SportsCelebration Bowl coaches not shrinking from HBCU spotlight

Celebration Bowl coaches not shrinking from HBCU spotlight

As coaches Larry Scott and Willie Simmons took their seats to discuss the Cricket Celebration Bowl game, the HBCU national championship between Florida A&M University and Howard University, excitement in the room — and indeed, throughout the host city of Atlanta — was palpable. An inquiring mind, long a proponent of HBCU sports, even suggested it might be the biggest matchup in HBCU history.
On Saturday, on Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s artificial turf, Howard will play its first bowl game in 27 years, since beating Southern 27-24 in 1996 in the now-defunct Heritage Bowl — played on the same site, if not the same stadium, as this year’s Celebration Bowl. Where this venue now stands, the old Georgia Dome stood.A 14-7 victory over Morgan State on Nov. 18 secured the MEAC championship for Howard and punched the Bison’s ticket to Atlanta. Though the Bison went only 6-5, they were 4-1 in MEAC games. North Carolina Central also finished 4-1, but Howard won their head-to-head matchup 50-20 on Nov. 11 to earn the right to play Morgan State.
FAMU, led by Simmons, is 11-1, winner of 10 straight since losing 38-24 to South Florida on Sept. 9, and just completed its fourth consecutive regular season with at least nine wins. The Rattlers clinched the SWAC championship by dominating Prairie View 35-14 on Dec. 2.Here are excerpts of the coaches’ comments on the big game:
What is the pressure like in a big game like this?
Scott: Now, this is not a pressurized situation. I mean, you’re doing something I tell our kids all the time, “Hey, football is something you’ve been doing since you were 4 or 5 years old. So, at the end of the day, go out, have fun, you know, training your butts off, understand what process means to get yourself in a position to have the opportunity. Be in the moment to stay in the moment and enjoy, just like you did your first time going out playing when you were 6 or 7 years old, when you put on shoulder pads and a helmet, and it was fun. It’s no different.” Are the stakes a little higher? Yes.
Simmons: We look forward … to having a great time in what we call “FAMU North.” Atlanta has been a city that FAMU has benefited from regarding recruitment. Rattler Nation has been begging for a return of FAMU to Atlanta for a long time. We started this journey back in January with this goal in mind. And we weren’t bashful about that. We truly expected to be here, and the young men have put in all the work and preparation to make this day possible.
How do your programs benefit from the national spotlight?
Simmons: You know, it’s not just the job that we as coaches do. It is administrations supporting our student athletes, it’s the local media telling our stories, it’s our own internal media telling our stories, and I think we’re doing a much better job of that now than we ever have. And so just the spotlight that has been placed on, you know, black excellence, I think the resurgence of that has really played a profound role. We are in a situation where we have an opportunity to continue to attract the best and brightest out there at institutions like Florida A&M and Howard.
Scott: I think at the end of the day, the product has always been great, right? It’s always been there; it’s always had, you know, the shine and everything that everybody now sees through the lenses of people’s cameras. … It’s been excellence across the board. And with that interest that attracts more talent and more, you know, premier big-time “athletes” now that they want to be a part of that holistic approach. … It’s about the big picture. It’s about the development holistically that you know you can only get and find many other places in the country if you choose an HBCU.
You were MEAC rivals for years before FAMU left for the SWAC in 2021. Will this revive the rivalry?
Simmons: I think what two better institutions to highlight on a national stage than Florida A&M And Howard? You’re talking about, again, the No. 1 public HBCU in America, the No. 1 co-ed institution in America in Howard, with two and three overall, according to US News & World Report. And so I tell people all the time, you know, football is often the front porch of the university. And there are young men and women in far-reaching parts of the United States that their first introduction to HBCU will be Saturday because they’ll have the TV on … And so, yes, we’re both here to win a national championship in football, but we’re also here to represent two phenomenal institutions that will bring again more awareness to the excellence that is historically black colleges and universities. And we don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Scott: It’s been a personal application to growing up in Florida. I mean, you heard the Rattlers [hiss] everywhere you went, it was Florida A&M, Florida A&M, Florida A&M. And then [Bethune-]Cookman was like No. 2 in Florida, I’ll say that now. … So for me, so it’s a personal thing to sit here today, and have this opportunity, right, as as a head coach at Howard University, I know [my grandmother would] be turning over in her grave. That was a significant reason why I took on the opportunity at Howard.
Is the key matchup the Howard offense against the FAMU defense?
Scott: We always want to establish the run. For me, that’s the mindset. That’s also the biggest way you can dictate the game’s tempo. And when you can establish that and do it with a high level of consistency, you usually can dictate the outcome of the game. You take the last game we played against Morgan State. We were struggling to protect a little bit, and we took the ball in the last eight minutes and 37 seconds, and we made up our mind that we weren’t gonna give it back.
Simmons: Yeah, to get into championship football, it’s absolutely about your team’s physical and mental toughness. There are no greater indicators of those two factors than the ability of a team to run the football and the ability of the other team to stop the run. We’re looking forward to that challenge. And I think that’s one of the ways you talk about the game within the game. I think that’s gonna be one of the keys to our ability to stop one of the top-rushing offenses in the country.
As one observer suggests, is this the single greatest, most significant event in HBCU football history?
Simmons: (Laughs) I’m not the historian, so I can’t say this is the biggest game in the history of HBCUs because of the rich history that we all share. You talk about the teams of Jake Gaither’s era; think back to the University of Tampa game, you know, when Jake took our team down to Tampa [in 1969], and it was the first time that an HBCU took on a PWI in the South, and we won that game (34-28). You talk about the 1978 national championship game, the first 1-AA national championship Florida A&M won. Those are two monumental moments because of the crossover. Right now, if we’re talking about just staying within Black college football, you know, it may be right up there with it.
Scott: You know, we want to make those two teams that have won national championships, in 1993 and 1996, proud. So, here we are, almost 30 years later, back at this moment to continue a new tradition and way of doing things, which is very exciting for our brand.
What impact did the traditional leaders, your quarterbacks, have had on your teams?
Simmons: Well, obviously, for us, Jeremy Moussa has been the driver of the car for the last two years, and he’s done an amazing job of just understanding the expectation of being a quarterback. And now you come into the place that’s produced [FAMU star quarterbacks like] Ken Riley and Albert Chester, Quinn Gray and Pat Bonner, and even Ja’Juan Seider and Ryan Stanley. It’s a huge platform, and it takes a guy with thick skin and broad shoulders to handle all the criticism. There would be weeks when Jeremy Moussa was the SWAC Player of the Week. I would have to go into the media to defend [against] fans calling for him to be benched because he wasn’t perfect that day. … He’s one of the he’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.
Scott: I think for us, with Quinton [Williams], because it’s been a journey for him, you know, he’s getting they’ve been through a lot in that program, I think, wow, this is third, maybe this third head coach. He’s had multiple quarterback coaches and multiple coordinators. And for a kid like that, to go through what he’s had to, you know, join and grow through. … But to mature and grow to lead men off the field was something that he had to learn how to do, embrace, and wrap his arms around. So, for him to step outside of that and grow on that level is the number one reason we’re here today. So I take my hat off to him. And I wish nothing but success in this game.The game is a big step in Scott’s four-year rebuild of the Howard football program, which is why he’s a finalist for the 2023 Eddie Robinson Award. It’s also a big step for Simmons. The one who steps best on Saturday wins it all.

Source: Rolling Out


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