Silver anniversary of NCCU’s shining moment

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 09:24 AM

Pop's route to an NCAA championship was — well, let's just say it was complicated.

Or maybe a better way to describe Fred "Pop" Bennett's road to that ring was that it was unconventional, to say the least.

“I came back to school when I was 29,” Bennett said. “I was 31 when I won the championship.”

Twenty-five years ago, N.C. Central won the Division II national championship in basketball when the Eagles beat Southeast Missouri State. Bennett was on that team.

“I was a coach on the floor. I was the elder statesman in the bunch,” Bennett said.

Bennett said he played both forward spots and the center position for NCCU coach Michael Bernard, a stickler for defense.

NCCU that season allowed 56 points per game and had teams shooting 38.9 percent from the field, the best defense in Division II.

The rap on NCCU in 1989 was that Bernard’s guys were looking to beat teams by taking the air out of the ball, slowing down the game.

But NCCU’s 73-46 win over Southeast Missouri State still stands as the most lopsided margin in a Division II title game.

Before Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski went on his Division I title runs with the Blue Devils, Bernard delivered Durham’s first national championship in basketball.

Bernard, Bennett and the other members of the title team will gather today at center court of  NCCU’s McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium during halftime of the Eagles’ game against Delaware State (4 p.m., They’ll return the love to a crowd that will salute them for bringing home the big one.

Bernard is an assistant coach for Delaware State. The head coach of Delaware State is Greg Jackson, who was one of Bernard’s assistants when NCCU won the national title in the Springfield Civic Center in Massachusetts on March 25, 1989.

“I had the little box fade with a small part,” Marvin “Rat” Reed said, describing his hairstyle back then in the late 1980s. He’s got that bald look going now.

“Right away, I knew our team was special,” Reed said about the 1988-89 Eagles. “Our practices were probably harder than some of our games were. Not saying the competition wasn’t there, but our practices were so incredible. There were times when we practiced and the whole upper balcony at Central would be packed. Students would come out just to watch us practice.”

Derrick Leak, Antoine Sifford and Dominique Stephens were these very athletic guys who had 6-4 point guard Jeffrey Hayes getting the ball to them.

And hanging out in 3-point land was Bennett, waiting — just waiting.

“Pop was that 3-point-shooter specialist. Anytime we needed a quick basket or to make people come out of that zone, it was going to Pop,” Reed said. “We had a really unique squad. It was something special about us.”

Reed, who played at Hillside High School, came off NCCU’s bench as a lockdown defender.

“My main thing was to not let whoever was dominating the game at the guard spot score,” Reed said.

Bernard was a motivator, and Jackson was an innovator, Reed said.

“Coach Jackson could make up and design plays within minutes, and he would tell us it’s going to work and it did,” Reed said. “I knew that one day he would end up being a head coach.”

Jackson used to be the head coach at NCCU. Current NCCU head coach LeVelle Moton played for the Eagles under Jackson.

The 1988-89 NCCU team also included players Charles Alston, Henry Canty, Miles Clarke, Joel Hopkins, Eric Jackson, Derrick Johnson (deceased), Adrian McKinnon, Kelrick Thompson, Curtis Watkins and assistant coach Ron Woodard.

That group of guys made it into NCCU’s sports hall of fame in 1997.

“I hope that our current students and student-athletes will understand the impact our 1989 national-championship team has on their lives,” NCCU athletics director Ingrid Wicker-McCree said. “Bringing the members of this team back to McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium will give them an opportunity to meet and thank them for garnering national attention and recognition to our great institution."

Bennett went to the old Durham High School but didn’t play there. He did suit up for a basketball team at Durham Technical Community College before taking his talent to NCCU as a considerably older undergraduate. He said his advanced age gave him a mental edge over the younger guys he played against.

“But physically, I couldn’t keep up with them young boys,” Bennett said.

Bennett said that had it not been for his liver transplant in 2009, he might not be here to celebrate the silver anniversary of NCCU’s national championship.

“You think about that every day, but with the blessing of God, all things are possible,” Bennett said.

Special ceremony or not, Bennett was going to be at the Delaware State-NCCU game. He runs the clock for NCCU’s basketball and football games. It’s a volunteer thing, just a way to return a favor to NCCU, Bennett said

“When I was young, NCCU was my home. They reared me here, and I’m just giving back to the community,” Bennett said.

Bennett said this season’s NCCU team has the potential to be special, because Moton’s guys, like’s Bernard’s cast, can both temper the tempo during a game and push it.

“They’ve got tremendous athletes, and they’ve got a fine coach,” Bennett said.

Although Bennett was at a relatively advanced age when he helped NCCU win its first national championship, he said he doesn’t have enough left in his 55-year-old tank to hang out on the perimeter shooting 3s to help this edition of the Eagles go all the way.

“No! No!” Bennett said.