Not much has changed in Trei Oliver’s office from his predecessor. The 2014 and 15 MEAC championship trophies sit on top of a cabinet but underneath the hardware are two pictures of Oliver -- one from his playing days at NCCU, the other a photo taken the day he was introduced as the Eagles’ next coach.
Oliver’s desk is tidy -- some folders, a couple of bottles of orange Gatorade -- standard stuff. Four different versions of NCCU helmets sit on top of a file cabinet and Oliver said he doesn’t have a favorite, opting for whichever helmet his players are going to put on the jerseys of the opposition.
In an instant, Oliver can grab a printed map of North Carolina and Virginia, both well within his reach. He uses those maps to highlight areas he wants to focus on as he recruits the next batch of NCCU football players.
It’s been a little over a month since Oliver, 42, was named the 24th football coach at his alma mater, returning to Durham after spending the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Southern University in Louisiana and he’s had a lot to do.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald Sun
First things first
Since Dec. 13, Oliver has had to hire a staff, relocate to Durham and recruit players. He also had to map out a plan for how to turn around a program that won three straight MEAC titles from 2014-16, but is coming off its first losing season in five years.
When Oliver first settled in not only did he not have a full staff, he didn’t have a full team. At the time of his hiring, students were scattered across the country on Christmas break.
The team reported back to campus the first week of January and the former NCCU defensive back finally got a face-to-face look at his guys. Before that, the first-year head coach was doing everything that needed to be done to run a football program. First order of business as a head coach.
“The first thing I needed was an email address and to figure out my phone number,” Oliver said. “It was a thousand things going on, just trying to manage everything and prioritize.”
Oliver’s biggest challenge was trying to handle everything without any assistant coaches.
“It was just me, the football operations (director), my administrative assistant and our support staff,” Oliver said. “I didn’t have any coaches here, so trying to handle recruiting phone calls, trying to do everything by yourself is somewhat difficult. Once we got the staff together, they’ve taken so much weight off my shoulders now.”
Oliver recently added five coaches to his staff: Mose Ware, a former NCCU player, as the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach; Juan Navarro as the recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach; Brian Jenkins as special teams coordinator and running backs coach; John Tomlinson as the quarterbacks coach; Lonnie Teasley as the offensive line coach.
Getting to know his team
When Oliver found out he would be interviewed for the head coaching job he immediately started watching film on the 2018 Eagles, who went 5-6 overall and 3-4 in the MEAC.
Once he got the job, he started to dive in and dissect his new team.
“We do have some talent,” Oliver said. “Now we do have some holes we need to fill, we need to get more depth in certain areas, obviously at the offensive line. I think we need to have more depth there, but I think we have a chance.”
On offense Oliver will inherit juniors Chauncey Caldwell at quarterback and All-MEAC running back Isaiah Totten. Defensively, the Eagles will miss All-American safety Davanta Reynolds, as well as seven of the top 10 tacklers from a year ago.
When Oliver met with his team for the first time he wanted to let them know that they were his guys. He didn’t want them to hear any talk of waiting to win once he got his recruits in the program. The message was simple, that the Eagles could win with who was in the room.
“I want all of them to be here and be a part of it,” Oliver said. “And if you want to be a part of it, do what’s asked when it’s asked and we won’t have any problems.”
Oliver said the first team meeting “didn’t lack juice.” From the moment he walked in the door he could tell players were excited. There were guys in that room who won a title in 2016 and are ready to win again.
“I didn’t have any expectations when I walked in that room,” Oliver said. “I was excited to see that look in their eyes, though, I will say that.”
Back in the nest
Oliver joked that the first day of spring ball might be one of the saddest days of his life. It will be the first time in his coaching career that he won’t be a coordinator or position coach.
His coaching career started in 1999 an assistant at Delaware State, before returning to NCCU to coach defensive backs, wide receivers and special teams, before leaving in 2007 to coach at Grambling. He also spent four seasons at N.C. A&T before heading to Southern in 2016.
When the Eagles start spring ball in April, Oliver envisions himself walking around practice with a stopwatch in his hand, watching his staff go to work, not that he will pass up a chance to roll up his sleeves and teach players.
“I’m sure a couple of those segments I’ll jump in there and coach some of the linebackers or coach some of the defensive backs,” Oliver said.
Oliver hasn’t had that moment yet where he’ll walk into O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, stand at midfield and declare that he is home.
He would be the first to tell you that it’s not about him returning, it’s about returning the football program to the top of the MEAC. Asked what needed to be done in 2019 to return the Eagles back to the top of the league, Oliver said he would look to improve team chemistry and discipline. First and foremost, though, he wants to build the roster.
“I think the first thing, honestly, we’re not trying to replace anybody, but we are going to recruit guys to help us get better,” Oliver said. “We’re going to recruit hopefully a quality backup and it’s your responsibility to not let this new recruit come in and beat you out. We’re going to bring the best guys in, the best talent we can and add to what we have.”
Oliver said former NCCU coaches Jerry Mack and Granville Eastman both reached out to him since he took the job, wishing him the best of luck. Since taking over, he’s also talked to his former boss, Rod Broadway, as well as Hall of Fame coach Bill Hayes, picking the brains of each coach he has spoken with. He wouldn’t go into the details of those conversations, but Oliver did have a message for Eagles’ fans in 2019.
“Put your seat belts on, we’re going to have a great season this year,” Oliver said. “We’re excited, the players are excited and I’m sure the stands will be full in the nest.”