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NCCU settles into MEAC
DURHAM – For the past three school years, the N.C. Central athletic program has been like a one-man band, traveling wherever it could to get a gig while just trying to make ends meet.
Today, however, the Eagles have landed.
NCCU officially is now among the 14 members of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league the school left in 1979 when the conference moved up to Division I. Savannah State also joins the league today as a provisional member.
NCCU is rejoining the MEAC as a part of its continued effort to become a full-fledged Division I athletic program. NCCU was accepted into the conference on Sept. 10, 2009, but actually becomes a MEAC member today.
“It occurred in September, but for the actual day to be here, it’s even more exciting,” NCCU athletic director Dr. Ingrid Wicker-McCree said. “Finally, we maybe can all take in a big breath of fresh air.”
The Eagles certainly can use some fresh air, having bounced around for three years as an independent, looking for games anywhere and everywhere. With the move to the MEAC, they join a conference with the likes of North Carolina A T, Winston-Salem State, Hampton and Norfolk State.
“We’re going back to some of our natural rivals,” Wicker-McCree said. “With the MEAC, we’ll have a more consistent schedule. Our fans are more in tune with some of the institutions we’re going to be competing with, whereas before some people might not have heard of some of the institutions [on our schedule] and that may have prevented them from really wanting to come out and support the team.
“You always want your institution aligned with institutions that are similar, and I think with the MEAC schools, academically that’s where the university wanted to go, as well.”
The Eagles will compete as a provisional member for the coming school year, meaning they’ll play a full conference schedule in all sports but will not be eligible for conference or NCAA championship competition.
The school, however, hopes that all changes with the 2011-12 school year. If NCCU successfully makes it through the ongoing certification process, the Eagles could find out in February or March of 2011 that they’ll be a full-fledged Division I member going forward.
The school’s athletes again would be able to compete for conference and national championships, as previous groups were able to do when NCCU was a Division II school and a member of the CIAA.
“We’re excited most importantly for our student-athletes,” Wicker-McCree said. “Our student-athletes that have been with us the last four years have been truly dedicated to this institution, and we will be forever in their debt.
“They have been our pioneers for this transition process.”
It’s been a tough transition on the field of competition, to be sure. As an independent in Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision, the Eagles have gone 14-18 in three seasons while playing only 13 home games. This season, the Eagles will play seven home games.
The men’s basketball team has brought in revenue as road fodder for Duke, North Carolina and several other ACC teams – as well as the likes of Florida and Indiana. Again, scheduling home games has been a major challenge that has taken a toll.
This past season, NCCU was 347th (last) in the Ratings Percentage Index, a dubious distinction shared with its fledgling baseball program.
Behind the scenes, however, it’s been a time of unprecedented growth – the kind of growth required for Division I certification. Wicker-McCree said scholarship funding has gone from $500,000 or less as a Division II program up to $1.7 million in the 2009-10 school year, with a goal in place to reach the maximum scholarship limit in every sport in five years.
“We are already quite competitive with our peers in the MEAC in regards to scholarships,” Wicker-McCree said.
The athletic department staff nearly has doubled, from 27 full-time employees to 52. And a year ago, the school’s multitude of sports-specific booster clubs consolidated under the umbrella of the NCCU Eagle Club, a move that has boosted fundraising efforts.
There’s still a long ways to go, but as of today, the Eagles have the stability of a new home.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Wicker-McCree said.