Feb. 23, 2010

 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Chowan president Christopher White chuckled Tuesday just before walking into the ballroom for the opening banquet of the prestigious CIAA tournament.

"Who would have thought that a traditionally white school would be playing its first tournament ever in a traditionally black conference?" he asked aloud.

Leon Kerry, the boisterous commissioner of the nation's oldest league of historically black colleges and universities, has been trying to grow the conference in the years since several schools departed for Division I.

Adding Chowan, of Murfreesboro, N.C., fit the geographical footprint of the league. It's close to league school Elizabeth City State in northeast North Carolina, and only an hour from the league headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

"We had to pass by them, but why not pick them up on the way by?" Kerry said.

But Chowan, the second-oldest Baptist institution in North Carolina, is not a historically black college. The school of 1,100 students is about 50 percent black and had recently moved up from Division III.

"Three years ago I was at an NCAA Division II presidents meeting and these three large African-American men accosted me in the elevator," White said, smiling. "One of them said, 'You're having trouble scheduling, aren't you? We can help you."'

That man was Kerry, who put into motion Chowan's addition to the CIAA as the conference's first school that was not historically black.

"They didn't say it had to be a black school. They said increase membership," Kerry said of the instructions he received from the league's board. "Dr. White I think is a visionary. He's an outstanding person and he got it. I got it, too.

"I asked some people who said, 'Why Chowan?' But I had more people who said, 'Great job.' One thing I realized a long time ago, when you've done a great job, people talk about it."

With an unanimous vote. Chowan became a full-time member this academic year. Next season, Lincoln (Pa.) joins the league, while Winston-Salem State returns after a failed, money-losing attempt to move to Division I, giving the league 13 members and making for an even more crowded scene as alumni and supporters come to the league tournament.

Many Division I leagues can only dream of the success of the Division II conference's basketball tournament, where last year more than 175,000 people attended the games and associated events in downtown Charlotte.

White, who owns a home in Charlotte, attended the tournament the last two years, experiencing some of the concerts, fashion shows, beauty pageants, band competitions and fan experiences that often make the games themselves secondary.

"The fans basically take over downtown Charlotte. It's one ongoing party," White said. "One of the hardest things I've had with my people at Chowan is to try to explain to them what this tournament is like. A number of them are going to be here and they'll know more when the week's over."

The Hawks, the fourth-seed in the men's tournament, will open play on Thursday against defending champion Johnson C. Smith in what will be a historic game in the tournament's 65th year.

"The conference wins by being more diverse and we win by having a conference," White said. "What can I say? We're having the best year in the school's history."