his tenure. In a sense, it is his lifelong dedication to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and to Black college sports. The MEAC/SWAC showdown arose from the ashes of past attempts at a season-ending event — a national Black college football championship game — and couldn’t have been possible without Thomas’ original idea.

This year’s game emerged after last year’s contest was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, while negotiations to extend its contract with ESPN and ABC were in progress. And it emerged after a year that tested Thomas and the MEAC like none other, when three of its anchor programs, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, left for other conferences two years after Hampton exited. Plus, several sports seasons were shut down for the year, including football, because of the pandemic.

Yet, here the MEAC is back in the game — with the bowl game, the season-opening MEAC/SWAC Challenge, the ESPN spotlight, a new title sponsor, an anticipated record crowd and potentially its largest viewing audience.

Thomas gave credit for all of it to pretty much everybody other than himself, acknowledging the leadership style he’s adopted over some 50 years, dating to his days as a Black college All-American center at Alcorn State. That style has worked well for him in the best and worst of times.

He pointed to school presidents, chancellors, coaches, staff, faculty and especially the athletes as reasons the MEAC has held it together throughout last year’s trials and during his tenure that began in 2002, when he took over as commissioner after 12 years as Hampton’s athletic director.

They held it together, he said.

“We have some tremendous assets — we’re recruiting students, top-notch faculty members, top-notch staff members,” said Thomas. “We’ve been able to solidify that aspect of it, while at the same time being cognizant of what the world will look like moving forward.

“We leave the conference in good stead.”

South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard (left) poses with Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Dennis Thomas (right) after receiving his MEAC Defensive Player of the Year award during the news conference for the 60th NFF Annual Awards ceremony at New York Hilton Midtown on Dec. 5, 2017, in New York City. Leonard, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 2018, is now an All-Pro player in the NFL.

Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The conference members agree. A week after Sonja Stills, who has worked with Thomas since they were at Hampton, was named his successor as commissioner — the first woman to hold the position at a Division I HBCU conference — they issued a joint statement declaring “a resolute desire to not only maintain their affiliation with the MEAC but also to continue to enhance its profile and value.” The statement also pointed out that the league continues to look into potential new members.

Stills, who takes over in early January, joins Jacqie McWilliams, commissioner of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, as the only female commissioners in any NCAA conference.

“The commissioner has pulled the conference so far from where we started. That he has a legacy. I want to see if I can take it even further,” said Stills.

Thomas didn’t flinch in the face of crisis. Programs leaving for greener pastures was one thing, he said; a worldwide public health emergency, one that disproportionately impacted Black people and threatened the existence of HBCUs, was something entirely different.

“He has been one of the biggest and most profound shoulders that I’ve been able to lean on just to make sure we’re making the right decisions and going in the right direction. So he’s going to be sorely missed by me on a personal standpoint.”

SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland

“Let me say this — we play games, OK? This pandemic dealt with lives. Life and death,” Thomas said. “We’ve had [nearly 800,000] people who have died from this pandemic in America. So this is something that happened that no one had experienced before. There was no playbook for it. It was all hands on deck to assure that we’d have a chance to succeed, and I’m very fortunate to say that we did.”

It necessitated a push of football from fall to spring, then cancellation of the conference season completely, with only a handful of schools playing any games. It meant that Howard University, one of its spotlighted men’s basketball programs with top recruit Makur Maker, played only five games before shutting down last season. It meant perennial men’s power North Carolina Central having its year decimated by COVID-19 and losing in the first round of the MEAC tournament. It meant the top-seeded North Carolina A&T men pulling out of the tournament before taking the court after a COVID-19 outbreak.

This was all going on in the middle of the MEAC’s 50th-anniversary celebration, much of which took place virtually instead.

Said University of Maryland Eastern Shore president Heidi Anderson in the statement: “The collaborative partnership between our schools is the key to our success and extends into every aspect of what we do. Whether I am competing with Coppin or Morgan on the hardwood or taking up an important issue on the Hill, we are doing it all — together.”

To get from there to here — where all sports are competing and are expected to continue barring other pandemic-related calamities — is borderline a miracle.

Except it’s not a miracle to those who know Thomas.

“There was zero concern,” said Charles McClelland, commissioner of the SWAC since 2018, “and it all came down to two words: first word, Dennis. Second word, Thomas.”

McClelland has been more than a counterpart and colleague at the other Division I HBCU conference: He also is a lifelong admirer, going back to growing up knowing of his legend at Alcorn State and in Mississippi where their families both grew up. Thomas was the first person he called when he first explored becoming SWAC commissioner.

“He has been one of the biggest and most profound shoulders that I’ve been able to lean on,” McClelland said, “just to make sure we’re making the right decisions and going in the right direction. So he’s going to be sorely missed by me on a personal standpoint.

“But from a professional standpoint, again, I am worried because he had that voice that was able to ensure that we were going to be able to do the things we needed to do, and now that we’ve lost him, someone’s gonna have to fill that vacuum, and I just think those shoes are too big to be filled.”

