GREENSBORO — In the daylight and hot summer temperatures of the first day of October, it was quiet inside Club Corbett.
Well, quiet by comparison, anyway.
The seats and bleachers were empty inside N.C. A&T’s Corbett Sports Center. The “Dawg Pound” student section was vacant. No pep band. No D.J. pumping hip-hop music through the sound system.
An eerie quiet, broken only by the squeak of new sneakers on the wood court, the talk from new players running through drills and an occasional coach’s whistle.
Jay Joyner, now in his fourth full season as A&T’s head coach, ran his new group through the first basketball practice of the year.
“New team. Same expectations,” Joyner said. “We want to win a championship. We want one of those.”
Joyner pointed to the rafters above the cozy pit of a gym, to the banners honoring A&T’s title teams.
The Aggies went 13-3 in the MEAC last season. They’re 23-2 at home the last two seasons, and one of just 14 NCAA Division I teams with an active home winning streak of at least 10 games.
“We’ve had success. But that’s not the ultimate goal,” Joyner said. “We’ve gotten close, but in sports, people usually don’t remember the second-place team. They just remember the banners. You walk into the Corbett Center, and you see the rich tradition in those banners. As a player, as a coach, as a program, you want your team up there. Then for the rest of your life, you can come back, look up and tell your kids or your grandkids, ‘I was a member of that team.’ It’s about banners.”
Joyner’s first team went 3-29, an awful year of unfathomable futility. His next two teams won 20 then 19 games, each reaching the semifinals of the all-important MEAC tournament.
“I harp on that,” Joyner said, “because you’re talking about two years in a row where you’re 40 minutes away from championship games. Two years in a row. When that doesn’t happen, all you can do is stay humble, stay driven.”
Back-to-back winning seasons is no small feat. Especially after the dreadful first year.
But Joyner understands that the work that began Tuesday all leads up to a few days in March at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Va., site of the MEAC tournament.
“Those are the days that ultimately determine if you get a banner,” he said. “We’re not a Power Five (conference). This is a one-bid league. You can win 19 games or 20 games or 24 games. But if you don’t win that one championship game in the conference tournament, you get a pat on the back and you go back to the drawing board.”
This year, that drawing board led to a subtle shift in recruiting philosophy.
A&T needed players in a hurry the last two years, and Joyner brought in veterans who had transferred from other Division I programs to fill the gaps.
There are two more this year, guards Kwe Parker (Tennessee) and Tyler Maye (VCU). Both have two years of eligibility left.
But Joyner had a core of experienced players in place this year, led by point guard Kam Langley, power forward Ron Jackson and wing Ty Lyons. And now he’s added five freshmen in this year’s recruiting class.
“Year to year, you have to assess your team and see what you have returning,” Joyner said. “After year one, I didn’t have a whole lot of equity. I had to go to older guys and transfers. The following year, the choice was youth or older guys. I went with older guys, and I’m happy that I did. This year was the right time to mix in more youth.”
That first full season is never far from Joyner’s mind. It was a painful learning experience, but the lessons learned changed Joyner’s approach in many ways.
And that changed A&T’s fortunes.
“I am having more fun,” Joyner said. “The second year, we won 20 games for the first time in a long time. And I can truly say it wasn’t as much fun as it should’ve been. Because I knew I was coaching for my job.
“I didn’t want it to be over. I was pushing so hard, ‘We’ve got to finish the job, finish the job.’ Guys around me were saying, ‘Coach, just relax, we’re winning.’ But I didn’t want to hear that. Nothing was good enough. Year one was no fun. Year two wasn’t as much fun as it should’ve been. Year three it started to get better. It’s taken four years to settle in and feel like it’s going in the right direction.”