The Fall and Emergence of a FCS Power

By: Amir Frazier

GREENSBORO – The month of December in 2019 has come to a familiar close for the Aggie football team of North Carolina A&T; another Celebration Bowl victory. The team made their way to take on the Alcorn State Braves of Lorman, M.S to cap off their fourth trip to the annual “Black College National Championship” game and third time facing off against the Braves. On a cold and wet Saturday afternoon of December 21, 2019, the Aggies punished the Braves to a tune of 64-44 behind the school record-breaking production of Senior QB Kylil Carter (460 all-purpose yards and six throwing touchdowns). 

In looking over the course of A&T’s success throughout the 2010’s in the HBCU football landscape and the FCS in general, the resurgence to the days of winning seems extremely abrupt. After all, this is the same program that ended the 2000’s with a 27-game losing streak only broken with a win over Division-II Johnson C. Smith.  The program was in disarray, transitioning from four different head coaches from 2006-2011.

The team kicked off the decade with a 1-10 season, their only victory coming in a 20-pt win over Howard University. At the end of the season, head coach Alonzo Lee was relieved of his duties and the school shopped around for a new leader at the helm before settling on a man with a storied football background in the state of North Carolina and the Southeast, Rod Broadway. 

A Change in Culture

Head Coach Rod Broadway

Broadway entered the program as the school’s 18th Head Coach on February 3, 2011. The Oakboro, NC native arrived on East Market St. with a resume of three Black College National Championships, 2 CIAA championships with A&T’s arch rival North Carolina Central University (NCCU), and a SWAC championship with Grambling State. His coaching experience had taken him throughout the ACC and SEC as well, working as a defensive lineman coach at Florida, Duke, and his alma mater UNC. Coming into a situation at A&T that was clearly in dire need of his assistance, Broadway proved to be more than capable as he lead the team to a 5-6 record (4 more wins than the previous year) and big wins on Homecoming and at the Aggie-Eagle classic.

Clearly beginning to earn his favor in East Greensboro, he improved to two more wins in 2012 for a record of 7-4, finishing third in the MEAC and second in the Southern Division (and a 28 pt victory over a Howard team that finished second the same season). 

Broadway began to lay the tracks for a new culture in Greensboro for HBCU football, and the SWAC & MEAC were definitely on alert for the 2013 season. This season would bring the recruitment of a young man that changed the landscape of black school football as a whole in the 2010s: 5’6″ running back Tarik Cohen. Cohen was a virtually unknown prospect out of Bunn, N.C, seemingly a sure practice squad dweller in most Division-I programs across the nation (A&T was Cohen’s only D-1 offer). But Broadway took him in, as well as a lanky wide receiver out of Kinston, N.C. named Denzel Keyes and burly offensive lineman Brandon Parker from Kannapolis, N.C.

Running Back Tarik Cohen

The 2013 class would bring with it true dominance in BB&T Stadium (formerly Aggie Stadium) for years to come, although almost no one outside of that locker room could envision it. The 2013 season ended with the same record as the year previous, but the Aggies knew they had the young star power to wreak havoc for years to come. 

The season began with a huge upset of Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. (24-21), a game that featured future NFL cornerback Tony McRae. On October 12, 2013, the Aggies were down in a matchup versus Hampton on the road. RB Dominique Drake went down with a concussion, leaving Tarik Cohen to take over the carries. The true freshman finished the night with 180 rushing yards and 199 receiving with two touchdowns in a 31-26 loss. Cohen ended the season with the MEAC Rookie of the Year award as he lead the conference in rushing with 1,148 net yards. The “Blue Death” defense starred as well this season, ending with the number one run defense in the league. 

A turn for Success

The Spring of 2014 brought with it the recruitment of two more key future pieces to the puzzle: the QB/RB tandem out of Andrews High School (High Point, NC) of Lamar Raynard and Marquell Cartwright. 2014 opened on a successful 47-13 rout of Alabama A&M in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge held in Orlando, and a win over CAA opponent Elon on the road. The Aggies finished #1 in the MEAC for the first time in over a decade and the following 2015 season sealed the first back-to-back winning year for the team since 2001. The Aggies rolled through the MEAC despite a slip-up at NCCU, and finished the 2015 season as conference champs for a second year in a row. 

