As a new decade, century, and millennium were on the horizon, the MEAC and SWAC were two conference peas in a pod.
They represented the 21st-century HBCU legacy schools looking to fit into what was a crowded NCAA landscape. The SWAC bowed out of the football playoffs with their first conference championship game in 1999, but the MEAC chose to stay FCS eligible and expanded at the end of the 90s, with two former CIAA standouts.
Hampton and Norfolk State were approached by the MEAC during the 1994-95 athletic year and eventually would leave the CIAA. The Pirates began their transition period immediately, while the Spartans would not become full MEAC members until 1999.
“Norfolk State has been an ongoing project of mine since I took over as commissioner 15 years ago,” then-MEAC Commissioner Kenneth Free told the Baltimore Sun back in 1995.
“During that time, Hampton has come on like gangbusters in athletics. When they decided to go to Division I, we decided to let them know it was time for expansion. We’ll take Norfolk now, pending their Division I status, and they can always back out. Once Norfolk gets their Division I status, they’re home free.”
The Pirates and Spartans joined at the hip for geological and historical reasons, were important additions for the MEAC as they added a Virginia presence to a conference that did not have one at any point in its history.
It didn’t take the Pirates long to become a force in football under legendary coach Joe Taylor. Hampton won their first MEAC title in 1997 and made their first of five playoff appearances as a MEAC member that year before losing in the tournament to eventual national champion Youngstown State.
MEAC basketball features Cinderella runs
And then, of course, there was the second of three No. 15 versus No. 2 seed upsets pulled off by the MEAC in men’s basketball.
Going into the 2001 NCAA Tournament, the Steve Merfeld-led Pirates were 24-6 and MEAC champs after winning a rubber match against S.C. State in the conference title game. Their reward was the 15 seed, a trip to Boise, Idaho, of all places, and a match-up against No. 2 seed Iowa State, featuring Jamaal Tinsley, who went on to play 11 years in the NBA.
The Cyclones couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from the field strangely enough to start the game and trailed Hampton 32-27 at halftime.
The Pirates caught a bad break of their own when MEAC Player of the Year Tarvis Williams picked up his fourth foul just under four minutes into the second half. Iowa State went on a 19-3 run to take a 46-35 lead and were up by nine points when Williams returned.
The 6-foot-9 forward played the rest of the way foul-free, and Hampton relied on heart to keep themselves in the game.
“We did it with defense,” Pirates junior guard Tommy Adams told the Newport News Daily Press after the game. “We weren’t shooting that well, so we just had to find other ways to get it done.”
That included limiting Iowa State to 40.4 percent shooting, a full seven percent below their season’s average, and forcing 17 turnovers. The Cyclones didn’t help themselves either, making just six of 16 free throw attempts.
It all led to a final possession, with Hampton down 57-56 with 11.8 seconds to go. Marseilles Brown fired a post-entry pass to Williams, who quickly turned and knocked down a short jumper with 6.9 seconds to go.
Tinsley then received the inbounds pass and sprinted the length of the floor before his layup attempt rolled harmlessly off the front of the rim. And because the regular horn at the Boise State University Pavilion was broken, an airhorn signaled the end of the tournament’s biggest upset since Coppin State defeated South Carolina four years earlier.
David Johnson lifted Merfeld off the ground, and the amazing video of the forward holding his coach, nearly a foot shorter than him, off the ground while he celebrates is still used in NCAA footage to this day.
In less than five years, Hampton had gone from a transitional D1 team to a football powerhouse and a basketball Cinderella.
Norfolk State took a little longer to get started, but before long, it would become an anchor program. NSU won their first and only MEAC football title in 2011 and made the playoffs, losing to Old Dominion 35-18.
They also became the next 15-seed stunners in men’s basketball. The 2012 Spartans were coached by Anthony Evans and led by big man Kyle O’Quinn, who won MEAC Player of the Year honors.
The Spartans finished second in the MEAC that season, but were able to overcome Howard, FAMU, and Bethune-Cookman in the conference tournament to earn their first trip to March Madness.
Waiting for them at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, was Big 12 tournament champion Missouri, featuring future NBA players Phil Pressey and Kim English. Norfolk State and the Tigers went back and forth throughout the contest until a pair of free throws by Michael Dixon for Mizzou tied the game at 81 with 50 seconds left in regulation.
That tie lasted about 15 seconds as O’Quinn tapped in a missed shot and made the free throw after being fouled to give the Spartans the lead for good at 84-81. Norfolk State held on for an 86-84 win, becoming the third MEAC team in 15 years to pull off the 15 over No. 2 upset.
The MEAC continues to expand
And the MEAC wasn’t done adding new members. After a potential partnership with Morris Brown College fell through, the conference once again picked from the CIAA’s core, with Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central serving as transitional members from 2007-2010.
Savannah State came along after a decade-long spell as an I-AA independent to finally join the MEAC in 2010.
The move up would prove to be tough sledding for Winston-Salem State, which has battled inequities in funding and facilities, considering they share the city of Winston-Salem with Wake Forest University, an Atlantic Coast Conference school.
After their transitional period ended, the Rams decided to return to Division II and the CIAA, a move that not only saved money and the school’s athletic programs but paid dividends in short order.
The WSSU football team dominated the CIAA during the 2012 season and made it all the way to the Division II championship game before losing to Valdosta State (Ga.) 35-7.
Savannah State hung in the Division I race for seven years before announcing a return to Division II and the SIAC in 2017. North Carolina Central, meanwhile, has thrived at the MEAC level, thanks to championships in men’s basketball and football.
While the SWAC’s football championship game was finding its footing, the MEAC continued on into the FCS playoffs. But after FAMU’s run to the national semis in 1999, competitive playoff games were hard to come by.
During Hampton’s three-peat run as MEAC champs between 2004 and 2006, the Pirates suffered two tough losses, a 42-35 decision to William & Mary in 2004 and a 41-38 shocker at the hands of New Hampshire at Armstrong Stadium in 2006.
South Carolina State’s 20-13 loss at Appalachian State in 2009 was the closest postseason outcome after Hampton’s heartbreaks.
HBCU football goes bowling — again
And as the price of competing in Division I continued to rise, the MEAC and SWAC got together to rebrand their football image, boost the profile of Black College Football, and make some money in the process.
A MEAC/SWAC postseason game wasn’t anything new by the time the Celebration Bowl’s gestation began. The Pelican Bowl in the 1970s, and the Heritage Bowl in the 1990s, usually featured a MEAC school against a SWAC school. Still, both conferences concluded and agreed that competing in the playoffs took more money than it was worth. So why not settle a Black College National Championship on the field while showcasing the best of HBCU culture?
An official HBCU title game was first pitched in 2011 as the Legacy Bowl, but MEAC officials voted it down. Coming back to the table three years later, the conference was more willing to listen, especially with ESPN/ABC wanting to televise the game live. The first Celebration Bowl took place December 19, 2015, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, with North Carolina A&T defeating Alcorn State 41-34. While the matter of the MEAC forgoing the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs remains up for debate, the Celebration Bowl’s success does not.
Why did four programs leave in less than four years? In the case of Hampton and North Carolina A&T, a desire to compete nationally likely factored in. For Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, logistics and geography played a role.
A conference that stretches from Dover, Delaware, to Daytona Beach, Florida, takes a toll on budgets. It was clear that FAMU and Bethune resented long trips to the mid-Atlantic every year for various sports.
As the SWAC is experiencing its greatest modern success and Hampton and NC A&T are ready to see what they’ve got against predominantly white institution mid-majors, the MEAC is left looking towards a future that appears uncertain but also hopeful.