Aggie pride built N.C. A&T into a championship football program
University’s foundation in civil rights movement and engineering helped elevate its game
Football life is grand these days at North Carolina A&T State University.
The Aggies could take a deep breath, having won three of the last four black college national championships, awarded to the winner of December’s Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
One of the university’s more recent successes, electric Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, helps generate weekly buzz for the Aggies on a national level.
Another recent star, Oakland Raiders starting offensive tackle Brandon Parker, also embodies one of the university’s marketing catchphrases: Aggies Do!
And the university recently secured a corporate sponsorship that transformed the former Aggies Stadium into pristine BB&T Stadium, which on football Saturdays is ringed with exotic tailgating aromas that would make folks blush an hour away at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The successes and exposure have helped bolster enrollment on the nation’s largest campus among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to more than 12,500. And the school is getting record applications, with nearly 25,000 in the last year, including double-digit percentage increases in both in-state and out-of-state applications.
The university’s latest showpiece is a new student center that features game rooms, a half-dozen eateries and ample lounge, study and meeting spaces.
Even without football, the $90 million, 150,000-square-foot modern architectural structure alone is enough to make students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff blush with Aggie Pride.
N.C. A&T is the nation’s top producer of undergraduate African American engineering and agriculture graduates and the top producer of math/statistics graduates at the master’s degree level.
The university played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement when four students — Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond — led sit-ins at a local Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in 1960, which helped spark similar nonviolent student protests throughout the South.
But with football hugely successful and bringing unprecedented national exposure, the school is receiving a record number of applications for enrollment.
And the school’s self-anointed Greatest Homecoming on Earth — GHOE — continues to thrive, bringing about 50,000 visitors and alumni to campus annually and having an estimated $12 million economic impact on the region.
Architect of success
Retired head coach Rod Broadway, architect of the school’s latest football renaissance, noted the rise in the school’s applications.
“I’d like to think our success had a little bit to do that,” he said.
Broadway led the school to two black college national championships by winning the Celebration Bowl in 2015 and 2017 and retired after going unbeaten at 12-0 in 2017. One of his strengths has been an eye for undeveloped talent.
His latest teams featured Cohen, a 5-foot-6 speedster who finished his career as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s (MEAC) all-time leading rusher; quarterback Lamar Raynard, who set multiple passing records; Buffalo Bills rookie defensive lineman Darryl Johnson Jr., a former MEAC Defensive Player of the Year; and Parker, who transformed a tall, lanky high school frame into the 6-foot-7, 305-pound block of granite who was drafted in the third round by the Raiders in 2018.
“Here’s another guy that nobody wanted,” Broadway said of Parker. “And that might be one of the ways we’ve been able to win. We’ve been able to recruit guys that nobody in the world wanted but us, and we developed those guys into really good players.
“One of my favorite sayings is ‘Hope is not a plan.’ So winning starts with a plan, and then you have to find the right people for the plan.”
Broadway said his proudest moments at N.C. A&T include “watching all our kids graduate” and “winning some championships there … especially after the drought they had gone through.”
“I used to tell people that when we first got there that it was so far down, you had to look up to see your feet,” Broadway said. “I used to joke, too, that you could ride down the streets of Greensboro and throw scholarships out and no one would pick them up because nobody wanted to come.”
Coincidentally, Cohen (90 minutes), Raynard (20 minutes) and Parker (70 minutes) all attended high school within driving distance of the N.C. A&T campus.
When Broadway stepped down, he left the head job in the hands of his longtime associate head coach and defensive coordinator Sam Washington. All Washington did in his first season in the lead role was guide the Aggies to another MEAC championship and the school’s third Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl title.
Earl Hilton, who took over as athletic director in February 2011 after serving as interim athletic director for three months, said the keys to the Aggies’ success have been “outstanding student-athletes and fantastic coaching.”
