College football in 2020 has been a season like none other, filled with opt-outs, postponements and contact tracing protocols brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nowhere, however, has it been more unusual than at Campbell.
Rather than sitting out the fall when its conference, the Big South, chose not to play, the Camels decided to take matters into their own hands and line up a four-game schedule — all on the road against FBS opponents Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Wake Forest.
Although they lost them all, including a 66-14 blowout at the hands of the Deacons, coach Mike Minter considers the abbreviated season a resounding success.
Here is what the former Carolina Panthers safety said about the decision to play, the step up in competition and the benefits his fledgling program got out of playing the shortened schedule.
Was there ever any thought of not playing at all this fall?
Everything was changing from week-to-week, but never in there was I thinking that we weren’t going to play at all.
First, the Big South was going to try to play as a conference, so we started thinking about getting ready to play a season without any nonconference games because normally you get a chance to build up to conference play. Then you start looking at starting in late September, early October and you build your training camp around that. That was our first thought once everybody started falling off.
Then the Big South said it wasn’t sure what it was going to do, so we paused for about a week because I needed something concrete for my guys so we could know what we were training for. When the Big South finally decided not to do a conference season and told us that we could have four nonconference games, my focus went to that. I was like, “How can I maximize those four games?” And I decided let’s go play four FBS teams. You have to give (associate athletic director) Ricky Ray a lot of credit. He went out and got that done.
How strange was it playing only a four-game schedule?
I think it was strange because it was four games. I’ve never played a four-game season, so I kind of looked at it as trying to reframe our mindset around, “OK guys, this is what the playoffs would feel like, so let’s just assume we’re in the playoffs and we’ve got four tough opponents back-to-back-to-back.
“How can we get mentally charged up from week-to-week? How can you begin to physically get your body back to be able to respond for the next week’s practice, not necessarily the next week’s game so you can know how to push yourself when your body is sore, but not injured?” All these are the little things that a lot of people don’t think about when you’re trying to win a championship, and we’ve never done that here. So this is a way to get my guys prepared for that.”
So these four games were more about preparing your program for the future rather than playing this season?
That’s really what the whole thing was about. For us to take the next step to build a championship organization, what better way to practice that than against FBS opponents? Nobody in the (FCS) playoff is going to be as hard as the four opponents we just played. So if I can get my guys to understand that and now in the offseason have them train for that, now they understand what it looks like. And when I say that they have to work harder, they know it’s not something Coach Minter is saying. They’ve lived it and now they understand.
Is there any chance of picking up any more games if someone calls asking?
No, because they only gave us the opportunity to play four, because the Big South is planning to play a conference schedule in the spring. All the FCS conferences are planning on playing in the spring.
Are you planning to play in the spring?
We’re not going to do it. My thing with that is not necessarily because we’ve played in the fall. It’s because I feel like a kid cannot adequately heal (to play two seasons) in that time frame. I played the game for a long time, and I know there’s no way you can equate four or five or even eight games to a spring football season. There’s a big difference between playing games and 15 practices.
People can say we’re not going to practice as much, not going to hit as much, not going to put them in pads. Well, then you’re not going to be ready to play a football game, as Navy found out when they came out and played (BYU). You’ve got to go as hard as you can to get your guys ready to compete.”
How much did the guarantees from those four games help the bottom line at Campbell?
Football is a game, but let’s be honest — it’s also a business. So this was like a perfect storm for us to take advantage of that situation. It was definitely not one of the things of why we wanted to do this. It was way down the line.
I’m not going to run away from the fact that we benefited financially from this thing. We’re going to be able to build a great locker room. I told our guys that they’ve got a chance to go out and earn that state-of-the-art locker room on your own. It’s not something where they had to go out and ask donors for the money, it’s something they’ll know they went and earned it on the football field.
Besides the payday, what did you get out of playing those four FBS games?
The first thing it did was it gave you belief and faith that we’re headed in the right direction and the things we’re doing are going to get us there. This is only our third year (as a scholarship program). We’re not at the full 63 scholarships yet.
Where we’re at now, to be able to go compete on the road at a Georgia Southern and have a chance to win that football game, showed our guys how far we’ve come. For me, it starts with belief. I believe we can win an (FCS) championship and our guys have got to know they can do that. That (Georgia Southern) game gave us the opportunity to start living in the reality that we can be a championship organization.
And then it showed them that their coach isn’t just talking. When we’re going for the win, we’re going for the win. We’re not trying to kick the field goal to go into overtime. We’re trying to win this game, so let’s go get it. It proved to them that’s what I’m about. That’s the type of mindset and character I want our guys to have.
How much did your program benefit from the exposure you got from playing those four FBS games on national TV — especially because of the attention you got for playing for the win instead of overtime against Georgia Southern?
When you talk about North Carolina, there’s like three parts to this state, and the west doesn’t always know what’s going on in the central part and the east. I remember when we went on our run to the Super Bowl, I would go on the west side of the state and people didn’t even know the Carolina Panthers existed.
So my thing is to get our footprint in North Carolina now that we are a Division I football scholarship team. And I think we’ve done that. Then you start to get the recognition nationally because in those other games that we played, they were nationally televised and (the announcers) were talking about our program from the start. They’re telling our story.
So really, what 2020 did for us is set us up for 2021. Now everybody knows who Campbell is and everybody is going to be paying attention. Now we’re going to get a spotlight going in, and that’s how you win championships.
They’ve got to know you coming in. You can’t sneak in and win championships. You’ve got to be somebody already on the radar screen, and now we’re going to be that in 2021. Now the players can start living and acting that way instead of living and acting like a nonscholarship team.