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No playoff needed: The Celebration Bowl is more than enough for HBCU football

The FCS championship’s atmosphere doesn’t compare to the electric weekend in Atlanta

ATLANTA — During a team news conference on Friday, I asked North Carolina Central head coach Trei Oliver what he thought about the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference participating in the FCS playoffs, which run concurrently with the Cricket Celebration Bowl.

The question came out of a recent conversation with a friend of mine, a longtime athletic director at a historically Black university who now works at a Power 5 institution. He questioned the efficacy of the Celebration Bowl, which matches two Black conference champions to determine a Black national champion. He referred to it derisively as the Separate but Equal Bowl.

His contention is that Black football teams should prove that they can compete against the rest of the FCS college football world.

“If we say we’re as good as them and we can compete with them, let’s go out on the field and see what we can do,” he said. “If we beat them, then we’re the national champion. Instead, we crown a Black national champion, which to me is the separate but equal part.”

Oliver was incredulous. He is an alumnus of North Carolina Central, and spent much of his coaching career in the Black college universe. The Celebration Bowl was a much better experience at so many levels, especially the notoriety.

“I don’t even know why we’d have that discussion,” he said. “Who’s left right now? Do you know?” Oliver asked, referring to the FCS playoff schedule. No one did. “But they know who’s playing tomorrow at 12 o’clock noon.

“You can put all of those playoff games together, put them against this one game and it’s not going to be close.”

For the record, North Dakota State will face South Dakota State on Jan. 8 for the FCS championship.

But Oliver’s point is well taken. Most eyes would be on the Celebration Bowl.

The Jackson State marching band, The Sonic Boom of the South, performs during halftime of the Cricket Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 17 in Atlanta.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

On Saturday, Oliver’s Eagles snapped Jackson State’s bid for an undefeated season with a 41-34 overtime victory before 49,670 fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium. It was the final game for Deion Sanders as the Jackson State head coach before assuming the same position at the University of Colorado.

After the game, Oliver revisited the playoff question, noting that even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell attended the game (Goodell’s nephew, Charlton “Charlie” Goodell, is a sophomore defensive lineman for Jackson State).

“The energy in that building, the NFL commissioner was here, it’s a sellout, and people want to talk about playoffs,” Oliver said. “What did Allen Iverson say? ‘Playoffs?’ ”

Actually, it was NFL head coach Jim Mora who exclaimed “Playoffs?” after his Indianapolis Colts suffered an embarrassing loss. But again, Oliver’s point is well taken. There’s no comparison between the Celebration Bowl atmosphere and the atmosphere surrounding the FCS playoffs if North Carolina Central chose to participate.

“Let’s be real: That’s an unbelievable experience, for our guys to have an opportunity to play here,” Oliver said. “The bands were rocking — that’s what Black college football is all about.”

My athletic director friend recounted a conversation he had with a white athletic director of an FCS school: “He said, ‘I wish your teams would play in the FCS playoffs, because you have some of the best athletes in the country and we don’t get a chance to compete against them.”

The reality is that the FCS playoff have never been kind to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), typically devaluing not only Black college football, but the energy and excitement HBCU fans bring to the game.

Florida A&M won the first Division I-AA championship in 1978, defeating Massachusetts. After that, HBCUs have been nonentities in the playoffs. Several outstanding HBCU teams have made multiple appearances in the FCS playoffs, but rarely have any gotten out of the first round. Under North Carolina A&T head coach Rod Broadway, the Aggies went to the FCS playoffs and lost in the first round to Richmond in 2016. Bethune-Cookman went to the FCS playoffs in 2012 and 2013. The Aggies won three Celebration Bowl titles.

Broadway said the infrastructure of HBCU football programs limits the extended playoff run required to win an FCS championship.

“We can compete with those other FCS schools, but I don’t know if we were built enough to do it over a six-game period,” Broadway told me on Friday. “We can play three or four of them, but I don’t know if we can do it over six weeks. We’re not financed that way. We don’t have money for the playoffs. You lose money.”

That’s why in 2015, after years of lobbying, presidents agreed that the champions of the MEAC and SWAC would meet to determine what effectively would be the Black national champion. The runner-up is free to participate in the playoffs. Last year Florida A&M, which finished second in the SWAC to Jackson State, lost to Southeastern Louisiana. This year, despite finishing with a 9-2 record, Florida A&M did not receive an at-large invitation. Several FCS schools with worse records were invited.

Sanders addressed the slight when he addressed the media on Friday.

“FAMU should have been invited to the playoffs. FAMU lost two games, some teams lost four or five games and were invited. That’s not right,” he said.

Asked about the greatest impediment to participating in the FCS playoffs, Sanders said “money.”

“Most games are away; we’ve got to fly there. Who’s paying for that?” Sanders said. “We don’t have that in the budget.”

Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders (center) leaves the field during the first half of the Cricket Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 17 in Atlanta.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

The FCS does not compensate schools for participating in the playoff. On top of that, to host a playoff game the NCAA requires schools to submit a bid to guarantee how much they will pay for a home date. The minimum bid usually starts around $30,000 for the first round, $40,000 for the second round, $50,000 for the quarterfinals and $60,000 for semifinals.

“I would love to host a home game, but a lot of those things aren’t in the budget for us here at Jackson State. That does not fit,” Sanders said.

The Celebration Bowl is a far more lucrative option. The participating conferences get $1 million each in payouts.

You can make the case, as my athletic director friend has, that participating in the FCS playoffs and winning allows you to say you are the best of the best because it’s a true national championship. But the reality is that it’s enough to be considered king of the HBCU hill and unnecessary for a Jackson State or North Carolina Central to play against a 24-team FCS field.

“No coach in either conference, whether it’s MEAC or SWAC, would choose playoffs over the Celebration Bowl game for numerous reasons,” said Louis Perkins, the North Carolina Central athletic director. “Exposure, financially, the experience, the student-athletes, recruiting — there’s no way.”

For the two days leading up to the Celebration Bowl, the anticipation of Saturday’s game and the atmosphere were electric. The game was filled with suspense, from Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders’ game-tying touchdown pass with no time left to send the game into overtime to North Carolina Central’s defensive stand to end the game.

How can you improve on that Celebration Bowl drama?

“I love the Celebration Bowl and what it stands for,” Sanders said. His only suggestion was that the field be expanded to a four-team playoff format “because it’s a beautiful thing for us as a people.”

As I considered my friend’s position about HBCU football programs needing to prove something, I realized that it would be different if this were the 1960s and HBCUs were playing with all the best Black athletes against white institutions playing without Black athletes. Today, HBCU football programs competing in the FCS are facing, and usually losing to, programs fueled in large part by Black athletes. That proves absolutely nothing. Better to play in an environment as Jackson State and NCCU did on Saturday where you define what constitutes success.

That’s something to celebrate.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.