NC Central University's national championship winning football team. Credit: NCCU courtesy photo

Bring on the pomp and majesty, the celebration and song.

Bull City residents and NC Central University football fans will gather en masse this weekend to celebrate the squad’s near-breathtaking national championship victory last month in Atlanta.

The NCCU Eagles won their fourth HBCU championship on December 17, when they defeated Jackson State University Tigers, 41-34, in the Cricket Celebration Bowl in overtime at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The university previously won national titles in 1954, 2005, and 2006.

NCCU’s championship victory last month was a nail-biter, and may have been the most exciting quarterback duels of the year between Eagles quarterback Davius Richard and the Tigers’ Shedeur Sanders. 

It’s difficult to not acknowledge the near-outsized presence and influence of Jackson State’s coach, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, Shedeur Sanders’s father. Coach Sanders’s magnificent athletic skills resulted in his playing in two Super Bowls and a major league baseball World Series.

During his heyday as an athlete, the charismatic, flamboyant superstar was dubbed “Prime Time”or “Neon Deion” and lauded as a game changer. He became known as “Coach Prime” when he was named the JSU coach in 2020, and led the Tigers to an HBCU championship in 2021. 

His presence at Jackson State garnered national attention and generated unprecedented revenues for HBCU football. The Celebration Bowl took on heightened interest with Jackson State boasting an undefeated record, and especially after Sanders in early December announced that he was going to become head football coach at Colorado State University, where he signed a reportedly $5 million contract.

Reaction was mixed. Some observers pointed to Sanders’s interview with 60 Minutes last year, when he declared “God had called” him to lead Jackson State. He later added that he wanted to  “change lives” after the police murder of George Floyd in June 2020, three months before he became Jackson State’s coach.

Still, after NCCU tarnished Jackson State’s bid for a perfect 13-0 season, among the memes that appeared on social media was a spoof from the comedy Next Friday, where the faces of characters Uncle Elroy and Craig were replaced by oversize photos of Sanders as Uncle Elroy and Shedeur as Craig.

“I know I said I wasn’t the kind of [person] who would make a little money and run to the suburbs,” the oversized photo of Sanders explains. “Yeah, you right. That’s what I said. But as soon as I got my check, I was GONE!”

But others note that Sanders was paid $500,000 a year at Jackson State, a fraction of what head coaches earn at elite college programs. 

Darrell Barr, an NCCU grad who earned a business degree in 1983, says Sanders should not be derided for agreeing to a multi-million contract that will allow him to take better care of his family. He points to past HBCU coaches who stayed at their respective universities for decades. They become “legends,” he says, but are underpaid coaching at football programs that are vastly under-resourced.

“I don’t like that business model,” Barr told the INDY this week.

​The celebration for NCCU’s HBCU championship is set to take place Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m. on NCCU’s campus, according to a school news release.

Festivities include a parade that will start at Cecil Street, travel to Fayetteville Street, and end at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on Lawson Street. 

After the parade, a pep rally is set to take place at the stadium, followed by a recognition ceremony for the team and coaching staff by Durham mayor Elaine O’Neal, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the school, and its chancellor, Johnson O. Akinleye. 

Other participants for the campus party include the football team’s players and its head football coach Trei Oliver. The school band—the Sound Machine—will also be on hand to make a joyful noise, along with the NCCU cheerleaders and Eddie the Eagle mascot.

NCCU officials say celebration attendees “will also have an opportunity to meet and receive signed posters from team members. Folks can view and take photos with the trophies awarded to the football program after winning the Cricket Celebration Bowl and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships.  

Parking is available in Latham Parking Deck (705 E. Lawson Street), which can be accessed from Dupree and Lincoln streets, according to the release. 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.