|After 58 years, football is back at tiny Campbell|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 28 August 2008 10:07|
There weren't any highlight reels he could show young players, no bowl trophies, no jerseys of Camels-turned-NFL-stars hanging in the fieldhouse behind the stadium. Until recently, there wasn't a stadium, either.
No wonder that, time after time during his two years on the job, many of those recruits would slam their front doors on him, skeptical of what would become of a Campbell program that hadn't played a game since the Korean War.
This is the week Steele has been waiting for: After a 58-year hiatus, football is back in Buies Creek.
The Camels are relaunching their program in the nonscholarship Pioneer Football League with the ambitious hopes of someday duplicating Appalachian State's championship-subdivision success and maybe even jumping another level to compete for bowl berths. But for now, the once-dormant junior-college power will start out at a decided disadvantage with little tradition and no recent history to sell - at least, not yet.
``It was difficult. I won't tell you that it's not, because we had some doors shut in our face early,'' Steele said. ``There were enough young people out there that, when we sat down and told them what we expected this program to be, and what the vision of this program was going to be, that they were able to buy into this vision and they were able to see themselves.''
Since the plan to revive football here was hatched in 2004, the hopes have risen considerably at this tiny Baptist university tucked an hour's drive south of Raleigh in the tobacco fields of central North Carolina.
The private school with the modest athletic tradition - perhaps best known for the men's basketball team's only NCAA tournament appearance in 1992 when the Camels were routed by Duke - has invested a reported $6 million in its football program. That bill included the cost of turning the plot of land that once was the school's track into a 3,500-seat stadium that they plan to someday expand to around 10,000.
``I think I was one of the later players to finally see the vision,'' running back Carl Smith said. ``I found it kind of hard to believe (while being recruited in 2007) that a year from now, that we'll be playing, and I just see a patch of field and a track around it.''
Steele, a 53-year-old former East Carolina and Kansas State assistant and the older brother of Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, was hired in June 2006 to build the roster from scratch, and not surprisingly, it has a strong local flavor.
Roughly four-fifths of the players are from North Carolina, with some transfers from the bowl subdivision sprinkled in. Defensive lineman E.J. Rascoe came to Campbell from Marshall, and starting quarterback Matt Vollono was a backup walk-on at Connecticut last season who signed in March.
``I started looking into this conference, and I started talking to Coach Steele (and) he described to me what the buildings are going to look like, how it's going to feel, all the new, incoming atmosphere,'' Vollono said. ``And he told me up front, 'Everybody's a freshman, and everybody's going to be getting a fair shot.' And that's all I could ask for.''
As is usually the case at the lower levels of college football, most players are a step slow, stand an inch too short or have some other flaw in their games to cause the big-name schools to shy away. Linebacker Milton Brown initially was recruited by East Carolina and North Carolina before he stopped growing at 6-foot-1.
``At Campbell, (Steele told him), 'You are kind of small, but you're talented,''' Brown said. ``It was a need-to-know-more thing, because (the team was) not playing for a year, but at the same time, if I went anywhere else, I'm pretty sure I would have got redshirted and wouldn't play for a year anyway, so that's what kind of equaled it out for me.''
Campbell, which won six state juco titles before folding its program in 1950 because of the Korean conflict, practiced for the first time last August and even held an intrasquad scrimmage for homecoming in October.
Since then, Steele has been busy taking care of those unseen, last-minute details that always seem to pop up - from making sure there were enough ``CU'' logo stickers for the helmets, to teaching the Camels where to stand on the sideline and how to enter the new fieldhouse, to informing his players that, yes, they should continue lifting weights during the season.
Meanwhile, workers this week were hammering together the stadium's temporary press box, racing to have it finished by Saturday's opener against Division III Birmingham-Southern.
``We've all invested a lot of ourselves in this program,'' Steele said. ``I have invested a lot of myself in this program, in terms of building, day-by-day, of this program, the small details that need to be taken care of to build a solid program that I felt would represent this university and stand the test of time.
``I'm going to, obviously, be nervous, because we don't know yet where we are. This will be the first litmus test of where we stand today, because we can guess, we can estimate,'' he added. ``But we really don't know until after Saturday what we have to do to move the program forward, from the way that we handle it administratively as we get a large crowd here, to the way we handle players on the football field, to the way they handle things. They don't know yet. We all feel like we're as absolutely prepared as we can be, but we all have that nervousness, and if you don't have that nervousness, it's time to stop playing the game.''