“We certainly are blessed in terms of who we have in terms of the students and the coaches,” Hilton said. “We certainly are fortunate: Coach Broadway and now Coach Washington are great coaches who have built great staffs.”
The team’s Celebration Bowl appearances, and a reported $1 million to each participating school, have helped the Aggies continue to upgrade their facilities.
The football weight room is currently under renovation, and the Aggie Dome (which served as a temporary Student Center eatery) is being transformed into an indoor practice facility for golf, baseball, softball and cheerleading.
Meanwhile, the school has excelled in graduation rates, with current starting quarterback Kylil Carter and defensive lineman Justin Cates already holding their bachelor’s degrees and enrolled in graduate school.
Things were much different when Broadway took over the program in 2011, limited to around 29 scholarships because of the school’s poor showing on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate report. But after going 5-6 in that first season, the team went 7-4 in 2012, including pulling off a major road upset at three-time FCS champion Appalachian State.
“The App State victory was really big,” Broadway said. “We were still in the early stages, and we went down and beat them. And they were in the process of moving up to Division I at the time.”
Spencer Gwynn, a former Aggies player who had been the team’s radio voice for 50 years before retiring in 2014, said: “When A&T beat Appalachian State, that was probably the most exciting and fulfilling game I have ever broadcast.
“That helped Broadway recruit and build the program,” Gwynn added. “And we have continued to build on that.”
Broadway’s teams also picked up signature wins over league stalwarts South Carolina State and Florida A&M before the Aggies were able to establish MEAC supremacy. Other key wins came at Kent State and at UNC Charlotte.
Then last season, Washington’s Aggies won a guaranteed-money road game at East Carolina, prompting the viral video “Tell them to bring me my money!”
Broadway — a native of Oakboro, near Charlotte, and a former standout defensive lineman at UNC Chapel Hill — came to N.C. A&T having already won black college national championships at N.C. Central and Grambling State. He said his success in Greensboro is particularly satisfying because of the instant love from Aggies fans.
“When I was at N.C. Central, we had some pushback because I didn’t attend an HBCU,” Broadway said. “And when I went to Grambling, there was a little pushback because I wasn’t a Gramblingite [alum].
“But when I got to A&T, I was received with open arms. … That’s why it’s so special to me.”
N.C. A&T’s football history is punctuated by a succession of remarkable pioneers, coaches and mentors who, even when lean in the win column and short of NFL talent, were molding future leaders of business and industry.
“Historically, A&T has never been a football factory,” noted Carl “Lut” Williams, editor and publisher of the Greensboro-based Black College Sports Page. “It had always been a program that would balance athletics with academics.”
Meanwhile, on the field, the team “has been up and down,” Williams said.
“They’ve been very high, up, and they’ve been very low, down,” he added. “They went through a period of three years where they won one ballgame and they couldn’t beat anyone.
“They went through another down period before they hired Rod Broadway, who brought them to where they are right now.”
In an email to The Undefeated, N.C. A&T chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. said:
“The story of football at A&T is much like the story of our university overall — always looking to compete against the best and pushing ourselves to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.
“That’s been especially evident these past few years, as we’ve won three HBCU national championships in four years while charting unprecedented success in academic progress rates and sending multiple players to the NFL. At the same time, we have emerged as the No. 1 public HBCU in America and the largest HBCU overall, with record numbers of applications over the past three years.
“It is deeply gratifying to see our student-athletes, students, faculty, staff and alumni all so committed to the growing success of A&T.”
N.C. A&T, founded in 1891 as the Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race, played its first football game in 1901, losing to Livingstone College, but the program didn’t field a team again until 1906.
Teams were fielded sporadically during the first 20 years of the 20th century, but regular play resumed in 1923 when the Aggies played neighboring Bennett College. That same year, the team hired its first coach, L.P. Byarm, and a year later the program joined the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
In 1927, Byarm led the Aggies to their first undefeated season (8-0) and their first football conference championship. In 1943, Charles DeBerry led the Aggies to their second undefeated season and to their first bowl game, a 14-12 victory over Southern in the Flower Bowl.
