Branden Bailey remembers the first meeting with his new head coach.
Bailey, an N.C. Central junior linebacker, missed spring practice with a shoulder injury, and when coach Trei Oliver saw him, Oliver joked with the player from Deerfield Beach, Fla. about being hurt.
“When I first came in he was talking junk to me off top,” Bailey told The News & Observer at the MEAC media day in Norfolk last Friday. “He said oh you’re out here getting bust up, huh? So from there I just got a vibe that he was going to be a good dude, cool coach.”
Bailey chuckled at the thought of that first interaction with Oliver, the 43 year-old, first-year coach, who wants to pump life back into a program that has fallen after three years atop the MEAC.
Oliver, 43, was hired at N.C. Central, his alma mater, in December after serving as the defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Southern University for three season.
Under former head coach Jerry Mack, the Eagles won three consecutive MEAC titles. They were co-champions in 2014 and 2015, and won the league outright in 2016. Since then, they’ve gone 8-7 in the conference, with a 2018 low point of a 45-0 loss to rival North Carolina A&T in their home finale.
After the loss, interim head coach Granville Eastman was replaced by Oliver, who roamed the NCCU secondary from 1994-1997. Oliver coached championship teams as an assistant coach during his first stint in Durham (2003-06), Grambling (2007-10) and North Carolina A&T (2011-15). Oliver has basically won everywhere he’s coached and Eagle fans are hoping one of their own can bring a MEAC title back to Durham.
MEAC media day interviews
Oliver has been a coach for more than 20 years, getting into the profession shortly after graduating from NCCU in 1998. The following season, he coached at Delaware State. He wasn’t far removed from his own playing days when he became a leader.
From stops in Durham, Greensboro and Louisiana, Oliver has had the opportunity to impact the lives of his players. He is known as an elite recruiter, luring current Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen to A&T, for example. On the practice field he bounces around from drill to drill with the same energy as players half his age.
Jumping from drill to drill, however, is new to Oliver. He had gotten used to being a position coach, so he had his players and his room, and he could focus on that. Now, as head coach, he has to watch other coaches lead their units while he oversees the entire operation, something that’s been an adjustment.
At the BOXTOROW Kickoff event two weeks ago, Oliver joked that being in the head spot was boring. He didn’t mean that literally, but not having a group of players to coach got to him so much that he coaches the punters a few minutes each practice just to stay involved. (Oliver was also an All-CIAA punter during his playing days.)
Other coaching obligations are also new to him. At the MEAC media day in Norfolk, Va. last Friday, Oliver bounced from booth to booth, meeting with various media outlets that cover the conference. When he got a break in interviews he sat on a sofa outside the main ballroom, giving himself a chance to briefly get away from it all. After an offseason of meetings and watching film on his laptop, Oliver is just ready to coach.
Oliver could have remained an assistant, doing position coaching and recruiting and still impacting lives of young players, without all the responsibilities that comes with being the head coach.
Oliver was asked why he ultimately wanted to lead his own program.
“For you to have your program, be able to put your stamp on something and have your vision about how you think the program should be run,” Oliver said, “that was just something I wanted to take on. And to be able to make a difference in young men’s lives and touch them.”
NC Central coaches bring energy
Isaiah Totten, an Eagles All-MEAC running back, didn’t know what to expect the night before the first team meeting with Oliver.
Totten had never heard of Oliver before, and was trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he would be playing for his third head coach in as many years. But Oliver’s first words to his group put Totten at ease.
“First thing he told us, I’ll never forget, is that we are his guys,” Totten said. “He’s not going to get somebody to replace us. We were the guys who were going to win games for him.”
Hearing those words, Totten said, felt like a security blanket. Everybody had to make an adjustment again, but the sentiment around the locker room was change isn’t always a bad thing.
“With the coaching changes, like I tell everyone, God brings people in your life for a reason,” Bailey said. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing we had three different coaches. I appreciate every coach that I had in my life, but I definitely appreciate Coach Oliver. He welcomed all of us.”
Totten and Bailey agree that the biggest difference with the new coaching staff is the energy it brings.
In the past, Totten explained, there would be a few players who weren’t ready to work. Under the new coaches, players were excited for spring practice, and winter and summer workouts.
“When he comes in you can just see the energy,” Bailey said. “Everyone is just up and ready to go.”
Bailey said the coaches bring that same energy to campus, too. It’s nothing for Bailey to be walking around NCCU and hear a coach shout his name from a passing vehicle. Small things like that have put a pep in the step of the players. Exactly how Oliver wants it.
“That’s just me and my staff,” Oliver said. “With anything, if you love what you are doing you have to be passionate about it. If we’re going to lead these young men and want them to play with passion and energy, we have to bring energy to the practice field and the meeting room and everything. I don’t want coaches who are too cool for school. Everything we do should be at tempo. I think if you are enthusiastic about it and you love what you do, you’re going to have a little juice with it.”
The Trei Oliver era
Since being hired, Oliver has done a lot of evaluating, everything from last season’s film to film of spring practices. In a few weeks, he’ll start to review film of Austin Peay, N.C. Central’s first opponent of the season.
But before Wednesday’s first day of practice, his first as a head coach, Oliver had to evaluate himself, too. He used the spring’s 15 practices to break down his team and his own behaviors.
“I had to learn patience,” Oliver said. “I learned to let my coaches coach and stay out of the way and that’s about it. Really just making sure I let my coaches coach and I didn’t micromanage. I have a great staff, I brought them here to do their job and that’s what they are going to do.”
On Aug. 29 in Clarksville, Tenn, the Trei Oliver era will begin, and Oliver, for the first time in his life, will be able to put his stamp on his program.
“I’m so excited,” Oliver said. “In the spring I kind of got a feel and everything, but will be rocking and rolling (this) week and we will have about three weeks to get this thing ready.”