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N.C. A&T leaving Big South for Colonial Athletic Association

Board of trustees vote sends Aggies to second sports league in two years

GREENSBORO, N.C. — North Carolina A&T State is following Hampton University to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) as early as July 2022 in most sports, after an N.C. A&T board of trustees vote Friday at its meeting.

The vote followed a unanimous vote by the board’s executive committee, which heard a recommendation Thursday night from athletic director Earl Hilton, whose presentation laid out that N.C. A&T is more in line with the CAA, both athletically and academically, than with the Big South Conference, which the Aggies joined in 2021.

“The Colonial Athletic Association is consistent with our academic and athletic aspirations,” Hilton told The Undefeated after the meeting. “The Colonial already has four institutions of R1 [Research 1] status, and we’re moving in that direction, in that community of R1 universities.”

The R1 designation is the most elite category for research-focused institutions – considered to have “doctoral/very high research activity” and represents fewer than 4% of public and private universities.

N.C. A&T, currently classified as an R2 university, is considered to have “higher research activity” and aspires to become the nation’s first historically Black college and university (HBCU) with an R1 rating.

The Aggies would join the CAA in all sports in 2022 except football, which would join the CAA in 2023. Bowling will remain in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). The slides presented to the committee showed N.C. A&T playing in a CAA South Division that includes Charleston, Elon, UNC Wilmington, William & Mary, Hampton, Towson and associate member Richmond.

The North Division would include Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra, Northeastern, Stony Brook and Monmouth. Charleston, Wilmington, Drexel, Hofstra and Northeastern do not play football. The Big South is also looking to add Bryant University in Rhode Island for football, which would visit N.C. A&T in 2022 under current plans.

N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin told the executive board that joining the CAA was “the right thing to do” for the university and its student-athletes.

“We take athletics very seriously, as we look to continually, competitively position our university,” said Martin.

Martin said the CAA was N.C. A&T’s conference of choice two years ago when the Aggies looked at leaving the MEAC, but the distance of some of the schools didn’t make it feasible at that time.

“With the Colonial Athletic’s plans to expand, create a Southern Division … so I think this is indeed the right decision for our university and for our student-athletes,” he said.

Martin and Hilton acknowledged that the move to the CAA would prompt N.C. A&T to upgrade its athletic facilities, including its football, basketball and baseball venues.

In an interview with The Undefeated, Hilton said he made his decision after discussions that included Aggies Hall of Famers, an alumni official and a panel of more than a dozen student-athlete leaders.

Hilton said about 75% to 80% of those who were consulted believed going to the CAA was the best decision.

Hilton said that the process has been more transparent than when the university decided to leave the MEAC for the Big South in 2020.

The remaining 20% to 25% had serious reservations, the biggest of which was the potential for N.C. A&T to lose its connection and traditions with other HBCUs. Some of the dissenters also wondered why N.C. A&T could not remain in the MEAC.

That was also a concern that students from N.C. A&T and Hampton told The Undefeated more than two weeks ago. Hampton announced on Jan. 25 that it would leave the Big South, which it joined in 2018, to join the CAA starting July 2022.

Hilton stressed that N.C. A&T will continue to play other HBCUs and has a 10-year commitment to play the MEAC’s North Carolina Central in football, and is seeking a long-term relationship to play the school in basketball, too.

The Aggies also are committed to continue playing Norfolk State and South Carolina State in athletic competitions, he said.

The conference realignments have upset the plans to play Hampton for homecoming 2022 because the Pirates are playing a CAA schedule and opted out of playing N.C. A&T, which will remain in the Big South for 2022.

Hilton said N.C. A&T did not want to jeopardize the Big South’s automatic bid to the NCAA FCS playoffs. The exodus of Hampton, Kennesaw State, North Alabama and Monmouth left the Big South with only five football-playing members, the minimum required to ensure the automatic bid.

Hilton acknowledged that he had discussions with MEAC commissioner Sonja Stills and reviewed a proposal from the MEAC, but that the Aggies were more in line with the CAA.

“We are sure that North Carolina A&T State University made the choice that is appropriate for them at this time. We wish them well,” said Stills. “The MEAC Council of Chief Executive Officers reaffirms its commitment to a stable and viable Division I athletic conference, inclusive of the current ‘Elite Eight,’ and the MEAC is keeping its options open with regards to membership expansion.”

Stills, in an earlier interview with The Undefeated, said she believes the MEAC is in a good place.

“I see the MEAC flourishing, moving forward,” Stills said. “I don’t see us having to assimilate in order to have a strong athletic program.

“We are just as strong and competitive as we were before, and I think that for us to continue to hold the legacy, the culture that we have … we can still give our fans the competitive great games that we’ve always given without feeling like we have to assimilate to predominantly white conferences.”

Stills said she believes a market exists for the current four HBCU conferences – the Division I MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Indeed, with Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as head coach, Jackson State University has been the catalyst for a renaissance of HBCU athletics, bringing millions of dollars to the university and the community and becoming the cornerstone of a new deal with the SWAC in Birmingham, Alabama.

That deal prompted Jackson State to end its long-standing Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis, Tennessee, usually in mid-September, to play in three SWAC games in Birmingham over the next three years.

The opening in Memphis has prompted some talk of N.C. A&T playing in the game in Memphis. Hilton told The Undefeated that he has been contacted by the Southern Heritage Classic and plans to return the phone call.

Any such pairing would be for the 2023 Southern Heritage game, as Jackson State announced Monday that it would play in the classic for one last time in 2022.

Before the full Board of Trustees voted on Friday, Hilton gave a summary of his 40-minute presentation from Thursday night, including showing a series of slides that illustrated that academically and athletically, N.C. A&T is in greater alignment with the CAA than with the Big South. 

Stability of having 13 or 14 football-playing schools and more promising media markets were also among the key selling points. 

Retiree Chuck Coffin (Class of ’76), who recently moved back to the Greensboro area, said he hopes the new league can mean more fans coming to games.  

“The reality is, there is only a few HBCUs that we played that bring fans to us,” said Coffin, a former football player and a season-ticket holder for basketball.

Coffin added that being in the MEAC “hasn’t been great from a revenue point of view…  My gut reaction is, I would not see going back to the MEAC, not after one year.” 

Randall Ponder (Class of ’84), a former Aggies football player who is often among the legions of alum attending athletic events, said that it hurt him when the Aggies left the MEAC but that he understands that N.C. A&T must be progressive. 

“The only reason I’d want them to participate in the MEAC would be purely selfish reasons — because of the Aggie-Eagle Classic and the Celebration Bowl,” said Ponder, who lives in the Atlanta area. “But the reality is, you have to pay bills, and you have to continue to progress. 

“I went through my grieving period, when they announced they were leaving (the MEAC),” Ponder added. “But it’s what I think is best versus what our leaders think is best. You’re never going to satisfy everybody. … It’s not like we’re not still an HBCU; it’s just that our traditions have changed. You can’t stay the same and get better.” 

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.