William ‘Bill’ Bell, the Taskmaster
In 1946, William “Bill” Bell, the first African American football player at Ohio State, arrived from Florida A&M to coach the Aggies, and a former Bell assistant eventually took the helm of the Rattlers: Alonzo “Jake” Gaither built the Rattlers into a black college national power, winning 204 games from 1945 to 1969, including eight black college national championships.
In 1950, Bell led the Aggies to their second CIAA championship.
Bell eventually became athletic director at N.C. A&T, and in 1957 one of his coaching assistants, Bert Cody Piggott, became the Aggies’ new head coach.
Gwynn, the former Aggies radio voice, was a fullback, linebacker and punter for Bell’s teams.
“Bill Bell was a taskmaster,” Gwynn said. “He was old school and no-nonsense. It was his way or no way, and he controlled every key decision on game day.”
Gwynn said Bell’s ties to Florida A&M University helped deepen the Aggies-Rattlers rivalry: The schools have met 63 times since 1939.
Bell eventually earned a doctorate in health and physical education from Ohio State, according to a 1991 obituary in The Fayetteville Observer. Bell also coached at Howard and Claflin, and he was a longtime athletic director at Fayetteville State University.
Gwynn, now 88, holds social studies and history degrees from N.C. A&T and an educational specialist degree in administration from UNC Greensboro. He worked as a teacher, assistant principal and principal before retiring from public education in 1995. He has also worked in the Visiting International Faculty program, where he recruited teachers from around the world.
The Bert Piggott era
Featuring a passing attack led by Paul Swann, Piggott led the Aggies to back-to-back CIAA titles in 1958 and 1959.
In 1964, Piggott’s Aggies won the school’s fifth CIAA crown with a team featuring defensive lineman Elvin Bethea. In 2003, Bethea, a Trenton, New Jersey, native who played his entire professional career with the Houston Oilers, became the first N.C. A&T player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Piggott (56-39-4), who had an unprecedented eight consecutive winning seasons, was a contrast to the strict and stern Bell, according to Gwynn, for whom Piggott had served as punting coach. Piggott was known as a tough but fair mentor who never uttered profanities.
“Piggott had an even personality,” Gwynn said. “They were opposites, he and Bell; that might be why they got along. Piggott was more concerned with the player than the outcome.”
The Piggott era, which included a stint as athletic director and head of the health and physical education department, made a major impact on the total N.C. A&T community in another way.
Piggott’s wife, Lucille, served as the university’s dean of women and dean of organizations and was a national officer in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Her tenure at the university led to many educational reforms.
Their son, Bert Piggott Jr., now a nationally renowned saxophonist known as “the musician physician,” remembers a pivotal moment that his mother played on the N.C. A&T campus. A female student on campus had become pregnant and was threatened with suspension or expulsion, Piggott Jr. recalled.
“Mom said, ‘Oh, hell no. If you suspend her, you have to suspend the boy too. He’s as much to blame as she is,’ ” he said. The young woman was able to stay in school, and Piggott Jr. remembers her thanking his mom years later at homecoming.
Piggott Jr. also remembers that his dad was a father figure to many of the athletes, particularly those who grew up without a father at home. He also remembers the day his dad sat him down and told him that their playing time around the house and in the yard would be cut back because Piggott Sr. would be working on an education doctorate, which the elder Piggott earned at UNC Greensboro.
Piggott Jr. could sense some of the sacrifices that his father made as coach, finding out years later why his mother cooked large batches of fried chicken when his dad went on recruiting trips or when the family went on vacation — which also sometimes doubled as recruiting trips.
It was because black people could not eat in whites-only restaurants during segregation.
