History

Did WSSU’s failed DI attempt spark mass MEAC exodus?

Winston-Salem State’s short, turbulent Division I attempt may have been the start of the MEAC’s membership issues.

The MEAC, of course, would go on to add Savannah State and NCCU as full, football-playing members, stretching the conference’s football numbers to 11. It was as big as the league had ever been, but not quite big enough to split basketball and football into divisions.

Had WSSU stayed the course and become a full Division I member, the MEAC would have been able to split into two six-team divisions in football and seven in basketball. That would have cut down on travel significantly, and provided the opportunity for a championship game like the other three HBCU leagues.

But without divisional play, Bethune-Cookman kept going to Delaware State. Morgan State kept going to Tallahassee. Howard now had to hit Savannah, Georgia. And Hampton and Norfolk burned up I-95 and I-85 on both ends.

Eight years after WSSU announced its move, Hampton decided it was leaving the conference after 22 years for the Big South. A few months later, Savannah State announced it, too, was going back to Division II status and re-joining the SIAC.

North Carolina A&T, under the leadership of Harold L. Martin, announced in Feb. 2020 that it would be leaving the MEAC to join Hampton in The Big South. More than any of the other schools to defect, this loss stung because A&T is a founding member of the league, located in its geographical center, and its most successful program.

After being hit with the one-two punch of the loss of A&T and the COVID-19 pandemic, the MEAC is dealing with the loss of another of its premiere programs in Florida A&M. AD Kourtne Gosha hammered home the fact that travel in the MEAC was weighing FAMU down and that it would be better in the SWAC, where its money would go further, but its busses wouldn’t.

WSSU celebrates a win over FAMU in the 2007 Circle City Classic. (Garms photo)

A Hard Look In The Mirror

Looking back at WSSU’s ill-fated move, several factors made it impossible to overcome.

WSSU’s home football field, Bowman Gray Stadium, is owned by the City of Winston-Salem and rented out for games, limiting revenue. Its on-campus basketball facility, the C.E. Gaines Center, fits about 2,500 to 2,700 people — or a little over half of the student population — and they get in free thanks to student fees. The original plan was to get funding to expand the basketball facility, but during its MEAC days, WSSU played most of its conference games off-campus at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, or its annex facility. Both of which were also owned by the city at the time, costing WSSU money in hopes that it would make money in games against rivals like A&T and NCCU.

Add in the Great Recession that gripped the nation in 2008 and 2009, and its not hard to see why revenue was so hard to generate.

True homeport advantage was hard to come by for WSSU during its DI attempt. (Garrett Garms photo)

The move back to Division II has been an adventure with many highs and a few lows. It dominated CIAA football for much of the next decade with four championships, six division championships and four postseason appearances, including the 2012 run to the NCAA D2 national championship game. Both men’s basketball and volleyball have won multiple championships, as has softball.

There have been lows as well, most notably its decision in 2019 to drop a successful baseball program that won six of seven CIAA Championships before the conference removed it as a championship sport. The football program experienced its first losing season of the decade in 2019 after having the longest-running streak of winning seasons snapped.

Those struggles aside, WSSU’s decision to move back to Division II seems to have been the right one for a school big on pride, but short on big-money athletics boosters. Its move back was a bold, controversial step, but one that needed to be made. And it’s one that others, particularly in the MEAC, may have to face sooner or later. 

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Did WSSU’s failed DI attempt spark mass MEAC exodus?
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