ECSU football

The Elizabeth City State University Vikings play in the Ninth Annual Down East Viking Football Classic, a football game started by ECSU to raise money for scholarships, in 2007. The Vikings would win their first Down East Classic in 2003, defeating N.C. Central University 25-23.

Editor’s note: The following is the ninth story in a multi-part series about the history of Elizabeth City State University’s football program. This story details that history during the 2000s.

When it comes to football programs at institutions that prize academics over athletics, winning isn’t everything. But it isn’t nothing either. At the start of the 2000s, the Elizabeth City State University Vikings were hoping for more winning. After all, it had been a while.

At the start of the 2000 season, the Vikings were led by coach John Wright, a former standout player at Virginia Union who had played with the New England Patriots. The first two years of his tenure saw few victories. After only one win in 2000 and only two in 2001, he promoted assistant Waverly Tillar to defensive coordinator.

In 2002 the team lost its first five games, scoring only 22 total points; yet the defense was keeping the games close. The season ended with a 12-6 Homecoming triumph over St. Augustine’s and a 15-14 upset of the Winston-Salem State Rams, which had been the pre-season #1 in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

That impressive finish, along with a respectable student graduation rate, nevertheless could not save Coach Wright his job. In January 2003, defensive coordinator Tillar, whose defense overall ranked #5 in Division II, was promoted to replace him.

Tillar immediately brought some needed swagger. When fellow coaches predicted that his Vikings would finish eighth in the CIAA, he said they could possibly win the conference outright. Although he scrapped the spread offense and installed an I-formation in its place, the offense was even more anemic, scoring no points at all during a 0-4 start.

The highlight of Tillar’s first year was a 25-23 win over N.C. Central University in the Fifth Annual Down East Viking Football Classic. This marked the first-ever victory for the Vikings in their own event. But this was an aberration in the 2-8 season. The 2004 season showed some improvement: the three-win campaign included upsets of both Bowie State and Virginia State.

By the start of the 2005 season, many were confident that the football program would continue to improve. When the Vikings crushed Livingstone 51-6 at Roebuck Stadium in the season opener, even skeptics started to believe.

Despite sporting new blue uniforms splashed with red, the Vikings quickly returned to losing. By Homecoming, they had lost seven straight, including the Down East Classic. After three consecutive losing seasons, the Tillar era was looking much like the Wright era before it. Even supporters wondered how long until it would end.

The 2006 season started with a win, and then another. It had been 15 long years since the Vikings started the season 2-0. Some expected the streak would end at the next game against Fayetteville State, which had regularly defeated ECSU in recent years. But the Vikings trounced the Broncos 43-31 at the Down East Classic. After six games the team was 5-1 and ranked #21 in one Division II poll. Doubters were becoming believers.

After 10 games, with one game to go, the Vikings set a new team record for wins in a season. At 9-1 and undefeated in the conference, they were competing for a championship against North Carolina Central University. This was to be the final CIAA game for the Eagles, who were returning to Division I.

Even with 11 players on the First Team All-CIAA list, the Vikings were underdogs against the 10-0 Eagles, ranked #4 in the nation. With seconds left on the game clock, the teams were tied, but North Carolina Central’s placekicker booted a 51-yard field goal as if he were an NFL professional, giving the Eagles the 17-14 win.

Despite the loss, the Vikings received a berth in the 24-team NCAA Division II football playoffs. This would be the Vikings’ second-ever playoff game and first-ever home playoff game in program history. After losing to Delta State 17-10, the Vikings ended the season ranked #21.

In 2007, the Vikings were predicted to win the CIAA’s Eastern Division, but it was not to be. But then came 2008. This season was historic for the CIAA in that it admitted its first traditionally white school — Chowan University, in nearby Murfreesboro. Good neighbors, the Vikings gave the Hawks a memorable welcome to the conference in the form of a 55-3 depluming in the home opener at Roebuck Stadium.

The 2008 season would be much like the 2006 season: another Coach of the Year award for Tillar; a number of tough losses to elite non-conference opponents; and a sweep through the conference. Led by CIAA Offensive Player of the Year Curtis Rich, the Vikings secured the division championship even before the season was over.

That meant another chance to win the CIAA crown. Unfortunately for Vikings fans, the Shaw Bears captured their second straight championship with a 36-7 win.

Although Tillar was an inspiring coach, the credit for the turnaround of the Viking football program should properly be shared. Chancellor Willie Gilchrist was a student during the 1971 CIAA championship season, and under his tenure, the football program’s budget was increased. The Vikings were now able to offer more scholarships to promising recruits.

The 2009 season was another solid yet unspectacular campaign. The Vikings had a chance to defeat defending champion Shaw during the regular season but lost 54-30 when the Bears scored 24 in the final eight minutes of the game. After defeating a rugged Tusculum team in a non-conference matchup, the Vikings gave up 20 fourth-quarter points in a bewildering 37-33 loss to Bowie State.

Elizabeth City State ended in a three-way tie for the Eastern Division crown, and that meant a coin flip would determine the winner. The Vikings lost the toss but made their first-ever appearance in the Pioneer Bowl, an annual contest between the CIAA and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and the only NCAA sanctioned bowl game (at the time) involving HBCU conferences.

Although the Vikings lost 21-7, new records in enrollment and new milestones on the gridiron gave long-suffering fans confidence that a second CIAA championship was only a matter of time. Unfortunately, as we will see next week, the program’s historical resilience would be put to a serious test in the coming decade.

Dr. Glen Bowman is a professor of history at Elizabeth City State University. Westry Thorpe is a senior history major at ECSU who is minoring in the science of coaching.