By Roscoe Nance
It's that time of year again, time for trips to the beach, cookouts, family reunions, vacations -- and the annual MEAC Football Media Day and Press Luncheon, which has become a much-anticipated event for coaches and fans alike to signal that a new football season is at hand.
The conference has undergone a makeover since last year's Media Day and Press Luncheon. Newcomers North Carolina Central and Savannah State will be eligible to compete for the conference championship and half of the 11 football-playing conference members have made coaching changes. The event has generated an unprecedented air of excitement in addition to creating a heightened sense of anticipation about the upcoming season.
"I always look forward to Media Day, but especially this year,'' says Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor, the dean of MEAC football coaches with 16 years in the conference. "There is so much newness. This has to be the biggest change that I can remember.''
Former Howard All-MEAC receiver Gary "Flea'' Harrell has taken the reins at his alma mater; Kermit Blount, who coached at Winston-Salem State for 16 years and was an assistant coach in the MEAC at Howard and South Carolina State, is now in charge at Delaware State; North Carolina Central hired Henry Frazier III, who transformed Prairie View A&M to Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champions in seven seasons with the Panthers; Rod Broadway has taken over at North Carolina A&T after four seasons at Grambling State where he won one SWAC championship, and Savannah State hired former Alabama-Birmingham assistant Steve Davenport to lead its program.
Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley says the influx of new coaches is reminiscent of the 2002 season when he, Buddy Pough (South Carolina State) and former Howard coach Rayford Petty came into the conference.
"We kind of changed the complexion of the conference,'' Hill says, adding that he expects a similar turn of events with this year's incoming coaches. "I'm sure there will be some new implementations of the way game is played with pace and everything.''
Taylor says the high number of coaching changes is causing him and his colleagues to approach the season with uncertainty because they are unfamiliar with the newcomers' coaching philosophies.
"You just don't know,'' Taylor says. "You can't look at last year's film and get an idea of what you're going to see.''
The incoming coaches aren't complete strangers to the holdover coaches, however. Many have crossed paths at conventions and clinics and in some instances have previously competed against their teams. However, the Media Day activities give the coaches an opportunity to become more familiar with each other in a social setting.
"It's a chance for everybody to meet up with other coaches and the game of football is not involved,'' Hill says. "During Media Day you get a chance to sit back and talk and not worry about the pressure of competing.''
The MEAC had one of its most competitive seasons ever last year with Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and South Carolina State sharing the championship title. The consensus among coaches is that this season will be equally as competitive because of the changes that have taken place. Hampton coach Donovan Rose views Media Day as the lull before the storm that is sure to come this fall with one final opportunity for relaxation before the action becomes hot and heavy.
"I'm looking forward to it,'' Rose says. "You get a chance to see coaches you've coached with and known through the years. It's good to get there and feel the excitement. It's our fraternity basically.''
The Press Luncheon has become the highlight of Media Day. That's when coaches give an overview of their teams and their expectations for the upcoming season. At times, it's difficult to determine if the speakers are football coaches or comedians, much to the audience's delight.
"The excitement of coaches talking about what they have and their teams, it's like boxers before a fight,'' Hill says. "It's all projection. It has evolved into something everyone enjoys.''
Frazier says he, like the other incoming coaches will be, at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to projecting what kind of team he will field because he hasn't had much time to become acquainted with his athletes.
"I'm still learning my players,'' he says. "We haven't played a game. I don't know how they will respond to my leadership. I won't know until maybe Week 5 if can talk about what I think.''
Taylor says the excitement that comes with the addition of North Carolina Central and Savannah State and the influx of new coaches is a tribute to Commissioner Dennis Thomas' efforts to keep the conference moving forward.
"Every year that Dr. Thomas has been commissioner, we've seen growth, especially in football,'' Taylor says. I say the same thing every year. We keep growing. From week to week, that makes the conference more competitive. We keep talking about maintaining our (FCS) playoff berth and getting past the first round. The chances of moving on (in the playoffs) for whoever gets the berth is much greater because of the quality of competition we're going to face in the conference. We've really heightened the competitive level of the conference.