To many Aggie alumni and sports fans, N.C. A&T’s planned exit from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to join the Big South comes as both an utter shock and a total discombobulation.
As uncertain as the world was, you could always count on A&T’s big football game on a late-fall Saturday against arch-rival N.C. Central. And the annual grudge match against Florida A&M — the football teams and the bands. Until now.
Call it the Ag-xit.
And, for all the talk of thinking bigger and reaching higher, it’s still tough to accept. The largest four-year historically black college in the nation will leave the MEAC effective after the 2020-21 school year. The A&T trustees approved the move on Friday and there have been seismic tremors in Aggieland ever since. Say it ain’t so. But it is.
School officials have made a firm and logical case as to why this makes sense:
With most of its schools concentrated in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina (High Point, Campbell, UNC-Asheville and Gardner-Webb) it makes geographic sense and would save on travel expenses.
The Big South has a stronger record of success in college football’s second tier of competition, the FCS.
The Big South is more competitive than the MEAC in other sports as well.
The Big South offers more week-to-week television exposure.
The MEAC (often pronounced “ME-ACK”) faces a tenuous future, with defections from some members in recent years and financial struggles among others.
As A&T trustee Tim King, an Aggie alum, put it, the school needs to consider this decision with its heart and its head.
The MEAC is family. Its members are solely historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. The Big South has only one other HBCU among its members, a former MEAC school, Hampton University. A&T has been in the MEAC for 50 years. And with that come some cherished traditions: the band competitions at halftimes, which some fans prefer to the football games; storied rivalries; and the pageantry, national TV coverage and million-dollar payout of the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, where A&T has played — and won — four of the last five years as MEAC champion.
Then again, A&T has seen similar upheaval before. It and five other HBCUs left the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1970 to form the MEAC for a similar reason: to compete on a higher level. If A&T had remained in the CIAA, it never would have had multiple chances to play in the NCAA basketball tournament. More significantly, the move fits a philosophy long espoused by Chancellor Harold Martin, an A&T graduate: to celebrate the school’s proud past while aggressively embracing the future. Martin wants A&T to measure itself, athletically and academically, as the best not only among HBCUs, but among all of its peer institutions. “I know it’s a sensitive conversation with some of our constituents, but almost every major decision we’ve made has been, too,” Martin said last week.
A&T still can lay claim to the Greatest Homecoming on Earth. It still can field one of the most talented marching bands in the land. Its athletic teams still can excel. As an old R&B chestnut put it: “It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.” But tomorrow beckons.