Will Phillippi isn’t exaggerating about the first year of Campbell University football when he says the team worked out in what amounted to a cow pasture.
In fact, one of those early practices was delayed by the presence of an actual cow, grazing in the spot where the 100-plus ragtag group of walk-ons were supposed to prepare for a season that was still a year away.
“We figured the cow had gotten loose and ended up on our practice field because it looked natural to him,” says Phillippi. “And I suppose it was. I just remember we couldn’t get started that day until we led him home.”
Jump a decade ahead to 2018 — it’s summer, and two young men are sitting patiently in the banquet room of a Charlotte hotel. Dressed in black suit jackets and orange ties (with orange running camel pins on their lapels) are Daniel Smith and Darion Slade. Smith was one of the top freshman quarterbacks in the nation in 2017 — a dual threat who beat teams with both his arm and his legs. Slade is a junior defensive back, built much like his coach (a former Carolina Panther defensive back) and considered a leader on that side of the ball heading into the fall.
Bright white lights shine in their eyes as a man behind the camera counts down the seconds to their live interview on ESPN for Campbell’s first Big South Media Day. In a room full of Kennesaw State, Monmouth, Charleston Southern and other Big South big boys, Smith and Slade are the “new kids on the block.” But they handle their interview like seasoned pros. And as the only players wearing suits on this day, they look the part, too.
Their performance, alongside Coach Mike Minter (a legend here and right at home in the Queen City), is a solid first impression for Campbell on the big stage.
And there’s not a cow in sight.
When the Campbell University Fighting Camels kicked off the 2018 season on Aug. 30, they lined up for the first time as a scholarship football program and a member of the Big South Conference after 10 years as a non-scholarship program that started from nothing.
And already — before ever playing a down in a conference game — this milestone season is a success. Through six games, the Camels are 5-1, off to their best start in this modern era. They’re just a win away from matching their high for wins, and this year’s non-conference schedule has produced historic wins — Campbell’s first non-conference win against a non-conference FCS opponent (Georgetown, 13-8), its first win against a scholarship FCS program (North Alabama, which is new to Division I, 30-7) and an even more impressive win the following week against another scholarship program (Wagner, 49-3).
Campbell kicked off Big South play on Oct. 20 on the road against Monmouth in New Jersey, and Barker-Lane Stadium will witness its first Big South Conference game on Oct. 27 (Homecoming) when the Camels host in-state foe Gardner-Webb.
All of this must have seemed light years away a decade ago for Phillippi and his crew, who put their pads on in an old laundry room — hanging their jerseys on old pipes — before hoofing it a half mile to practice in the pasture.
“Where this program is today — joining the Big South, playing in a completed stadium and winning — this was something we were always building toward,” says Phillippi, who played in Campbell’s first four seasons then returned to coach for five seasons from 2011 to 2016. “I think to fully appreciate where the program is today, you have to appreciate the hard work and the struggle that went into building it.
“I’m excited to see the growth. And I’m excited to see where it’s going.”
Mike Minter has always had the tools to be an effective recruiter. He’s confident. Passionate. And he’s played the game at the highest level (10 seasons with the Carolina Panthers) and on the biggest stage (Super Bowl XXXVIII). He also played for two National Championship teams at Nebraska.
But the one tool that was missing from Minter’s recruitment belt in six seasons at Campbell was the scholarship. It turns out, free tuition is a pretty heavy factor when a student athlete is weighing schools.
“When you’re telling a kid that his tuition is taken care of, that conversation becomes a lot easier,” says Minter, who enjoyed his first winning season as head coach in 2017. “Having the ability to give scholarships to play here means we can go after anybody in the state of North Carolina and have a decent shot of them being on our football team. It adds a lot to all the other great things this program and this University have going for it.”
When Campbell brought back football in 2007 after a 56-year hiatus, it announced it would become a member of the Pioneer Football League and start play in 2008. The PFL was formed in 1991 by Butler, Dayton, Drake, Evansville and Valparaiso (San Diego joined a year later) following an NCAA rule change passed earlier that year which required all Division I schools play football at a Division I level by 1993.
