In the closing seconds of regulation in the Celebration Bowl, Jackson State tied N.C. Central at 34-34, and Gov. Roy Cooper stormed away from his television as his home-state team had let a regulation victory slip away.
“Whatever happens, happens. I’ll learn about it the next day or an hour later or whatever,” Cooper said outside the Executive Mansion on Wednesday. But the governor eventually returned and watched as the Dec. 17 game went into overtime.
“Those guys had to deal with that disappointment of that last-second score too,” Cooper said. “Are they going to be able to recover from that and stop that momentum and get this thing done? So, I crept back in there and, boy, am I ever glad I did.”
Central scored in overtime and stopped Jackson State on their next possession, sealing the 41-34 victory and the program’s fourth HBCU national championship, its first since 2006.
Nearly two months later on Wednesday, Cooper hosted Central’s football team at the mansion to honor the team’s championship with a proclamation. Central’s championship came in the program’s 100th year of existence.
“They decide that on this big anniversary they’re going to come back with a national championship,” Cooper said.
And the win came against a previously undefeated Jackson State team coached by NFL hall-of-fame cornerback Deion Sanders, who goes by the moniker “Prime Time” or “Coach Prime.”
“Yeah, Jackson State had the superstar hall-of-fame coach. We know all about that,” Cooper said in reference to Sanders. “But it was this coach and this football team we’re the ones who showed up in prime time.”
NCCU honored by governor and on House floor
Central head coach Trei Oliver spoke after Cooper. The coach lauded not only the players’ performance on the field but in the classroom. He said 48 players had a GPA over 3.0 last semester.
“We had an outstanding group of young men,” Oliver said. “I can’t say it enough.”
NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye spoke at the mansion Wednesday, thanking the governor for his support of the university.
“They brought this recognition to North Carolina Central University, to the city of Durham, and most importantly to North Carolina state,” Akinleye said.
Earlier Wednesday, the N.C. House honored Central’s team on the chamber’s floor.
“Eagle Pride! Amplified!” House members cheered, the team’s slogan, as the players aligned on the House floor.
Rep. Zack Hawkins, a Durham Democrat and NCCU alum whose district contains the school’s campus, spoke on the floor congratulating the team.
“They are not just incredible athletes,” Hawkins said. “They are incredible representation of Eagle nation, North Carolina Central University, and all that we hold dear.”
Oliver spoke on the House floor, advocating for the team to get a new stadium.
“It’s the best time to go ahead and put a bug in the ear right now,” Oliver said.
HBCU Advocacy Day
Oliver wasn’t the only one advocating for more funding.
Earlier in the day, the HBCU Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that was formed last month, held a news conference at the Legislative Building in honor of an advocacy day sponsored by the caucus.
There, students from NCCU and other historically Black colleges and universities across the state, including Shaw University and Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, called on legislators to support HBCUs in North Carolina.
“Education is extremely important,” said Rheyann Kirby, a student at NCCU. “These schools were created specifically because Black people were not allowed to attend predominantly white institutions.”
Many HBCU students who spoke criticized House Bill 40, an anti-riot bill passed by the N.C. House last week, The N&O reported. The bill would create more severe punishments for rioting. Critics of the bill have argued that the bill is vague and could be used to violate free speech rights.
“House Bill 40 creates additional charges for North Carolinians speaking out against injustice. We know this bill targets people who look like me,” said David Wilson, a Black student at Winston-Salem State University. He said it is important to elect leaders “who make decisions for us.”
“We must be just as relentless with keeping our rights that some people are with taking them,” Wilson said.
Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat, spoke during the press conference and said she hopes to have bipartisan legislation this session that increases funding for HBCUs.
“It’s not a one-year thing or a two-year thing,” Robinson said. “We want to have this as a beginning.”
Robinson also said HBCU faculty wages need to increase.
“Our salaries of our faculty at most HBCUs are not on par with the other white public universities in this state,” Robinson said.
Cooper, in a briefing to the news meida after the event outside the mansion, said that school should be more affordable for HBCU students.
“Our HBCUs are remarkable at providing quality education for people. We need to invest more to make sure that they can get the kind of education that they need,” Cooper said. “The taxpayers get paid back at the end of the day because these are people who end up being successful and getting jobs and paying taxes.”
Hawkins, at the caucus’ press conference, said that HBCU students will continue to advocate for their schools going forward.
“Legislators, be on notice,” Hawkins said. “They will be back, but most importantly they have a crew of legislators that are here that will continue to fight.”
Ben Sessoms is a freelance reporter with N.C. Insider, The News & Observer’s state government news service.