NC Central, A&T renew rivalry as nonconference foes

(NC A&T athletics photo)

A rivalry is still a rivalry no matter when the game is played.

So even though the showdown between NC A&T and NC Central has been moved from its traditional spot at the end of the college football regular season to this Saturday, a switch precipitated by a change in conference affiliation, it still feels like the Aggie-Eagle Classic to those involved.

“It doesn’t matter if you play in November, December, January or February,” Central coach Trei Oliver said. “We could play this game after a basketball game, it doesn’t matter. People are going to show up and both teams are going to come to play.”

Saturday’s game in Greensboro will be the 92nd meeting between the historically black universities dating back to a 13-13 tie in 1924.

It will be the first since 2010, however, in which the teams aren’t members of the same conference.

A&T left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league it helped start a half-century ago, to become a member of the Big South this fall. But because of their shared history and the popularity of their annual matchup among fans on both sides, the schools have agreed to extend the series for at least 10 more years.

Next year’s meeting will be played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

According to the coaches of both teams, the pageantry and intensity of the Aggie-Eagle will remain strong even without the added bonus of a potential league championship being on the line.

“We haven’t played a Big South opponent as of yet, so that has absolutely no bearing,” said A&T coach Sam Washington, whose team makes its new conference debut next week against Robert Morris.

“I haven’t even given it any thought that they’re not in our conference anymore,” Central’s Oliver added. “When we go down there, we’re going to try and beat the brakes off A&T and they’re going to try to do the same to us. It’s a true rivalry. Neither school really cares for each other.”

Despite those feelings of contempt among the players, bands, alumni and most others affiliated with the Aggies and Eagles, the two coaching staffs have a healthy respect for one another.

That’s because of the relationship that exists between the leaders of the two programs.

Washington served as Central’s defensive coordinator when Oliver was a defensive back and punter for the Eagles from 1994-97. After his playing career was over, Oliver later rejoined Washington, this time at A&T, as assistants under then-coach Rod Broadway.

Oliver refers to Washington as his mentor. But that only intensifies his motivation to win now that they’ve become rivals.

“I’ve had some success in my career and learned so much from him,” Oliver said of Washington. “It would mean the world to beat your mentor. I’ve got a great relationship with those other guys on the staff over there. Those are all my guys, at least until about 6 o’clock Saturday.”

Oliver’s Eagles (2-1) are off to a promising start as they look to post their first winning season since 2017.

They opened the season with an impressive nationally televised upset of Alcorn State in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta before losing on the road at Marshall and eking out a 20-17 win against Division II Winston-Salem State last week.

While A&T has lost both of its first two games, the Aggies showed how good they can be by leading Duke for most of the first half in their most recent outing on Sept. 10 before running out of gas over the final 30 minutes in a 45-17 setback.

They had an open date last week to get a head start on preparations for Central.

“I thought intensity played a part in the Duke game,” Washington said. “We came out highly intense, but then it fell off. This week I’m looking at the intensity remaining throughout the entire ballgame. We’re going to start high and finish high.”

A&T has done just that in each of the past three meetings — winning them by a combined 123-10 margin. That includes 45-0 and 54-0 shutouts in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Last year’s game was canceled after both teams opted out of their seasons in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ll let other people talk about what the score was this year, that year or whatever the case may be,” Oliver said. “This is a different football team.”

It’s a change that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Washington and the Aggies.

“They’re a physical football team. They don’t mind mixing it up,” he said of the new-look Eagles. “I think their running game is really solid. They have four capable running backs and do a very good job up front. We have to be at our very best to be effective.”