McClelland also stands as proof that Thomas’ impact will be hard to duplicate — he is one of four SWAC commissioners who served during Thomas’ MEAC tenure. Robert Vowels, now the athletic director at the University of Detroit Mercy, took over the SWAC the same year Thomas began at the MEAC, and together they assembled the MEAC/SWAC Challenge and began the process of creating what became the Celebration Bowl.

At that time, getting exposure on BET was considered a substantial victory, and finding ways to highlight rivalry games like the Bayou Classic was a major target. Thomas saw ESPN and ABC as long shot future platforms. And few people thought the MEAC would surrender its automatic berth to the FCS playoffs to try again at a Black college championship game.

“He took it to a level that people probably never thought would happen — he made the MEAC mainstream in social circles more than ever before,” Vowels said, noting the visibility football and basketball games have on the ESPN family of networks today. Their joint efforts helped lead to the first MEAC/SWAC Challenge in 2005, and between that and the Celebration Bowl, the contracts with the two HBCU conferences have been extended five times, now running through 2026.

While the SWAC has some of the most famous brands and legendary names in HBCU football history, the MEAC is 11-4 in the challenge and 4-1 in the Celebration Bowl, something McClelland half-jokingly lamented as his conference hasn’t won yet on his watch.

Plus, McClelland said, Hampton and North Carolina A&T’s move to predominantly white conferences and the departure of the two Florida schools to the SWAC illustrate how much the MEAC enhanced their profiles and made them attractive to other leagues, and allowed them to dream bigger dreams.

“That’s what people don’t understand; that’s the beauty of what we were able to do and how successful people have been,” Vowels said. “He did exactly what you want a commissioner to do. Think outside the box, do things that no one has ever done before on this side of the ledger.”

Now, the MEAC (and the SWAC) can think even beyond that. John Grant, executive director of the challenge and the Cricket Celebration Bowl and a key architect of both, envisions the championship game as a staple of the sports landscape “for the next 100 years and beyond.”

“It’s the Super Bowl. And it’s ours,” Grant said, adding that the goal for the game is “making it earthquake-proof, we’re making it flood-proof, we’re making it hurricane-proof and we’re making it fireproof.”

Last year, it was pandemic-proof — the game itself wasn’t played, but all the festivities still went on virtually, including a replay of the 2019 game on ESPN’s platforms, preserving its continuity and serving as a bridge to the eventual contract extension.

That all seemed inconceivable when Thomas put his vision of the game into the universe 20 years ago. There was no blueprint for much of what he faced then.

“Quite frankly,” McClelland said, “becoming commissioner of the SWAC, I had to see what commissioner Thomas was doing and try to copy what he was doing. There was no doubt that the MEAC was the gold standard, and what I wanted to do was emulate what he’d done.” He added without pausing, “Can’t be done.”

Staying in place as commissioner of a conference of any size at any NCAA level for that long would be an accomplishment in itself, especially in an environment as volatile as today.

Thomas proudly points out how he is a third-generation Alcorn State alum, going back to his grandfather, Doss Newell, who graduated in 1915. His parents, Ross and Marjorie, are alums; so are his brother Johnny and sister Dorcye. He was enrolled at Alcorn and playing football at age 16; in his senior year of 1973, he was named SWAC Offensive Player of the Year as a center, and ahead of an emerging junior talent at Jackson State named Walter Payton. He was the first and only offensive lineman in SWAC history to earn SWAC Offensive MVP honors. He served on Alcorn’s staff under Hall of Fame coach Marino Casem for 10 years after finishing his playing career.

Dennis Thomas was a two-time Pittsburgh Courier All-America first-team selection in 1972 and 1973, and a Mutual Black Network All-American in 1974. He was the first and only offensive lineman in SWAC history to earn SWAC Offensive MVP honors.

Alcorn State Hall of Fame

Today, the MEAC’s offensive and defensive player of the year awards are presented at the National Football Foundation’s (NFF) annual meeting, as part of a partnership with the league for the last five years. Thomas, an NFF board member, spoke to The Undefeated from Las Vegas, the site of this year’s ceremony. Later in the week, he returned to Alcorn as its fall commencement speaker, an honor he said that humbled him. Last month, the SWAC named him the recipient of its 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award; last year, he was named to the Black College Football Hall of Fame. And he is included on the 2022 ballot for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

He is indelibly woven into the history of Black college sports in the 20th and 21st centuries. What he learned from being part of that fabric his entire life led him to where he is, and has led the MEAC there with him.

“Don’t quit on a vision. Don’t quit on a dream. Don’t quit on yourself,” Thomas said, “and if you keep persevering, you will come to a life that’s reflective on your commitment to do well. Alcorn instilled those kinds of virtues in me, but it started with my mother and father. Now, out of all the virtues God can bestow on someone, the one that I would want if I had to choose one, it would be courage. I’ve always asked God to give me the courage, because you can have a strong commitment but not the courage to persevere, to see it through.

“Courage is the virtue that has been my North Star.”

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.