Campbell’s other athletics programs joined the Big South Conference in 2011, but the University chose to keep football at the “non-scholarship” level because it wanted to remain in the Pioneer Football League, which offers those Division I teams that choose to remain scholarship-free a fair playing field against similarly built rosters. The league also allowed Campbell a place to grow and experience some winning along the way. For Bob Roller — who took over as athletic director in 2011 just 20 days after the University’s other sports announced their Big South affiliation — the decision to transition into scholarship football was not rushed or taken lightly.
“We can look back at these 10 years and say confidently we took our time and studied everything very carefully before this decision,” Roller says. “It began with a year-long study and meeting with a lot of trustees, students, faculty and alums. We knew the cost of doing this was going to be a big factor, but the more we dug and researched and talked to other institutions, the more we discovered that we could do this.
“This was not a knee-jerk move. We were ready. And you just know it when you’re ready.”
For all the benefits the PFL offered Campbell, one major drawback was travel. The Camels made biennial trips to far-off stadiums in San Diego, California; Poughkeepsie, New York; Valparaiso, Indiana; Morehead, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa and Indianapolis — its closest conference games in DeLand, Florida and Davidson, North Carolina. The Big South Conference will mean much closer trips to Boiling Springs, North Carolina; Clinton, and Charleston, South Carolina; and Kennesaw, Georgia. The “bigger” trips to Monmouth in New Jersey and eventually North Alabama are still a fraction of the distance of most of the PFL rivals.
“I wouldn’t say we outgrew the Pioneer Football League at all, but I think a better way to put it is we needed to outgrow it,” Roller adds. “It was a great home for us for 10 years, but it wasn’t sustainable for the next 20 or 25 years. There are more local, natural rivals in the Big South, and some of them are already playing at the highest level of FCS football. And we are ready for it.”
Campbell was a founding member of the Big South Conference in 1983, long before even the thought of bringing back football. After 11 years, Campbell left the conference to join the Atlantic Sun, which has the majority of its schools located in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The Camels returned home to the Big South in every sport except football, wrestling and swimming in 2011, and have enjoyed success since the return. Campbell won its first Big South Men’s All-Sports Award in 2018 after conference championships in cross country, tennis and baseball (bonus points for the golf team’s at-large selection in the NCAA Regionals). The women’s programs finished second with a golf title and runner-up finishes in cross country and track and field.
Big South Commissioner Kyle Kallander has been a strong advocate for Campbell University since its return to the conference (he jokes that he’s brought up scholarship football at every meeting with Presidents Jerry Wallace and J. Bradley Creed since 2011). Kallander says the conference is getting a young but growing football program with Campbell and one that should compete well right out the gate.
“There have been some in our league who have questioned Campbell’s return, and that was the case back in 2011, too. Some wonder, ‘What’s Buies Creek going to do for us?’ But I’ve always had faith in what Campbell is doing — and sure enough, their programs are among the strongest in our conference now. Some may be surprised by that, but what Campbell has done supporting its teams, hiring the right people and building new facilities — it’s been successful from Day 1,” Kallander says.
“Does having Campbell make this conference better?” he adds. “You bet it does.”
San Diego came into Barker-Lane Stadium on Oct. 22, 2011, as one of the top teams in the Pioneer Football League. The Torreros were 6-1 overall and 4-1 in conference and were riding a four-game winning streak heading into Buies Creek.
Campbell, which had never won more than three games in a season to this point, was 3-3 through six games. Still, expectations were low.
“At one point in the season, we were 1-3 and we’d been just destroyed by Old Dominion in our opener,” remembers Phillippi (the Camels also suffered a 51-27 loss to Jacksonville at home). “But it was that third loss at Drake — we had to travel to Des Moines, Iowa … a 22-hour trip overall — where we just got our butts kicked, and we drove back with our heads down. There was a feeling that [if we kept losing like this] our coach would be gone, we wouldn’t have enough players want to return the following year and, you know, everything would just be a lost cause. It wasn’t a very positive time for the program.”
That Drake game served as a gut check. Campbell pulled out two straight wins against Butler and Marist, but San Diego proved to be the real test. The Torreros had beaten Campbell by 36 points in their only other meeting in 2008. And the 2011 contest didn’t exactly start well for the Camels, who fumbled on their second play of the game and watched a San Diego defender scoop it up and take it home for a touchdown.