Coin toss of Inaugural Celebration Bowl, 2015

The year prior the Aggies fought to earn a bid to the FCS playoffs in which they were denied, but this season they were eyeing a December showcase between the MEAC & SWAC champion in the Georgia Dome coined “The Celebration Bowl”. The 22nd-ranked Aggies (and more specifically Cohen) starred in front of 35k in the Dome to bring home a victory over the Braves, giving Coach Broadway his 4th national championship. This year raised eyebrows across the entire landscape of college football, as this mid-major program led by a highlight reel running back was slowly beginning to dominate HBCU football as if to make up for those years of struggle in the early 2000s.

Making History

The 2016 season would establish whether the success of previous years was a fluke or meant to be something more sustainable for the team’s future, as starting QB Kwashaun Quick, star DB/Returner McRae and LB Denzel Jones left the team upon graduating. Sophomore QB Raynard began to find his way in the offense as the team’s passing leader, and a great compliment to Cohen in his senior season. The Aggies came out hot, giving the program it’s first FBS win ever at Kent St. in quadruple overtime. The defense held it’s reign as the most dominant in the conference, and this was due to future NFL prospects such as DL Marquis Ragland and LB Jeremy Taylor (both 1st team all-conference). The team finished second in the MEAC behind rival NCCU, a team they eventually fell to in a decision that sent the Eagles to the Celebration Bowl and the Aggies to the playoffs against Richmond (both of which ended in losses). The Chicago Bears, a team known for drafting another HBCU RB legend out of Jackson State by the name of Walter Payton, selected Cohen in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

2017 brought a huge shift in the program in a number of ways. The team was obviously counted out by some after losing arguably the greatest player in the program’s history, but the doubters couldn’t have been more wrong.

Defensive Back “Mac” McCain III intercepts pass against Charlotte.

That season would become one of the most dominant seasons in black college football’s recent memory, beginning with yet another FBS win over nearby Charlotte University (C-USA) 35-21. The Aggies completely obliterated their schedule, winning by an average of 23 points per game, and finally defeated rival NCCU for the first time in three seasons to notch an undefeated regular season (third in school history), a top ten FCS national ranking, and a second trip to Atlanta for the annual Celebration Bowl.

The team had proven it could reach dominance not just among HBCU schools, but FCS football in general. After a 21-14 win over Grambling State in Atlanta to bring Broadway his second national championship with NC A&T, and fifth in his career, he decided to hang up his whistle and enter retirement after a legendary 38-year coaching career passing the duties of head coach down to longtime defensive coordinator Sam Washington.

Atlanta, GA – December 16, 2017 – Georgia Aquarium: The Grambling State University Tigers / North Carolina A&T University Aggies during the 2017 (Photo by Richard Ducree / ESPN Images)

Reloading

During the 2017-18 offseason, the Aggies had yet another player drafted by the NFL in the spring of 2018, OL Brandon Parker (3rd round – Oakland Raiders). After losing key linemen, NCAA record-breaking returner Khris Gardin, and a head coach that brought years of success, the Aggies were faced with yet another huge task of reloading after their greatest year ever. With a much heftier schedule that included an invitation to the 2018 FCS Kickoff in Alabama (first HBCU to participate) versus Jacksonville State, and nearby East Carolina (FBS), the Aggies would have a long road ahead to capture another championship in the MEAC. 

Aggies celebrate win over East Carolina

The blue and gold invaded the state of Alabama and left with a victory over 8th-ranked Jacksonville State, setting their sights on East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. the following week. The heavily anticipated matchup ended in victory again,28-23, sealing a 15-game win streak for the team and the third FBS win in as many consecutive seasons. Despite losses to Florida A&M (FAMU) and Morgan State, the year ended with the second straight outright conference championship of the decade and another Celebration Bowl berth, this year in the newly built Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to take on SWAC Champion Alcorn State for the second time in three years.

WR Elijah Bell scores in 2018 Celebration Bowl

In one of the most exciting games in recent HBCU football history, the Aggies came out on top with a two-point win and their third black college national title of the decade. The season ended with seven Aggies name first team All-MEAC members. Coach Washington received MEAC Coach of the Year, following Broadway who won the award just the year prior.

During the off season, the Aggies saw their third player drafted to the NFL  in consecutive season, with the Buffalo Bills drafting FCS All-American DL Darryl Johnson (Kingsland, G.A), as well as the CFL signing returner Malik Wilson (Burlington, N.C.), who had the most kickoff return touchdowns in the nation including a kickoff return in the 2018 Celebration Bowl that sealed the win for the Aggies in the 4th quarter.

