Is it a football school or a basketball school?
Across college athletics many schools identify as one or the other. At basketball rich programs, football serves as the undercard during the fall until Midnight Madness rolls around in October, and hoops fans can finally head inside for their fix. At other universities, basketball keeps fans entertained for a few weeks, that’s until spring ball rolls around and the pigskin purist can get a taste of their beloved game, if only to hold them over until Saturdays during the season.
There are some schools that are successful at both. The football team might win just enough games require for a bowl bid (six) and squeak into March Madness, riding the bubble all winter. Most of the time when a school dominates in football or basketball - winning a conference regular season title or a national crown - the other sport is the little brother, an after thought. Something to tide the fans over until the next season rolls around. Not at N.C. Central, where football coach Jerry Mack and men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton have created a culture of comradery and winning.
The Eagles made the transition to Division I in 2011. Since the 2014 season, Mack’s first, only two programs in all of Division I (FBS and FCS) have won multiple conference championships in both football and basketball in the same school year: North Dakota State (2014 and 2015) and N.C.Central. The Eagles first accomplished the feat in 2014, when the football team won a share of the MEAC and the basketball team won the conference and tournament titles, advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
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This past school year was the summit of success in athletics in Durham. Mack’s football team went undefeated in conference play, advancing to the first bowl game since making the switch to Division I, while Moton’s Eagles captured the league title while once again advancing to the Big Dance. In a three-month span N.C. Central played in a nationally televised bowl game and NCAA tournament game. Very few schools can boast that kind of success over a span of six months. By comparison, N.C. Central’s Triangle counterparts have gone decades without pulling off the balancing act. Duke dominated the ACC in 1962, winning the football title and following up with an ACC title in hoops that winter. N.C. State pulled it off in 1973 and North Carolina did it twice — the 1971 and ’72 seasons and again in 1980 and ’81. What’s more impressive is that Mack and Moton have managed to share the spotlight, knowing their program benefits from the other guy winning.
“Thing’s that LeVelle does for his program, especially from a branding standpoint, it definitely helps us for football,” Mack said. “When you turn on the television and you get a chance to see our basketball team playing on national television, playing against big time opponents, obviously now when we go in that young man’s home from a recruiting standpoint, they say ‘I saw you guys play basketball and I saw you win on television.’ That helps us get a different caliber of athlete.”
When Moton was hired in 2009, the Eagles were just starting the transition from Division II to Division I. He remembers telling the crowd in order for things to work everyone has to “row in the same direction.” That meant from football to basketball, to administrators, all the way down to “whoever pops the popcorn.”
It didn’t take long for that to pay off. Mack (21-3 MEAC record) won right away, and now has three consecutive MEAC titles to his credit. Moton (86-27 in MEAC) has won three conference titles himself and has two NCAA tournament appearances. Success hasn’t gone to the head of either coach, allowing them to cohabitat on N.C. Central’s campus. That’s not always the case in college athletics, where some coaches hit the road, knowing their program would never shine in the same light as their contemporaries. That comes down to one three letter word, according to Moton.
“Yeah, that’s ego,” Moton said. “At the end of the day that’s ego. I’m a grown man, I’ve accomplished enough in my life not to have my chest out saying don’t bother me. A grown man will tell you that you have to be a never ending learner.”
Ego won’t stop Moton from being a regular at Mack’s football practices. First as a fan of the game (Moton referred to himself as a “football guy”) and second as a student of Mack. Moton, seven years older, said he’s learned so much just from watching how Mack conducts a practice. The non-verbal communication Mack has with his players in a loud stadium, Moton wants to know the secret, just in case he needs it in a packed gym on the road in January. In fact, Moton said he learns more from football coaches because they have to deal with more personalities. Those personalities, Moton said, turn out to be his biggest supporters during basketball season, along with Mack who takes his usual seat in the upper level for home games.
Moton brings in basketball recruits in the fall, while Mack shuffles in prospects during the winter. They both agree the best approach to luring a kid to N.C. Central is to take them to a game — basketball for Mack, football for Moton — and the let the energy of the school sell itself. Name dropping also helps. Moton, basically the face of athletics at N.C. Central, is sometimes sought out by football recruits who want to meet the man with all the fancy suits they’ve seen on television. Once during a recruiting trip, Mack brought a prospect from Florida by McDougald-McClendon Arena to meet Moton, who was also hosting a recruit from the Sunshine State. Turns out the kids knew each. They both committed the same day.
“The thing is, it’s organic,” Moton said of the coaches friendship. “It’s an organic relationship. We text, we talk on the phone and that always helps and our kids can feel that vibe.”
They go to the same barbershop for their haircuts. When Moton wanted to quickly whip himself into shape, he went and ran with the football players.
“It was the linemen,” Moton joked. “But I ran it.”
And they were both there for each other at their toughest moments. When the football team suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the Celebration Bowl, Moton called Mack right away. The basketball team was in Louisiana, playing against McNeese State. Moton was checking his phone at halftime to follow the game, seeing the end results after his team picked up a 74-66 win. When the basketball team fell in the First Four of the NCAA tournament, Mack was among the hundreds of fans waiting for the Eagles when they got off the bus in Durham. They are probably the only two people on campus who know exactly what the other was feeling.
“It’s like climbing a ladder and it hurts if you fall off once you get up higher,” Moton said. “That’s what it was for me, that’s what it was for him.”
Regardless of the way the season ended for both coaches, the bar has been set. Mack and Moton have, or will, become victims of their success. All Mack knows is MEAC titles, and fans have long had expectations of the basketball team winning the league every year. That’s an excellent problem to have for any coach. The tricky part is maintaining that. As long as people involved don’t get complacent, Mack doesn’t see a reason why the Eagles can’t continue to soar across the board in all sports, not just football and basketball.
“I think it goes back to culture,” Mack said. “I think it goes back to leadership and administration. As long as those things stay consistent and you always fight everyday, the same way from the first day you got the job, to the last day you got the job to get things done. Now that’s tough, it’s easier said than done. You have to keep people focus, keep people on task. The same way we worked the day we walked in here to get that success, we have to continue to fight. That’s the only way to maintain success anywhere.”