When Duke and North Carolina Central University meet in the first annual Bull City Gridiron Classic Saturday, more than a football game will be on the line.
From the time it was announced Duke and NCCU would meet on the field for the first time in their histories, University officials realized the game provided an opportunity for two institutions, separated by both space and custom, to continue to foster connections between them and the city they share.
The University's deliberate celebration of this game stands in contrast to the happenstance way the game came about.
Last May, Director of Athletics Kevin White saw an opening for another home football game. After examining various options, NCCU revealed an open away game date, White said.
"I thought there was a value in creating a pretty significant, special event in the city of Durham," he said. "We have Duke University, an ACC institution, that co-habitates this city with a historically black institution, N.C. Central." Soon, the idea took on a life of its own with community service projects, a basketball clinic hosted by former Duke All-American Jay Williams, concerts and Thursday's Bull City Football Fest at the Durham Athletic Park, which served as the official kickoff for homecoming weekend and the Classic. "More than anything, this is an opportunity for two institutions to come together and have fun and compete and use that for a foundation to build a strong sense of community throughout the year," NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms said in an interview. Playing a game against a non-Division I school may put Duke at a disadvantage en route to a bowl game-a win against NCCU would not count toward the Blue Devils' aim to achieve Football Bowl Subdivision Status. But Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe was not worried as he looked out into the pack grandstand. "I though this was a good idea, now I know its a good idea," he said. Kicking off in Durham Duke students were outnumbered by their NCCU counterparts at the Bull City Football Fest Thursday. The event featured performances by both schools' marching bands, cheerleading teams and various performing groups. Coaches and captains from both football teams also addressed the crowd. Senior Christie Falco, director of special projects for Duke University Union, said despite the low turnout of Duke students, she thought the event was a success, thanks to the collaboration between both universities and Durham. Sophomore Jessica LeHigh attributed the low student turnout to exam week. "People are probably studying," she said. "I feel like if this were basketball, more people would show up." Although NCCU senior Justin Spivey said he was surprised that the universities partnered for the event in spite of tensions, Duke and NCCU administrators said they do not believe the schools have a tense relationship and pointed to several examples of cross-institutional collaborations, including research projects and community service projects. Durham Mayor Bill Bell also dismissed notions that Duke, Durham and NCCU are divided. "We don't have two separate cities," Bell said. "We have two separate universities who are coming together on the football field. There's only one city in Durham." Sophomore Michelle Zhang said she enjoyed the opportunity to connect with local Durham residents in a new way, especially with local children present. "I feel like I'm more a part of Durham here," said Zhang, who headed DUU's advertising efforts for the event. Two men, one game White and NCCU head football coach Mose Rison have know each other for more than 35 years, and their reunion in Durham is likely responsible for Saturday's game. In 1974, White was a track and field coach and Rison a football player at Central Michigan University. Through mutual friends, the two struck up a friendship of their own. "He was around and I got to know Mose and followed Mose and we stayed connected all these years," White said. "That was certainly a factor for me personally." White and Rison spent the next 25 years apart as they moved up the athletic ranks at universities across the country. But it wasn't long before Rison and White found themselves at the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club having lunch. "He said to me, 'What can I do to help?' and I said to him, 'we can play football,'" Rison said. "If you can pull this off, you might be the mayor of Durham." A 'Classic' every year Although schedule restrictions limit Duke and NCCU's ability to compete annually, University officials are hopeful that there will be a Bull City Classic every year. The contract between NCCU and Duke requires the two schools to meet every three years until the 2015 football season. The University hopes to fill the remaining gaps in the schedule with other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Howard University and Morgan State University, hosting one school per year in the Classic. "We're looking to build an affinity for Duke football," said Deputy Director of Athletics Stan Wilcox. "Within the Durham community, there are a number of individuals who probably have attended some of these historically black colleges that are in the region and it would give those individuals the opportunity to see their alma mater in Durham." Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that although the Classic may have a different atmosphere if Duke plays colleges other than NCCU, Duke will commit to a great community celebration surrounding the event. Cutcliffe mirrored Schoenfeld's sentiment, noting that he welcomes the opportunity to host HBCU's annually at Duke. "I would love it," Cutcliffe said. "It's absolutely a positive for everyone, with the traditions involved in football at historically black colleges."