Growing up, Piggott Jr. heard stories about his father playing in the 1947 Rose Bowl for Illinois and being friends and teammates with the legendary Claude “Buddy” Young. The Illini upset the unbeaten UCLA Bruins in the “Granddaddy” of all bowl games, and Young was MVP. (Young became a College Football Hall of Famer and an assistant commissioner of the NFL.)
“I still have an old 9-inch black-and-white TV at my mom’s house,” Piggott Jr. said, “because Buddy Young gave it to us.” Lucille Piggott, 94, still lives in Greensboro.
As close as Piggott Jr., was to his dad — they both pledged the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity — he did not know one great desire of his father until a few months before Piggott Sr. died in 1999 after suffering from pancreatic cancer.
An Illinois state champion boxer at Hinsdale High, Piggott Sr. said during his high school Hall of Fame induction ceremony that he had always wanted to be a medical doctor but had been pushed to learn a trade, as many black people were during the 1940s and ’50s.
“But I have my doctor now,” Piggott Jr. heard his father say, looking toward his son.
Piggott Jr. said he could not control the tears running down his face. He said neither of his parents had pushed him to become a doctor and that he never knew his father had wanted to be a medical doctor. Piggott Jr. said his interest in medicine stemmed from grading the health and physical education papers of his father’s college students while he was in grade school.
Piggott Jr. also remembers stories about his father working things out with one of his football players, who wanted to divide time between football and social activism during the height of the civil rights movement. That player was Jesse Louis Jackson, who transferred during the second semester of his freshman year from Piggott Sr.’s alma mater, Illinois, where Jackson claimed he could not play quarterback because he was black.
Jackson joined the Aggies in 1960 and played quarterback, was elected student body president and was active in desegregating libraries, theaters and restaurants. He graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Jackson, in a tribute read at Piggott Sr.’s funeral, wrote this of his former coach and mentor:
“He encouraged us to be responsible men. He taught us manners. He had high expectations of us.
“He told us that dignity was nonnegotiable. Our football team members helped to lead the drive to desegregate Greensboro. To create bridges between black and white. He encouraged us. We never lost any points for demonstrating or going to jail for dignity.”
Hornsby Howell and a national first
Hornsby Howell, the first coach after Piggott became athletic director in 1968, guided the team to its first black college national championship. Howell coached the team for nine years and guided its transition from the CIAA to the MEAC in 1970.
Other charter members of the MEAC were Delaware State, Howard, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Morgan State, N.C. Central and S.C. State.
Howell’s Aggies, led by quarterback Ellsworth Turner, won the school’s first MEAC football championship in 1975. Howell compiled a record of 55-34-4.
‘mo’ forte, the offensive genius
The Aggies did not win another MEAC championship until 1982, a year after moving from War Memorial Stadium to Aggie Stadium, with Maurice “Mo” Forte at the helm.
Four years later, Forte’s quarterback-receiver duo of Alan Hooker and Herbert Harbison won another MEAC championship. Some of that duo’s records were only recently eclipsed by Raynard and current receiver Elijah Bell.
Hooker is No. 7 in career passing yardage in the MEAC, with 7,994 yards, followed by Raynard, No. 8, at 6,975 yards, according to the recently released MEAC Football Records Book. The Aggies’ Maceo Bolin is No. 10 with 6,607 yards.
Despite being known as “Tailback U of the HBCU,” N.C. A&T is the only school with three players among the MEAC’s career passing yardage leaders.
Forte won 26 games and lost 38 with one tie at N.C. A&T, but Hooker remembers his former coach as “probably an offensive genius.”
“Mo recruited the student first and the athlete second because his offense was so sophisticated,” Hooker said. “He could have recruited better football players, but he had to have guys who could learn his system.”
Hooker remembers that Forte numbered his offensive plays from one through nine, starting with the tight end. When Hooker was at the Dallas Cowboys training camp later, he realized that’s how numbering was done in the NFL. Most college teams number their plays based on even numbers going to the right and odd numbers going left.
“So we were audible without the defense being able to pick it up,” Hooker said.
