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Aggie athletics leaving the MEAC: What this means for HBCU sports

Visiting the other campuses across the MEAC and SWAC to support the Aggies is a right of passage. It’s where some of the best memories of undergrad are formed.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Friday, February 7th , North Carolina A&T State University dropped a bombshell on all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) sports. After a meeting with the university’s Board of Trustees, Chancellor Harold L. Martin and the Aggie’s Athletic Director (AD) Earl Hilton announced that the university will be leaving the Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) for the Big South Conference on July 1, 2021.

This announcement sent shock waves not only across the city of Greensboro, but across the nation. Alumni of A&T, other HBCUs, as well as avid sports fans couldn’t believe that the MEAC powerhouse that NCAT athletics has become over the past years is on the outs. 

 NC A&T leaving MEAC to join Big South

The MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) are the only two HBCU conferences on the Division I level, and losing the largest institution of those two conferences will only be a detriment to HBCU sports.

So the question is-why? Many Aggie faithful have joked online, with the recent success of the football program over the last 5 years, about moving up from FCS to FBS.

But to move from one FCS conference that we have 50 years of history and tradition with, to another that just started sponsoring football in 2002 is a bit of a mystery.

During Friday’s press conference, AD Earl Hilton said that the move would be “a lateral move financially, and a vertical move in competition.” I’m not so sure how that is. Let’s take football for example, because that is by far the largest money maker in NCAA sports.

MEAC teams combined for a record of 49-56, and Big South teams combined for a 46-52 record. Nearly identical, both finishing with a rounded 47% win percentage.

Hilton also raved about how N.C.A&T athletics would save close to 40% on the travel budget by moving to the Big South. This move would cut average travel from 347 miles to 154 miles to opposing schools. AD Hilton also said that this move would “make it easier for students and fans to travel to games.”

The distance to any city or university never seemed to be an issue for the Aggie faithful. Part of the HBCU experience is calling up your friends at Howard or FAMU and letting them know you and your 'AGGIE PRIDE' are on the way.

Visiting the other campuses across the MEAC and SWAC to support the Aggies is a right of passage. It’s where some of the best memories of undergrad are formed. The sound of the bands cranking out the new school hits and the old school classics, the young men on the gridiron leaving it all out there for their university, and the smell of perfectly fried fish permeating the air. There’s no other way millions of alumni would rather spend a Saturday afternoon.

According to the NCAA’s latest (2018) list of top 30 FCS Attendance Leaders, nine universities listed were HBCUs (3 MEAC, 5 SWAC, Tennessee State is in Ohio Valley Conference). Out of the 30 universities on that list, zero of those are in the Big South Conference.

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The NCAA (2018) also put together a list of the 13 FCS conferences average attendance numbers during conference match-ups. The number one conference averaging 15,420 fans per conference game was the SWAC. The MEAC came in at number 3, averaging 9,815 per conference game. The Big South came at number 11, with an average attendance of 3,614. 

Sports and HBCUs have gone hand and hand since before African-Americans were allowed to attend the same universities, play with or against, or even drink from the same water fountain as the white athletes that attended those universities.

Lists of Some of the Greatest HBCU Athletes

  • Al Attles, N.C.A&T (Basketball Hall of Fame 2019)
  • Lou Brock, Southern University (Baseball Hall of Fame 1985)
  • Andre Dawson, FAMU (Baseball Hall of Fame 2010)
  • Edwin Moses, Morehouse College (400m Hurdle Gold Medalist 1976 & 1984 Olympics)
  • Walter Peyton, Jackson St (Football Hall of Fame 1993)
  • Willis Reed, Grambling St (Basketball Hall of Fame 1982)
  • Wilma Rudolph, Tennessee St. (3x Gold Medalist 1960 Olympics)
  • Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley St. (Football Hall of Fame 2010)
  • Shannon Sharpe, Savannah St. (Football Hall of Fame 2011)
  • Doug Williams, Grambling St. (First African-American QB to win Super Bowl 1987, Football Hall of Fame 2001)

“We are always going to be a HBCU, but being excellent in who we are is not mutually exclusive to our university being a historically black college and university,” said Chancellor Martin at Friday’s press conference, and I completely agree.

North Carolina A&T State University isn’t just great because it’s a black college, but we also can’t deny that being a HBCU is what helps magnify the greatness of the university. A sense of pride fills everyone from faculty, undergraduates, and just those that call Greensboro home knowing that Aggie Pride connects us all.

Martin also went on to say “While we are a HBCU, we have to compete with these very same institutions and other institutions in other conferences in recruiting talent to our university.” Recruiting and acquiring talent never seemed to be an issue before for the MEAC or N.C. A&T for that matter. According to NCAA's website, in 2019 the MEAC had 10 players active on NFL rosters this year. The Big South had only 3. North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State University both had 4 active players this season.

This move doesn’t feel like a challenge, this feels like a failsafe. If you’ve kept up with HBCU athletics you know that the MEAC isn’t the most stable conference. In 2018 Hampton left for the Big South as well and in 2019 Savannah State departed for the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

After the 5 year run N.C.A&T athletics has had, a change of conference wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. But like many things the university has done, this feels rushed. A shift to FBS would have been supported by the student body, the athletes, alumni, and outsiders all the same.

This conference shift could possibly be the end of the HBCU sports as we know them.

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