BUIES CREEK — At some point during Saturday’s 45-10 loss to Drake, Campbell football coach Mike Minter turned his attention away from his black-clad team on the field to glance longingly over at the 22 players in orange jerseys standing along the sideline.
It was as if he was an eager child eyeing gifts under a tree the week before Christmas.
The former Carolina Panthers safety knew there was something good awaiting him. He just has to bide his time before unwrapping the presents and begin playing with them.
Those 22 in orange are the first class of scholarship players Minter was able to recruit during his five-year tenure with the Camels. Their participation would have given their team a much better chance at victory than the injury-riddled unit pieced together on the field.
But because they won’t be eligible to play in a game until next season when Campbell makes the jump to FCS scholarship status as a member of the Big South Conference, all Minter could do was take a deep breath and dream.
“Man, that’s been all year,” said Minter, whose team still managed to finish the season at 6-5 for only the second winning record in the program’s 10-year history — even without the reinforcements. “It’s going to be a big jump, but that’s why you do it.”
Campbell wasn’t ready to take such a leap of faith the first time it fielded a football team, when it was still a junior college. The school discontinued the sport in 1950 when most of its in-state rivals began moving up to four-year status.
The Camels returned to the gridiron in 2008 as part of the nonscholarship Pioneer Football League.
Though the upgrade to the more prestigious Big South wasn’t necessarily part of the plan when the program was first resurrected under the watch of former athletic director Stan Williamson, it didn’t take his successor Bob Roller long to realize it was the logical next step.
For one thing, the financial savings that come with not offering scholarships was offset by the travel costs associated with playing in a conference that has teams spread across the map from San Diego, Calif., and Des Moines, Iowa, to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and DeLand, Fla.
And Campbell was already a member of the Big South in all sports other than football.
More important, interest in the program had begun to outgrow the low-key Pioneer League. With the Camels averaging better than a sellout at the 5,500-seat Barker-Lane Stadium in each of the past two seasons, Roller and other school officials came to the conclusion that the time had come to steer their program in a new direction.
“The Pioneer Football League was perfect for Campbell when we came back,” Roller said. “It was the right move. It was a way to get your feet on the ground. But once we studied it we realized that we could make this happen and that it wasn’t nearly as expensive as we first thought.
“It will be great, not only for the program but also for the parents (of the players) and fans. Now it’s three-, four-, five-hour car or bus trips for all of them. Plus it’s opened up so much for our nonconference schedule, too.”
Among the 18 upcoming nonconference games the Camels announced earlier this week are four “guarantee” games against FBS opponents that will help offset the added costs associated with the move to the Big South.
It’s a challenge Minter is excited about tackling, even though he realizes that that the transition won’t be an easy one — especially at the start.
“We’ve got to be 100 times better,” the fifth-year coach said. “We’ve played some of these teams before and we know what that looks like and the type of talent, size, speed and effort you need to be able to play with them. We definitely know what we’re getting into.”
In preparation for the move, Minter and his staff began setting their sights on a higher caliber of recruits.
It’s an effort that helped land those 21 redshirts, a group that will join holdovers such as dual-threat freshman quarterback Daniel Smith, leading receiver Aaron Blockman and top tackler Jack Ryan, to form the foundation of the Camels’ first scholarship squad.
“Anytime you can help somebody pay for their school, the conversation is different,” Minter said. “Because of that, now I can get into any living room and I can compete with anybody. That first freshman class … it’s pretty good.”
Lester Axson, a cornerback from Winter Garden, Fla., who originally committed to Furman, said he wouldn’t have given Campbell a second look if not for its decision to start offering scholarships.
“Coach Morris came to my school and he explained to me about Campbell going to the Big South,” Axson said of Camels recruiting coordinator Adam Morris. “That’s what sold me.”
Like Minter, Axson and the rest of his inactive classmates had a hard time watching from the sideline this season, knowing that they were able to contribute. But they were, at least, able to start bonding together from the time they’ve spent together around campus and on the practice field as part of the Camels’ scout team.
“We’ve built real chemistry,” Axson said. “We’re all hungry and ready for next year. Trust me, we’re all excited about what we’ve got coming.”