(Stats Perform) – John T. Grant, executive director of the Celebration Bowl, marvels over the way North Carolina A&T has come to dominate the annual matchup between the MEAC and SWAC champions.
He credits athletic director Earl Hilton III, former coach Rod Broadway and the Aggies for sparking the momentum.
“It’s without question, the strategies they put in place, the focus on bringing in the right personnel, the emphasis the administration has placed on athletics,” Grant said, “has led to a very successful turnaround in their football program. We applaud them for their success and it became evident in the fact that they won four out of five Celebration Bowls.”
The biggest game for historically black colleges and universities – it’s served as a de facto national championship of black college football since beginning in 2015 – has taken a break this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next time the Celebration Bowl is held in December 2021, N.C. A&T will no longer be a MEAC member, as it’s set to leave for the Big South Conference next July 1. Two other successful MEAC programs, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, also will have left the MEAC to join the rival SWAC.
It means the SWAC will have 12 member schools and the MEAC just six football programs in the 2021 fall season, which is quite different from the first Celebration Bowl season, when the MEAC’s 11 teams were one more than the SWAC’s 10.
Fortunately for the Celebration Bowl, the SWAC remains interested in an extended affiliation with the bowl and matched against the MEAC. The game, which moved to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in 2017, has annually meant $1 million for each conference.
“We are 100 percent in and enthusiastic about the Celebration Bowl,” SWAC commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland said. “It still is the best of the SWAC versus the best of the MEAC, regardless of the number of schools.”
The canceling of the 2020 Celebration Bowl was untimely because the SWAC is celebrating its 100-year anniversary and the MEAC its 50-year anniversary. Both conferences have planned a spring season, but the Celebration Bowl is being skipped because it would fall outside the bowl season.
That the SWAC remains committed to the Celebration Bowl despite having twice as many football programs as the MEAC in 2021 is pivotal for an event that has been hugely successful. The MEAC, led by commissioner Dr. Dennis Thomas, is seeking to add future membership to close the gap.
The Celebration Bowl has traditionally been held on the first day of bowl season – the third Saturday in December – so the likely date in 2021 is Dec. 18. The original contract for the game ends this year and Grant said a new one is being negotiated.
“The bowl space as it stands today is relatively new for HBCUs,” he said. “Obviously, in the past you had the Heritage Bowl that preceded this one and many years ago the Pelican Bowl. What’s being put behind the Celebration Bowl and ESPN and the Walt Disney Company’s commitment to it gives us, we believe, a great opportunity to continue to build on a world-class event, and that’s our intent to do so.”
Preceding the Celebration Bowl, the two conferences have held a marquee opening to the season since 2005 with the MEAC-SWAC Challenge. This year’s anticipated matchup between South Carolina State and Grambling State was scrapped, but North Carolina Central and Alcorn State, which are two of only four programs that have advanced to the first five Celebration Bowls, are expected to meet next season on Sept. 5, 2021 at Georgia State Stadium.
Grant said the MEAC-SWAC Challenge and the Celebration Bowl, which are both organized by ESPN Events, are not contingent on each other.
“Our intent is to continue to build upon the value of both of those (games) with starting the season in Atlanta and ending the season in Atlanta. We’re looking forward to 2021,” Grant said.
“We know our fans are going to be excited about having, hopefully, a normal, if all things work out, 2021 season, and we’re excited to be able to deliver that for them.”