Everything else that fall day, however, went Campbell’s way. The offense put together nearly 500 total yards, and the defense picked off six passes and held San Diego’s high-flying offense nearly 100 yards below its season average in a 48-24 win that sparked two more conference wins and made possible Campbell’s first-ever winning season.
The players then and many in the program today point to San Diego as the biggest win in the program’s 10 years. Not only did it prove football belonged in Buies Creek, it justified all the hard work and growing pains from those previous three seasons.
“We had this old-timey defensive guy who’d coached everywhere in the world before coming to Campbell, and I just remember how happy he was during that game,” Phillippi says. “I remember looking up at our big trailer in the sky [before Barker-Lane’s current press box was built, the stadium’s seating was temporary metal bleachers and the press box was literally a trailer on stilts] and seeing Greg Williams banging on the glass and asking all the boosters and the president if they liked that result. It was such a huge win for us.
“It was a turning point in the program.”
It was five years earlier in 2006 when President Jerry Wallace, Athletic Director Stan Williamson and members of the University cabinet — surrounded by orange fog on the Turner Auditorium stage and hundreds of excited students — announced football would be returning to Buies Creek in 2008. The news would end a 56-year drought of fall football at Campbell, which fielded teams in the days of leather helmets and no facemasks from the 1920s through 1950.
Wallace’s own college football career at East Carolina University in 1952 only lasted a few weeks — once admitting, “There were some big ol’ country boys that hit a lot harder than I wanted to be hit.” But his love for the game never faded, and football was always one of his early goals as president.
“Some have even suggested that I only wanted to bring back football because I love the sport and used to play it, but that wouldn’t be a good reason to go in on something of this magnitude,” says Wallace. “The truth is, as long as I’ve been here, every year I’d have student and alumni come up to me — usually around Homecoming [which used to center around soccer matches] — and ask me when we were going to have a football team again. I just felt like a football team at Campbell would add a dimension of Campbell spirit and Campbell pride that nothing else like it could do.”
The other reason 2008 was the right time was the Pioneer Football League. The PFL had two things going for it that Wallace liked — it was a non-scholarship league (and thus, would reduce the price tag for starting a program) and it included high-profile athletics programs like Butler and Valparaiso, both of whom have experienced national success in basketball.
“This would bring these teams and the people who backed them to Buies Creek, and it would be good for our image as well,” Wallace says.
The program’s first personnel move in June 2006 was the hiring of Dale Steele — a 30-year veteran on the collegiate sidelines — as head coach. Steele was previously assistant head coach at Elon and before that had assistant roles at East Carolina, Baylor and East Tennessee. Steele announced on Day 1 that his plan was to “build the program one brick at a time with a solid framework, from the bottom up.”
Roughly 110 students signed up for football in 2007, knowing that first year would be “all guts, no glory” with four months of practicing and no games on Saturdays. Phillippi, who was a two-year letterman in high school who recorded an impressive 103 tackles as a linebacker his senior year, likened those early days in the cow pasture to the book, The Junction Boys, about the infamous 10-day summer camp at Texas A&M led by the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant before his time at Alabama. While Campbell’s practices didn’t feature sun-up to sun-down practices in 100-degree Texas heat with no water, they were brutal, according to Phillippi.
“Dale Steele is no Bear Bryant, but he knew how to weed out the ones who weren’t serious about doing this,” Phillippi says.
Of those 110 who donned a helmet on Day 1, only 40 showed up the following semester for spring practices. By the summer, only 32 stuck around. There was a line at Steele’s office almost daily in that first year of students who either quit or had to be talked out of it.
The roster refueled the following August with real games on the horizon, and on Aug. 30, 2008, Campbell hosted the Division III Birmingham-Southern Panthers before an overflowing crowd of 5,845 at the unfinished Barker-Lane Stadium on a Junction Boys-esque 95-degree late summer day. The Camels even nursed a 3-0 lead through three quarters before ultimately falling 12-6.
The program’s first win wouldn’t arrive until a month later in Kenosha, Wisconsin, against another Division III school, Carthage College. The 36-27 triumph was made possible by three interceptions from linebacker Milton Brown, two of which were returned for touchdowns (including a 99-yard return late in the game with Carthage on the verge of taking a late lead).
