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Howard University’s football coach presses for MEAC to host its own championship game

Commissioner Sonja Stills says conference doesn’t have enough teams to launch title matchup but is open to expansion

During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend Howard University football coach Larry Scott watched several Division I football teams square off in their conference championship games.

By late November every year, most Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools have finished their seasons, and the conference champion, the team with the best conference record, has two weeks off before playing in the Celebration Bowl. Last season both North Carolina Central and Howard were crowned MEAC co-champions, as each had a 4-1 record in conference play. However, North Carolina Central, who had won the schools’ head-to-head matchup earlier in the season, earned the Celebration Bowl berth while the Howard Bison wished they could’ve settled the tie with just one more game.

Now Scott is advocating for the MEAC to host its own conference championship game. 

“I truly believe that we should continue to search and find ways to get creative in how we can [add a championship game],” Scott said July 21 during the MEAC’s Football Media Day in Norfolk, Virginia. “Everywhere in football, every conference in college football has one, and I think we should be challenged with trying to do the same here.

“Everybody’s relevant during championship weekend, you know, those weeks of football where everybody’s sitting home around the holidays watching football. The MEAC needs to be relevant. Our programs and our HBCU needs to be relevant, too, not just the [Southwestern Athletic Conference].”

Since the founding of the Celebration Bowl in 2015, there have been three years when more than one MEAC team has had the same conference record. Each time the winner of those teams’ head-to-head regular-season matchups has earned the berth.

“At the end of the day, let’s just play. We’re both 4-1 – let’s settle that on the field, put the ball down and you play a game,” Scott said. 

One of the biggest critiques of the MEAC potentially adding a championship game is it would be a rematch of a regular-season game. Scott doesn’t mind having a rematch for a championship game, citing the 2021 SEC championship game in which Alabama defeated Georgia. When the schools played again, for the 2022 College Football Playoff national championship, Georgia won.

Norfolk State football coach Dawson Odums believes the MEAC currently isn’t in a position to add a championship game, but he thinks there would be added benefits for the conference.

“I think somewhere down the line it’s important, because the championship game gives you another opportunity in the platform to showcase your conference to a market or media that may not get the chance to see it day in and day out. So I’m all for it,” Odums said. “I think in order for that to happen, we definitely would need more than six teams playing.”

Other MEAC football coaches – Lee Hull of Delaware State, Damon Wilson of Morgan State, Buddy Pough of South Carolina State and Trei Oliver of North Carolina Central – agree with the idea of adding a conference championship, but all believe it would be premature to add one immediately.

Without a MEAC football championship game in place, all the member schools feel weekly pressure to win conference games to earn a trip to the Celebration Bowl. In 2021, South Carolina State went undefeated in conference play, not leaving anything to chance en route to the program’s first Celebration Bowl title. Last season, North Carolina Central rebounded after an early-season loss to earn its bowl berth.

“We play all the teams in the conference, so you cannot stub your toe, you can’t let one get away from them. In 2021, we lost to S.C. State, and that kind of kept us out of it. So [if] you want to make it to the Celebration Bowl, run the table, win all the games,” Oliver said.

“But with just six teams in the league, I don’t think we need to play a championship game, and if you look at the results from last year when we played Howard University, I don’t think anybody wants to see that. Every Saturday is a conference championship game, and we know that.”

Pough, the longest-tenured coach in the conference, agreed.

“I don’t know how we put a championship game together. … If one team beat the other, that technically is not a tie, if the first tiebreaker is gonna be head on head,” Pough said. “We might have two teams with the same record, but we will always know who the winner is.”

With only six of the MEAC’s eight member institutions playing football, commissioner Sonja Stills said the conference doesn’t have enough teams for a championship game, but that the MEAC is open to expansion.

“I can see it, probably in a couple years. I think it’s too soon to be able to add additional teams right now,” Stills said. “Our focus is on our strategic long-range plan and really strengthening the foundation that we have of our Elite Eight. Then I think we’ll be ready to add more institutions.” 

Since 2018 the MEAC has lost five member institutions. Hampton left in 2018, followed by North Carolina A&T in 2021. Both schools are currently in the Coastal Athletic Association. Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman left in 2021 to join the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Savannah State dropped down to Division II to join the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2019.

Stills said the conference is open to welcoming back former MEAC members as a way of expansion. Another prominent idea for expansion includes Division II schools moving to Division I due to several Division II historically Black colleges and universities’ close geographical location to current MEAC schools.

The commissioner is cautious of hurrying schools to make the jump from Division II to Division I, citing former members Winston-Salem State and Savannah State as examples of failed attempts.

“I think there’s always the thought or the view of having Division II come up with Division I, but we have to make sure that they’re going to be viable as a Division I institution because we don’t want them to get there and have to go back,” Stills said. “There are a couple of Division II schools that are out there that are ready to go, but they really need to make sure that they have vetted the process thoroughly.”

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."