DURHAM — North Carolina Central seniors Carl Jones and Malcolm Bell remember the exact moment they realized their new football coach meant business.
It was their first spring under Jerry Mack and the first scrimmage in O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium. Mack had just arrived in Durham after spending two seasons as the wide receivers coach at South Alabama. Coming in as an offensive minded guy, the offense wasn't doing so well that day as Bell recalls, and Mack wasn't having it. A normal scrimmage is about 50 plays, Jones said. That day the Eagles ran 130 plays at full game speed.
"Guys were dropping like flies, cramping, guys trying to quit," Jones said.
After the scrimmage Jones approached Mack and asked him about the unusual amount of plays. Mack told his future All-American center he wanted to see who was going to quit and who was going to tough it out.
"That's when I realized he was for real," Jones said.
Earlier this season Mack, 36, was asked if he was building a dynasty in Durham. He was quick to deny such a thing was taking place, but it's hard to argue with the numbers. In three seasons Mack has led N.C. Central to a 21-3 mark in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and three consecutive MEAC championships. The Eagles were ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll for the first time in school history and will play in the second annual "Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl' Saturday against Grambling State University (noon, ABC) in Atlanta, Georgia.
This season N.C. Central was a perfect 8-0 in MEAC play and boasted 17 All-MEAC players.
Mack won't use the D-word, but he has definitely built something special in Durham.
When Mack arrived, the first order of business, typical with any new coach, was to clean house. Inheriting players can be tricky, especially when you take over a program that only had one winning season in six years before Mack showed up. Complacency had set in. Mack couldn't let that remain the case.
"We had to make some changes of guys who didn't buy in," Mack said. "We had to change some positions. Just a lot of those things, once you're a new coach you come in and you evaluate the personnel and install your system, you install your own philosophy and then you recruit to what you would like to be."
With so much change, the guys who remained walked on eggshells.
"It was scary at first," Bell said. "Everything you did you were just battling for positions, battling for scholarship money. Battling to be in college. You tread lightly. You didn't want to get in any trouble. You had to be perfect in the classroom or he would kick you off the team. Just getting used to the way he did things, it made us better men, better players."
A change in personnel also led to a change in the culture and the mindset of the remaining players. Winning was the only thing Mack talked about, and he would do whatever it took to make sure his players understood that and whatever it took to make them prepared on gameday.
"If somebody ask me about him today that's probably the first thing I would tell them," Jones said. "If you tell (Mack) you need red cleats, purple skittles and a blue pillow on your bed on Saturday to win, he'll make sure that happens. He's going to make sure we win the game. That's just the type of coach he is, that's just what he's about. Whatever the team needs to win, he'll make sure it happens."
During his various stops as an assistant coach, Mack always took notes of how he wanted to do things when his time came to become a head coach. What would he do differently? What would he do better? Nothing went unnoticed. After cleaning house, the next order of business was to instill some discipline. After that, he wanted the Eagles to become a blue collar team, making sure they worked harder than ever before. Mack presented playing opportunities to anyone who would help the team win, no matter how they arrived in Durham.
"We try to do a great job of developing as many players as possible," Mack said. "You see for us we have walk-ons play. We have guys who come in as freshmen and play. Anybody that can help us win a football game on Saturday has the opportunity to play no matter what classification you are, no matter if you're on scholarship or not."
Linebacker Reggie Hunter is a prime example that Mack practices what he preaches. Hunter, a redshirt junior from Henderson, is a former walk-on, who earned a scholarship and a starter spot. This season Hunter led the team in tackles and interceptions and was an all-conference selection.
Mack also opened up the competition. No spots were guaranteed. The best man would play, regardless. Sophomore Ramone Simpson was a backup to 2015 Rookie of the Year Dorrell McClain their freshman season. This year Simpson led the team in rushing, earning seven starts to McClain's two, and was voted second-team All-MEAC. Mike Jones was an All-American punt returner in 2014, but started this season as a backup to LaVontis Smith who was first-team All-MEAC this season as a wide receiver.
When Mack hit the recruiting trail, he also knew exactly what he was looking for. He redshirted a lot of players from his first class and called that a "rush job" to get those guys in. When he and his staff hit the road, they wanted to bring in guys who had won state championships in high school or conference championships -- he wanted winners. The next season was about getting a certain need.
"The next year it was more about recruiting as much speed as we possibly could," Mack said. "And the next class we wanted to get a combination of size and speed. We've done a good job of mixing some junior college kids (Smith), mixing some transfers guys like LeGrande Harley (All-Conference linebacker in 2016) in there, who have been able to help and expedite that process."
N.C. Central fans didn't have to wait very long to see results. The Eagles won a share of the MEAC championship in year one, and have gotten better since. N.C. Central loss two conference games that first season under Mack, and it was after one of those losses that the players realized a change had come.
In previous years, Bell said, guys would have gotten discouraged, thinking their dreams of a championship season was over. Bell, who admitted he cried after the game, said the opposite happened.
"We shook it off and kept playing each game," Bell said.
That end result a share of the MEAC title. This season, N.C. Central won its first title outright, giving Mack 24 wins in three seasons (most by any NCCU coach in same time frame) and 21-3 record in conference play.
For a young coach, there was no way Mack himself could have imagine so much success in such a short period of time, right?
"I could," Mack said. "In my mind I think we should have two outright championships back-to-back. The first year we were getting our feet wet and those guys did a great job overcoming our expectations. We have three MEAC losses in three years. I've always felt like this program and the guys we had in place and the guys we brought in were going to be able to win championships."
This article is written by Jonas Pope Iv from The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.