Campbell would find its footing in the following two years — both of them 3-8 seasons that included several rough defeats but also a handful of bright moments to build on. They enjoyed their first home win in the Year 2 season opener against nearby Methodist and their first PFL win that same year against Morehead State; and earned their most lopsided win in Year 3 against conference rival Valparaiso, 56-14.
By 2011 — Year 4 of Steele’s “brick-by-brick” approach — Campbell was a senior-laden program. While only a dozen players remained from that 2007 “practice season” — Phillippi and Brown among them — the roster was full of players who endured the rough 1-10 inaugural year and the growing pains that accompanied back-to-back 3-8 campaigns.
Chris Hemeyer — the “Voice of the Camels” who began play-by-play duties in 2011 — calls that first winning season a huge step in the 10-year building process of Campbell football. While the program took a big step backward the following season, going 1-10 and losing big in several games, 2011 proved to insiders and outsiders that Campbell could thrive in FCS college football.
“You have to give Dale Steele and the men who worked with him tremendous credit,” echoes Roller. “They not only built this program, but the fan support and the community support that has grown each year with it. He didn’t have a lot of the bells and whistles to work with that we have today, but without them laying the foundation, we’re not joining the Big South Conference this year.”
Jackie Knight was looking to leave Michigan for warmer climates in 2006 when she saw an athletic trainer opening at Campbell University, a school she’d never heard of at the time. Campbell Athletics saw that Knight had training experience with the football program at Division II Hillsdale College, and knowing what was on the horizon, she was a perfect match.
Despite moving up a division, Knight’s move from an established program to one that hadn’t even purchased water coolers was a culture shock. On the field, the athletes took their lumps their first few years. While the passion and the desire was there, she says, many of the young men she worked with shouldn’t have been competing against Division I football players.
“Some had played in high school, and others hadn’t played in a few years,” she recalls. “Some were at Campbell anyway and happened upon football by chance. And all of this was very obvious in those first two years. A lot of injuries. A lot of guys dropping out. A lot of guys asking themselves, ‘What in the world did I get into?’ But I give a lot of credit to the guys who stuck it out. It wasn’t easy.”
Knight is one of a small handful of staff members who’ve been with Campbell Football from the beginning. More than anyone, she can point to the differences in the program in Year 11 from Year 0. She can see the differences between the level of athlete in a budding non-scholarship program and a more experienced scholarship program.
And those differences, she says, are clear.
“Physically, they’re different,” she says of the new class of scholarship athletes Campbell acquired in 2018. “They’re bigger, stronger and faster. That’s not to say we didn’t have great players at Campbell in those first 10 years. We had many who could have earned scholarships at other schools, but chose to play here. And that’s awesome. But overall, now, the difference is evident. When people come to games at Campbell this year, they’ll see it. And they’ll be impressed.”
Bob Roller foretold “a transformational change” in the football program when he announced the hiring of Campbell’s second head coach, Mike Minter, in November of 2012. That bold claim was realized exactly four years later at another press conference to announce football’s jump to the Big South Conference starting in fall of 2018. Minter’s teams have steadily improved in each of his five seasons at Campbell, and that improvement has made an even bigger leap in 2018, with the Camels off to their best start since relaunching its program.
“I think what you’ll see first, without a doubt, is more focus,” Minter says. “When a scholarship athlete comes in, they’re going to have more at stake. They’ve typically had more success in high school, and they want to continue that trend. When they’re paying their own tuition, football might be secondary. But when that scholarship is attached, there’s just a different type of mindset. Every day I’m telling them, ‘This game needs to be your passion. It’s not a hobby … it’s your life now. And if you want greatness, then that starts with focus. It starts now.’”
The young man behind center in Campbell’s first scholarship season is also the young man who quarterbacked their final non-scholarship campaign. Daniel Smith re-wrote the record books in his redshirt freshman year not only throwing for 1,889 yards and 18 touchdowns, but more impressively, running for 1,272 yards — leading all FCS freshmen and FCS quarterbacks in 2017. Smith was named a first-team Freshman All-American and second-team All Pioneer Football League quarterback, and he was a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award as FCS freshman of the year.
