Celebration Bowl defeat still eats at Mack, ready for a fresh start in 2017

N.C. Central head coach Jerry Mack leaves the field after Duke beat Eagles at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham on Saturday ,Sept. 3, 2016.
N.C. Central head coach Jerry Mack leaves the field after Duke beat Eagles at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham on Saturday ,Sept. 3, 2016.

This summer North Carolina Central head coach Jerry Mack was vacationing in Orlando, Fla.

Mack was wearing an NCCU hat when another man noticed it, walked over and started a conversation. The man was a graduate of Florida A&M University, also a MEAC school, and watched on television as the Eagles fell to Grambling, 10-9, in The Celebration Bowl in December at the Georgia Dome.

The stranger asked Mack if he had seen the game, stating, “that was a wild ending.”

The man had no idea he was talking to the head coach of the losing team. Mack never revealed himself, simply telling the man, “yeah, I wish Central could have pulled it off.”

It’s been eight months since The Celebration Bowl and the Eagles are days away from a new season, starting Saturday at Duke. Coaches always preach to their players about moving on, focusing on the next opponent and not looking back. Several N.C. Central players, like junior running back Ramone Simpson and senior defensive end Antonio Brown, said they used the Celebration Bowl loss as fuel to get them through winter conditioning and summer workouts. But what about coaches? Every coach wants to end the season on a high note and for Mack, that one-point loss in December was the first time as a head coach he ended the season with a loss. He was a perfect 2-0 in season-finales, both wins over rival North Carolina A&T in 2014 and 2015, which sweeten the deal and gave everyone a little extra pep in their step during the off season. But for the first time in his career Mack walked off the field the final game of the season on the wrong side of the win/loss column. As time has passed, the game doesn’t sting as much, Mack said, but thinking about it during the off season ate at him.

“It did, I’ll be honest with you,” Mack said. “But that’s why we have the 2017 season, and try to get an opportunity to go out there and do it all over again.”

Last season the Eagles went 9-3 and a perfect 8-0 in MEAC play, winning a third straight conference title, and the first outright MEAC winner since the 2012 season. But they didn’t finish off the season with what would have been the schools first bowl win since making the switch to Division I in 2011.

In the locker room after the game sophomore left tackle Nick Leverett remembers how calm his head coach was. Mack told the team he was proud of them, they played their hearts out and that was all he could ask for. Seeing Mack walk off the field with his head held high made it easier for Leverett to do the same.

But Mack had his moments.

“I got a lot of emotions out probably the day or two after the game,” Mack said. “There was some crying, some tears shed, some anger.”

All those emotions fueled the 36 year-old. Asked what he did differently this summer, Mack said he studied. Even as a coach he is still a student of the game, so he and his staff took trips to different schools across the country, picking the brains of coaches at Arkansas State, his alma mater, Ole Miss, Memphis (Mack was the wide receivers coach there in 2011) and locally at North Carolina, where Larry Fedora runs a similar offense to Mack’s. Mack and his staff watched film and sat in meetings as they visited the other programs.

“We try to steal some ideas and see what might give us an edge,” Mack said.

Besides having played tight end at Arkansas State from 2001-03, Mack has a relationship with Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson, dating back to Anderson’s days as the offensive coordinator at North Carolina from 2012-13.

During the summer Mack and his assistant coaches would watch the Celebration Bowl, maybe just one half, sometimes just one quarter. The Eagles scored a touchdown with 2:14 remaining when Malcolm Bell hit Quentin Atkinson for a 39-yard strike, making the score 10-9 in favor of Grambling. However, the extra point was blocked and the Tigers held on for the win. Confetti fell from the roof of the Georgia Dome and a stage was rolled out on the field for Grambling to celebrate the win and accept the championship trophy. Mack told his returning players to remember that scene and plan on being on the field celebrating in 2017. A few days after the game, after he released all of his emotions of the tough loss, Mack was ready to move on. But fans still won’t let him escape it.

“People brought it up a lot, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast,” Mack said. “We had a chance to be national champions and anytime you get in that situation people are always curious about what could you have done different or what you said to the team after the game, things like that, so I understood what they wanted. So I was honest, I was very proud, but we’re going to use that as motivation going forward this upcoming season.”

Mack’s been successful in his short tenure in Durham. His 24 wins (24-11 overall) in his first three seasons passed former Eagles, and current North Carolina A&T, coach Rod Broadway’s 22 wins from 2003-05. N.C. Central starts this season ranked No. 24 in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll. For the first time since Mack arrived, the Eagles were voted preseason No. 1 in the MEAC, predicted to win a fourth consecutive league title. Mack said he wasn’t too hard on himself about the game, mainly because he was pleased with the effort by his team, and that’s what matters the most. But the emotion has been there and his players know that’s because Mack lays it all on the line for the program.

“Most definitely. I’ve seen times when Coach Mack has cried before,” Leverett said. “He takes his job very serious. He loves the program, he loves NCCU.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV