WILMINGTON — As a former resident of Wilmington with strong ties to the area, Brad Brownell knew he had to do something to help the community rebuild after watching Hurricane Florence devastate the North Carolina coast last month.
So as soon as the danger passed, the Clemson basketball coach got on the phone and called UNC Wilmington’s C.B. McGrath about playing a preseason exhibition game between their teams to benefit those affected by the storm.
It’s an idea that came to fruition Saturday, with Brownell’s Tigers and McGrath’s Seahawks going head-to-head before a sellout crowd at Trask Coliseum in an event that raised upward of $50,000 for area charities.
“I care deeply about this community and a lot of the people here are good friends of ours,” said Brownell, who was an assistant at UNCW before becoming the Seahawks head coach from 2002-06. “Twelve years is a long time to spend in one place, especially when you’re a newly married couple that’s a long way from home and you’re trying to start your life. We did that here. We visit here regularly.
“I know I left at a difficult time under some difficult circumstances, but it never changed how I felt about my time here. Just to be able to help and send a message that there’s a lot of people watching … was important.”
As good of an idea as the charity exhibition might have seemed, there was more involved in making it happen than both schools agreeing to play.
The biggest hurdle was getting the NCAA to approve the game.
That wasn’t automatic, as North Carolina and South Carolina learned when the college sports governing body nixed a similar game they had planned.
It took persistence and a little cooperation from two other schools, but UNCW athletic director Jimmy Bass and his counterparts at Clemson were able to cut through the red tape and allow the event to take place.
“We originally had a closed scrimmage against Coastal Carolina scheduled and Clemson had one with Ole Miss, so we had to get both of those schools to back out of them, which they readily did,” Bass said. “Then we had to get a waiver from the NCAA for two Division I teams playing an exhibition. I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion moving forward with the NABC about playing these types of disaster relief games.”
Bass said it will take at least a week to determine how much money was raised by the game through ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. He said all proceeds from the game would stay in the Wilmington area, donations that would not have been possible without the contributions of Brownell and the Tigers.
“Clemson University really stood up for southeastern North Carolina,” Bass said. “It really did.”
Brownell admitted to feeling a little nostalgic about seeing old friends and being back at Trask for the first time since Feb. 25, 2006. He expressed his love for UNCW during remarks at a banquet Friday night.
“Being able to come back, to play in this arena again and relive a few memories has been really fun for me,” he said.
Brownell wasn’t the only one that came away from the game with good feelings.
The atmosphere in the stands was electric for only the second ever visit to UNCW by an ACC opponent. There was also a palpable feeling of goodwill between the players on the court, who wore special shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Seahawk Strong, Clemson Grit” during warmups.
The Seahawks helped make the afternoon even more special by putting on an inspired performance, leading the 22nd-ranked Tigers for most of the game before Clemson asserted itself late to pull away for a 78-67 victory.
“Coach Brownell and I learned a lot about our teams today,” McGrath said afterward. “It was a pretty competitive game. You can’t replicate that in practice.”
Although McGrath and his players wanted to win the game, the result was secondary.
“It was a great environment,” McGrath said. “That’s what we wanted. That’s what Coach Brownell wanted. That was the vision. Hopefully, the Good Shepherd Center and the UNCW Student Hurricane Assistance Fund will get quite a bit out of it as well.”