“Also, we knew linebackers would defend 8 to 10 yards deep,” he added. “So we would run our curl routes 12 yards out and throw behind the linebackers.
“I didn’t have the strongest arm,” Hooker said, “but I was smart, and I knew where to place the ball.”
Hooker recalled that Forte, who played college ball at Minnesota, was the quarterbacks coach for Tony Dungy, the broadcaster and Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach who helmed the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy became the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl when the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in February 2007.
In college, Dungy played quarterback for the Golden Gophers. Following an Aggies coaches’ tradition (also a Dungy trademark), Forte didn’t just help build his players athletically, he worked to develop their minds. Hooker also remembered that Forte would give his quarterbacks a word to use throughout the day with their teammates. Forte would judge the quarterback’s leadership skills by how many players subsequently used the word.
“He was more proud of his graduation rate than his won-lost record,” Hooker said. “He said, ‘My record will get me fired, but my graduation ratio will make people lifelong friends.’ ”
Hooker said many of his teammates were science and math majors who picked up degrees in engineering, computer science and accounting. Hooker reeled off a list of former teammates and their occupations and achievements.
Among them is Akinyele “Dr. Doom” Igunmuyiwa, a three-time All-American nose guard known as Ernest Riddick in his playing days. According to his N.C. A&T Hall of Fame bio, Igunmuyiwa was a lab tech in the psychology department from 1988-93 on a research grant and has a publication on the Effects of Restraint by Tether Jackets on Behavior in Spontaneously Hypersensitive Rats.
Igunmuyiwa started WesCare Professional Services in 2000 along with his business partner and fellow Aggie Eric Page. The company hires Aggie alumni and former players and has assisted single women in starting their own businesses, purchasing cars and homes, and finishing college.
Another former Hooker teammate, Dr. Ed Arrington, is a renowned veterinarian, and engineering major Geoff Foster is the CEO/Owner Core Technologies.
Hooker, director of benefits for Guilford County Schools, owns a professional training company that develops leaders.
Bill Hayes: ‘I need me some football players’
Hooker, who was a radio analyst for Aggies football games off and on for 10 years, said when successful coach William “Bill” Hayes took over the Aggies football program in 1988, he was surprised by the number of science and math majors on the team.
Hayes, as an assistant at Wake Forest beginning in 1973, was the first African American coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is based in Greensboro. He is also one of the few who coached the Aggies to multiple league titles (three).
Hooker, who had graduated before the arrival of Hayes, said friends would mock the new coach as having said, “ ‘Man, I don’t understand all these engineering and science majors; I need me some football players.’ ”
Hayes remembers other constraints besides the “40 engineering majors out of 105 kids.” He remembers having only 35 lockers for more than 100 players, having to dress out and coach pregame and halftime in a tent, and having no practice field and a football field with no drainage system.
In terms of facilities, Hayes said A&T was “way behind most of the CIAA schools and most of the MEAC schools in a lot of different areas.”
So what did it take for Hayes (106-64) to become the winningest coach in Aggies football history and send dozens of players to the NFL?
“Just pure, unadulterated effort” to build up the program, Hayes said. He said the total community effort included outreaches to the corporate community, alumni and friends. “It was just a lot of hard work.”
His Aggies NFL alumni include offensive lineman Jamain Stephens, Junius Coston and Qasim Mitchell, defensive back Curtis Deloatch and running backs Maurice Hicks and Michael Basnight.
Hayes makes no apologies about his graduation rate, which he said was “above average,” and he does remember relaxing a midnight curfew so engineering majors such as Darryl Klugh could study with friends “who got off work at midnight and studied until 3 in the morning.”
Hayes built the Aggies into a bona fide football power that won a black college national championship in 1990. And in 1991 and 1992, Hayes’ teams won back-to-back MEAC titles featuring a defensive line known as the “Blue Death.” But Hayes’ best team was the 1999 squad that went unbeaten in the MEAC and beat Tennessee State for the school’s first Division I-AA playoff victory. That team was also crowned black college national champion and featured, among others, Klugh, a Division I-AA All-American who was the Black College Defensive Back of the Year.
