In transition, NCCU turns back clock
The tornado never did touch down, despite the threats of a visit causing one heck of a windstorm.
And now that John Wall has moved on, LeVelle Moton can get down to the business of building a basketball program.
Wall, the nation's most-coveted recruit this spring, told a North Carolina newspaper in late April that he was going to visit North Carolina Central to see what a historically black university had to offer. Wall never visited the campus, but for a brief moment the Eagles were caught in the whirlwind that is big-time recruiting, a pretty heady experience for a school still trying to secure itself a spot in a Division I conference.
"I couldn't believe the magnitude of it," said Moton, who has known Wall, a North Carolina native, since he was a kid competing at Moton's basketball camps. "It was every day. It made Rome is Burning. It was crazy."
That storm has blown over but Moton's life is no less complicated.
Moton takes on the head-coaching job at North Carolina Central at a critical crossroads for the program. The Durham, N.C., school is in the middle of the five-year transition period to jump from Division II to Division I and is awaiting an expected invitation to join the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
MEAC officials completed their site visit at NCCU on April 28 and next will visit Savannah State. The conference likely will admit the two schools together, North Carolina Central athletic director Ingrid Wicker-McCree said, and the hope is that Central will join the league this summer and become full members for the 2011-2012 season.
"It was essential we hired the right person for this job," Wicker-McCree said. "We needed someone with a lot of energy and a real vision of where this program is going to be. There's no question we've had ups and downs in this transition, so we really needed someone with charisma and passion to generate support with our fan base. LeVelle has all of that. I know he's the right person."
Moton comes by his passion for NCCU naturally. He graduated from the school in 1996 and is the program's third all-time leading scorer and top 3-point shooter, soaring for the Eagles during the program's Division II heyday.
Moton parlayed his basketball skills into an overseas career in Israel before returning to North Carolina as a high school coach.
He could have chosen a number of easier and probably more lucrative careers. Before coming to NCCU as an assistant, he ran his own basketball camp, during which he first made the acquaintance of Wall, and also was a successful head coach at Sanderson High School in Raleigh.
And in recent years he earned a solid reputation as a trainer among NBA players. His unorthodox but successful methods attracted the likes of Jerry Stackhouse, Marvin Williams and Raymond Felton to his gym.
Moton said he had no grand plans on becoming a college coach, he figured he'd be a high school teacher for life. But he also said he learned a long time ago not to question where his life led him.
"I grew up in a housing project where, in 35 years, six people went to college," he said. "That means there were 2,100 or so left out. I could have been one of the six or one of the 2,100. I try not to ask why."
And so as he tries to construct a new Division I program in the shadows of some of the most famous -- Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State -- Moton finds himself invigorated, not overwhelmed.
He has hit the public-speaking circuit hard, calling on alumni and the surrounding community to get behind the Eagles, and hit the recruiting roads even harder. In just two months, Moton has signed five players, no small achievement considering he is still selling a program without a definitive conference home.
Right now it takes a special kid to agree to come to North Carolina Central. Until at least 2012, there is no shot at the NCAA tournament, not even any hopes of garnering an all-conference nod since there is no conference to be honored by.
"I'm not going to lie, it's been a challenge. But there are so many kids looking to be a part of something bigger than themselves, who have a chip on their shoulder because they were passed over by bigger schools," Moton said. "Those are the kids we're going after."
Moton refuses to make bold statements on where he thinks his team can go. His first goal is to turn the Eagles into a program the alumni and fan base can be proud of and rally around.
In its last two seasons as an independent, NCCU has won just eight games. The team went 4-27 last season, and 4-26 the year before.
"I had all of my coaches put together a strategic plan for me," Wicker-McCree said. "LeVelle's went back to the basics -- going to class, representing the university well. That goes back to why we hired him. We wanted someone of character who would also recruit players with good character. We want to build a foundation for our program that lasts."
Clearly, Moton is on his way. The foundation, after all, already has proven strong enough to withstand the John Wall tornado.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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