When North Carolina Central athletic director Ingrid Wicker-McCree was searching for the next coach to lead the Eagles’ football team, she went to student-athletes, several of whom had the opportunity to interview potential coaches.
The student-athletes gave Wicker-McCree a list of words describing what they wanted from their new coach. One of those words -- swag.
Dressed in a gray suit with a matching maroon and gray tie, Trei Oliver had his NCCU swag on full display Thursday as he was introduced as the 24th head football coach in school history.
If Oliver looked super comfortable in the school colors it’s because the it’s a natural fit. Oliver, 42, is a former Eagles defensive back and assistant coach, returning to Durham after spending the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Southern University. At his introductory press conference, the first words out of Oliver’s mouth were “Eagles Pride.”
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He then looked at his wife, Yvette, also an alum and said “you’re back home, baby.”
“This has been an amazing experience, an amazing journey,” Oliver said, hours after he was approved by the NCCU Board of Directors to take over for interim head coach Granville Eastman.
Earlier this week Oliver was in Louisana, making home visits and “eating red beans and rice.” Days later he was standing back on the campus where he was an All-CIAA performer in the ‘90s. Oliver was also an assistant coach at NCCU from 2003-06, helping lead the Eagles to back-to-back CIAA championships and consecutive trips to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
His coaching career includes stops at Delaware State, Grambling and North Carolina A&T. With many coaching stops under his belt, NCCU was the first time he made a move that he didn’t have to think twice about.
“This is the first coaching move that I made that I didn’t have to talk to my wife about, being that she’s from Durham,” Oliver said.
A former defensive back and punter, Oliver graduated from NCCU in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and earned a master’s degree in criminal justice from Grambling State University in 2010.
Oliver is the third alumnus to lead the NCCU program, following Bishop Harris, who graduated in 1963 and coached from 1991-92, and Herman Riddick, who graduated in 1933 and coached from 1945-1964.
McCree said there were some great applicants to choose from, a challenging task, but she is convinced they got the right person. Oliver being an alum wasn’t a requirement, but it helped.
“I think the timing was right,” McCree said. “You always want to go back home and the opportunity to bring someone back home, who is ready for the opportunity, just the timing was right.”
Oliver said the offer from McCree was all it took for him to return from Durham. Originally from Yorktown, Va., Oliver is a second generation Eagle. Both of his parents are NCCU graduates and his father, Colon, played wide receiver for the Eagles from 1963-66.
While addressing the room full of NCCU supporters, Oliver vowed to instill Eagle Pride back into the current team, which finished 5-6 overall last season and 3-4 in the MEAC, the team’s first losing season since 2013.
Even during his coaching days at Southern, Grambling and even “the school down the street” (A&T), Oliver watched the Eagles whenever he got a chance. If NCCU played in a nationally televised game, he watched.
The last couple of weeks, when it appeared he was a finalist for the job, he started looking at games from the 2018 season on YouTube. During his interview process Oliver met with some of his potential players and a couple more since returning to Durham this week. One of those players was rising junior quarterback Chauncey Caldwell, who was in the back of the room during Oliver’s introductory press conference.
Playing for his third coach in as many years, Caldwell came away impressed with Oliver.
“When I first met him he had that swagger about him,” Caldwell said. “He likes to win and he wants to win, and that’s what I’m about. I feel like Coach Oliver is going to turn this thing around for us.”
Like Oliver, both of Caldwell’s parents went to NCCU. Caldwell is also from Durham and said bringing back a fellow Eagle is a big deal.
“He knows the ways around here,” Caldwell said. “It’s a huge blessing.”
Known as an excellent recruiter, Oliver said he plans to bring in new players, but said “his guys” are the guys already on campus, adding that he intends to win with the players already on the roster. Oliver was the recruiting coordinator at NCCU during his first stint under Rod Broadway, and served that same role under Broadway at Grambling N.C. A&T. Oliver is credited with recruiting former Aggies running back Tarik Cohen, now in his second year with the Chicago Bears.
First order of recruiting for Oliver will be a coaching staff. He stressed that he wanted to make sure he had former Eagles on the staff, but also said he wanted the best coaches available.
“I think we have some alum out there that are outstanding coaches who have been successful at programs they are running now,” Oliver said. “We’re going to look at a lot of different candidates at a lot of different areas, but we have to get some alum on staff here so they can help promote my message of Eagle Pride.”