Klugh didn’t realize his dream of being drafted in the NFL, but he picked up multiple engineering degrees. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2000 and a master’s degree in 2003 and went on to work for Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C. Klugh eventually started Axis of Engineering, which advises the government on different engineering designs, according to Klugh’s N.C. A&T Hall of Fame biography.
Hayes’ era saw end zone bleachers added to Aggie Stadium and other reforms, but in 2002 when the team’s record dropped to 4-8, Hayes was let go.
“I guess if you get a new fieldhouse, you have to get a new coach,” Hayes said with a bit of a chuckle.
“So when I go to see Aggie football today, I am so proud that my dream came true.”
The year after Hayes’ departure, George Small coached the team to its sixth MEAC championship in 2003. Then the Aggies endured their worst years of football famine, including going 1-10 in 2010, the year before the arrival of Broadway.
One of the bright spots during the lean years was a 44-12 home victory over Johnson C. Smith to end the Aggies’ 27-game losing streak. But Aggies teams had a reputation for playing hard, and to many fans, they were lovable losers.
“The fans have always stuck with the Aggies,” Gwynn said. “Even through the losing streak, there were some loyal fans.
“I remember sometimes I was hard on the team on the radio, and the fans would remind me that the team was still theirs and the team wasn’t as bad as I was making it sound.”
And many times, even in those early days, Aggies fans traveled well and often had more fans than the home team, especially in cities such as Norfolk and Hampton, Virginia, which have large numbers of Aggie alums, particularly those working in technology.
The Aggies faithful hope the losing is in the past.
Finally, consistent winners
MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas credits chancellor Martin and athletic director Hilton with being committed to providing “an atmosphere for student-athletes to be successful on and off the field.”
“The latest success started with Coach Broadway. … Obviously, they hired him,” Thomas said, “and then they begin to put the bricks in place for the foundation.”
Thomas said the Celebration Bowl victories have special significance to him because he originally pitched the idea of “a postseason bowl game” in 2004 in a meeting that included then-Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner Robert Vowels and an ESPN representative. They were there to discuss a kickoff classic, but Thomas thought a postseason bowl game could pay bigger dividends.
Although Thomas said ESPN put the Celebration Bowl proposal on the table in 2006, it took him 10 years to persuade enough MEAC schools to give up their automatic qualifying spot for the FCS playoffs. Non-Celebration Bowl MEAC teams still can be selected through an FCS at-large playoff bid.
Financially, the Celebration Bowl’s $1 million payout is a much better deal than hosting an FCS playoff game — for which a university could lose money. Plus, Thomas said, an independent analysis shows the Celebration Bowl brings N.C. A&T “more than $15 million” in exposure.
It is up to Washington and his staff to carry on the Aggies’ winning tradition, which he sees as a full-time job for his players, coaches and support staff.
“Paying attention to detail, that’s the bottom line,” Washington said. “And being a champion on and off the field.
“You cannot be a part-time champion. You cannot not go to class and be a champion. You have to do the little things right. It’s a will.”
Washington, who spent four seasons in the NFL, preaches the type of discipline he witnessed, and helped nurture, with a young Mississippi Valley State teammate, Jerry Rice, with whom he battled daily in practice. Rice, known as a prolific workout warrior, went on to become the NFL’s greatest wide receiver.
Washington said a key to discipline is to “hold each other accountable.”
Meanwhile, Broadway, now retired to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and spending his time golfing and fishing and eating great seafood, believes the program is in great hands with Washington.
“I think he’ll do a a great job for them,” Broadway said. “I think they are safe with him.
“I would have never left if I didn’t think he’d do a great job, and I would have never left if he wasn’t going to get the job.”