Marquell Cartwright (L) and Lamar Raynard (R)

Departing seniors Cartwright and Raynard, along with Wilson, were part of the 2014 recruiting class that was recognized following the second consecutive Celebration Bowl and national championship as the most accomplished class in N.C. A&T history with 3 conference championship, 3 bowl victories and 3 national championships, and a 41-7 record over the past four years.

Cartwright, who followed Cohen, had consecutive 1,000+ yard rushing seasons (17- 1,190/14TDs; 18- 1,066/7TDs). Raynard had a career record of 35-2 as the starting QB, including a streak of 29 straight wins. He finished his career with 6,975 passing yards, only 20 yards shy of the school record. He is the Aggies all-time leader in touchdown passes (68), touchdowns responsible with 79 (68 passing, 11 rushing), completion percentage (.597) and quarterback rating (142.53). He also holds single-season records in passing yards (2,932) touchdown passes (27), touchdowns responsible for (29), completion percentage (64.6), total offense (3,117) and passing yards per game (244.3).

The Aggies name was beginning to gain major prominence in the FCS world again as it did in the 20th century, as they were accomplishing feats literally no other HBCU team in Division FCS/1-AA had this millennium. Following the success of 2018 and graduation of several key starters, A&T saw a number of FBS transfers coming to Greensboro along with reserves from previous seasons ready to keep the train of success rolling.

RB Jah-Maine Martin rushes for 299 yards against Charleston Southern (2019)

To open the 2019 season, the Aggies took down 21st-ranked Elon on a 52-yard field goal as time-expired to finish the two school’s 4-game series 4-0. Following a loss at Duke and win over Charleston Southern, RB Jah-Maine Martin began to make a nationwide name for himself, leading in all major rushing statistic categories by midseason. Martin proved to be ready to carry on a trend of Aggie RB success created by those before him such as Maurice Hicks, Mike Mayhew, Cohen and Cartwright.

QB Kylil Carter, Coach Sam Washington, LB Jacob Roberts (L to R)

The Aggies fell again to MEAC opponents FAMU and Morgan State, but with FAMU being ineligible for the conference championship, the Aggies finished as co-champions and were headed to the Celebration Bowl for the third year in a row to face a familiar opponent: Alcorn State.  A&T would win their third bowl victory in a row and a 4th Black College National Championship of the decade. The Aggies capped off the season with a fifth consecutive season ranked nationally at season’s end, the only HBCU in the decade to do so.

From the span of 2014 to 2019 alone A&T had members of the team in conversations for best in the entire FCS at their position (Cohen, Raynard, Elijah Bell, Gardin, Parker, Johnson), all on either the same team or consecutive years.

The off-season of 2020 in Greensboro looks to be fruitful, as the Aggies have already signed two three-star recruits and a former four-star transfer from Pitt (ACC). Current conversations have arisen among the college football community about the program actually moving up to the FBS (D1-A), a potential transition that could make the team the first HBCU to successfully do so.

The Decade By the Numbers

The 2010s began for the Aggies with a one-win season, and ended with five MEAC championships (two outright), four Celebration Bowl victories, four Black College National Championships, three FBS wins, an undefeated season, four active NFL players, three players drafted consecutively, ninety-five All-MEAC selections, five MEAC Offensive Players of the Year, one MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, five consecutive MEAC Offensive Linemen of the Year, two MEAC Rookies of the Year, and nine AP All-Americans.

North Carolina A&T football took one of the sharpest turns for the road to success ever seen in recent collegiate sports history, setting in stone a culture for HBCU sports that will be held for years to come. The success in BB&T Stadium has led to triumph far past the gridiron, as it has brought the school as a whole undeniable achievement (currently #1 public HBCU in America and the largest enrollment of any HBCU).

The blue and gold bulldogs of E. Market Street have done more than make their case for the Black College Football’s Team of the Decade. 

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North Carolina A&T State University Aggies
Record:  79-36 (.687)
Coaches:  Alonzo Lee (1-10), Rod Broadway (59-12), Sam Washington (19-5)
Accomplishments:  MEAC Champions (2019, 2018, 2017, 2015, 2014), Celebration Bowl Champions (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019), Black College National Champions (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019)

Amir Frazier is a mass media journalism student at North Carolina A&T State University graduating in 2021. A freelance writer and photographer. Amir is the creator of Aggie Football Central , which provides independent coverage of the North Carolina A&T Aggie football team via Instagram. It is not affiliated with the university.