Last spring I decided to do something I had never really even considered before: Attend a college spring football game. It was a nice day — almost summerlike — so I thought, “why not?” I figured it might be interesting to see the result of spring workouts for the Elon University football team.
In all the years I was a sports writer, this would be a first.
For several years I had casually monitored football at Elon. In the 1980s when the team was an NAIA division powerhouse winning two national titles, I attended a few games during the fall, mainly because Elon then played at Williams High School in Burlington, walking distance from my house. When I left this area from 1992 to 2007 I lost track of the team. When I returned to Burlington a little more than a decade ago, I read stories in the newspaper about Elon football but not too closely. By this time the college had become a university, was known by a new nickname (Phoenix) and was far from a power on the NCAA Bowl Subdivision level. The team had a spurt of success under one-time coach Pete Lembo, but fell back on difficult times upon his departure.
In the fall of 2017, Elon football made its way back onto my radar. A new coach was hired in December of 2016 — he arrived at Elon about the time I did. In fact, many of Curt Cignetti’s assistants were in my orientation class for new arrivals. Knowing names and faces got my attention. Then, a few months later, the team made a major impression on campus and nationally. Elon reeled off eight straight wins — many in heart-pounding fashion — and steadily climbed the FBS rankings and Colonial Athletic Association conference standings. It led to a memorable showdown with defending FBS champion James Madison at Elon’s Rhodes Stadium with the CAA title on the line.
By this time I had been asked to write a story about Elon’s historic turnaround for the Magazine of Elon. You can read it here. I attended the James Madison game, viewing it from the press box. The Dukes were impressive, winning 31-3 in a game they dominated from start to finish. Elon fought but made youthful mistakes and were physically outmatched on the line by a team that would play for the FBS title again a few weeks later, losing to North Dakota State.
Elon wound up dropping its last three games. A puzzling loss at blustery New Hampshire, James Madison and then Furman in a first-round playoff game. Elon had defeated Furman earlier in the year.
When I spoke to Cignetti and players for the magazine story all were disappointed with how an exceptional season ended but all said the job was far from finished. Linebacker Warren Messer and quarterback Davis Cheek vowed to work harder, improve and make more noise on the national level. Cignetti said he wanted Elon to become “the kind of team other teams hate to face.” I liked talking to them all, too. Great people with significant ambition and the willingness to work.
So I walked into Rhodes Stadium that spring day curious as to how far Elon had traveled toward its goal since the season ended in November. My answer didn’t really come on the field. It’s hard to tell much from a team scrimmage. But I did find one thing interesting. As I walked toward the stands I saw a small group of men wearing the distinctive purple colors associated with James Madison University. They stood together in the concrete passageway between the lower and upper stands. They pointed and spoke among themselves. I have no idea if they were coaches or merely friends of the James Madison program. But there was no mistaking it: They were scouting Elon. They saw something in that 31-3 win in November that got their notice.
Saturday, James Madison got a whole lot more.
Elon went to Harrisonburg, Virginia and upset the mighty Dukes on their home field, 27-24 in what turned out to be Elon’s first heart-pounding win of the 2018 season. Although Elon was ranked 10th nationally, few analysts gave the team much of a chance against James Madison, which was ranked second in the nation and had steamrolled its three most recent opponents by a combined 187-17. James Madison had won 20 straight CAA games and 19 straight at home. Much more quietly, Elon had racked up a gaudy run of wins of its own en route to a 3-1 record, including lopsided wins over Furman and New Hampshire — two of the three FBS teams that defeated Elon in 2017. The third? James Madison.
Notice a trend?
Elon knew better. According to preview stories by my friend Adam Smith with the Burlington Times-News, Elon felt it wasn’t that far away from competing with JMU last year. They felt ready to challenge the Dukes on equal turf. Their mantra became “Why not us?”
Summers, Messer, Cheek and Co. believed. Summers, of Mebane who played in high school at Eastern Alamance, had 186 yards rushing, including a 59-yard scoring run in a back and forth final quarter. Cheek, who ran for his life in the 2017 JMU game, steadied himself after a rugged start Saturday and tossed the game-winning TD pass to Avery Jones with a little more than a minute left.
The celebrations were . . . robust, to say the least. I monitored the game via phone — streaming and Twitter. The Elon victory resonated on social media. Big upsets are like that, but I also found it curious that Las Vegas oddsmakers had installed James Madison as a 37.5-point favorite. That seems like haphazard and shoddy work by people who are supposed to be experts. The spread is way, way too high. After all, Elon was already ranked in the top 10. As a result, the victory was being hailed as the third or fourth biggest in college football history.
I think the historic significance is a little overplayed and doesn’t give nearly enough credit to Elon and what Cignetti, his staff and the players have accomplished thus far. And the key words there are “thus far.”
But I loved the reactions on Twitter.
The busload of Elon coaches and players got back to campus after 11 p.m. I was happy to see that they were greeted by about 100 fans. It was a night to savor and celebrate for the team, the school and its fans. Interest in the team should be at its highest level since now Elon mayor Jerry Tolley was coaching the team to NAIA titles in the early 1980s.
But if I know Curt Cignetti, he’s already thinking about how to handle what will be a major upset hangover this week for his team. The next game is against Delaware in Newark, Delaware. Elon still has a lot of unfinished business this season. Avenging all three of its FBS losses from 2017 is an excellent start. Defeating the No. 2 team in the nation, Elon’s first NCAA win against a top five team, is historic. But a sign in the Elon fieldhouse reminds the players to “Finish.”
They aren’t there yet.
Other stories I’ve posted about Elon football.