The Leesburg, Virginia native’s tremendous season earned him a scholarship heading into his sophomore year this fall. Through six games, Smith hasn’t skipped a beat — he’s again in the discussions for several post-season FCS awards with 1,215 passing yards, 11 passing touchdowns and just 3 interceptions; and 475 yards rushing and 9 rushing TDs.
He and junior defensive back Darion Slade, who joined Smith as the athlete representatives at last summer’s Big South Media Day, have been impressed with the new class of scholarship players who have joined the team this year.
“I’ve noticed a difference in our approach,” Smith says. “The guys who joined us this year came in and went straight to it. We’re seeing guys who want the extra reps on the field … who want this program to look like it belongs with the bigger guys. It’s been really exciting this summer. Things are really rolling.”
“There are guys, like me, who chose Campbell because they knew they’d get on the field and learn more here than they could at a bigger school,” adds Slade, who came to Campbell as a two-sport athlete in football and basketball, but chose the gridiron after his first year with Minter. “There’s a lot of talent here right now. I feel like the Big South doesn’t expect a whole lot out of us this year, and that might be a mistake.”
Before its wins over Georgetown, North Alabama and Wagner this year, the Camels were 0-16 in its history against Division I non-conference programs, with 10 of those losses against schools that soon became FBS schools (Appalachian State, Charlotte, Old Dominion and Georgia State). Despite the success this season and the high expectations that began in the summer, growing pains are still expected. In August, Campbell was picked to finish fifth in the current six-team league (ahead of only Presbyterian, though some in the league picked them to also finish better than Gardner-Webb). Monmouth returns some key players from last year’s 9-3 squad, while Kennesaw State, which finished 12-2 in 2017, is eyeing an FCS title game this season.
“This [conference schedule] is going to be interesting,” says Hemeyer. “This team as assembled would have probably won the PFL, and while we have 63 scholarship spots in the program now, you can’t give all 63 of your positions away in the first year. Then you’d certainly run into problems five years down the line. So we’re still going to be playing slightly below the level of FCS scholarship teams, and it will take a while to build up the personnel and talent these other programs have. But I still think Campbell is going to be competitive in a lot of games this year. The base of talent is there, and Coach Minter and his staff are great recruiters. We’ll be underdogs, but it’s going to be fun to see what they can do.”
Roller says Campbell’s program will be at “full strength” in four years, but that doesn’t mean it’s expecting to have poor seasons until then.
“Our talent level is extraordinary, but our experience level is nill,” Roller says. “And you need both. But this team is ready to win the Big South Conference, and they really believe they can. That’s what I love about them.”
The more reasonable goal is to become an FCS playoff team in five years. Big South Conference winners receive an automatic bid each season, while other winning programs are eligible for at-large bids. And as the program grows, it will be ready to take on stronger non-conference opponents. Already, Campbell has FBS school and 2017 New Orleans Bowl champion Troy University on the schedule (at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Troy, Alabama) for Aug. 31, 2019; Georgia Southern in 2020, Liberty in 2021; and home-and-home series set with Elon, Mercer, William & Mary and The Citadel.
The big news, however — the announcement that was met with audible gasps at the 2018 home opener on Aug. 30 — is that Campbell will travel to Greenville in 2022 to face East Carolina University and to Chapel Hill in 2023 to take on UNC, the state’s most nationally recognizable athletics program. The games will be important not only because of the buzz they will undoubtedly create, but also because Campbell Athletics will receive between $300,000 and $400,000 (on average) for competing against FBS schools in their much-larger stadiums.
Speaking of stadiums, expansion of Barker-Lane has been hinted at for the not-so-distant future.Exciting times, indeed.
“We’ve definitely come a long way,” says Jason Williams, director of athletic communications and another of the small group who’s been with Campbell Football since the beginning. “These first 10 years have allowed us to get our feet under us and become an established program. We’ve become a campus that has fully embraced football — I remember seeing students with their laundry baskets head home on Fridays in the fall, and now students are staying, and they’re going to the games. And they’re tailgating, and they’re loud.”
“I think everyone knew University as a whole was a place on the rise, and football was going to rise with it. It has transformed this campus, and it’s only going to get bigger.”