Football fans come along for the ride as Fayetteville State gives them something to cheer about
By Sammy Batten | Photography courtesy of Fayetteville State University
Feature | August 2022 Issue
One of Anthony Bennett’s priorities when he was hired as athletics director at Fayetteville State University in August 2015 was to make the football program prominent again.
“I knew Fayetteville had a committed fan base as related to football,” says Bennett, noting that the program had “some down years” after head coach Kenny Phillips was replaced. “I do remember during the Phillips era that it was the place to be on Saturdays for members of the community. So I was very interested in making sure we built football and gave the community something to see on Saturdays.”
Entering his eighth year on the job as the 2022 football season approaches, Bennett has, with the help of head coach Richard Hayes, succeeded in establishing a championship-caliber program that has rejuvenated the Bronco fan base.
Since Bennett hired Hayes away from Winston-Salem State University in December 2015, the Broncos have produced a 32-19 overall record and a 26-7 mark in conference play. They have appeared in four consecutive league championship games.
The success has made their home field at Luther “Nick” Jeralds Stadium a challenging place to play for opponents because of the enthusiasm of FSU alumni, students and fans who now regularly number 3,000 to 4,000 for each game.
“I think the crowd has really begun to expect us to be a very good football program,” Hayes says. “In the beginning, it was different. I would have to look back up (toward the home stands) and tell them to cheer when we’d score, like, ‘It’s OK to clap.’ But as the years have gone by, they have really bought into what we’re trying to build here at Fayetteville State.
“I’m really pleased with the crowd and the atmosphere we have created here,” Hayes adds. “Last year, we went 5-0 at home. The crowds played a very big part in that, and I appreciate them for it.”
Fayetteville State has fielded a football team for more than a century. The Broncos enjoyed their most successful era between 2000 and 2012 under Phillips, a former East Carolina University defensive back who won 75 games and led FSU to three championships — in 2002, 2003 and 2009 — in the NCAA Division II’s Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
But Phillips was replaced as FSU head coach after a 2-8 finish in 2012. The Broncos appeared to be on the rebound under Phillips’ successor, Lawrence Kershaw, but he was dismissed in December 2015 after three seasons on the job and a 15-15 overall record.
Enter Hayes, who had been defensive coordinator for CIAA powerhouse Winston-Salem State. The Rams won 60 games and three league championships during Hayes’ tenure on the staff.
Bennett, an FSU graduate, had previously worked with Hayes at Winston-Salem State and believed his philosophy was the right fit for the Broncos.
“I could kind of tell the guys that were here at the time weren’t quite used to having the success I was used to coming from Winston-Salem State,” Hayes says. “So my big thing was to try to get the right kids in here with the right mindset, who wanted to be good football players and good students as well.
“We didn’t get to recruit anybody that first year, so we played with what we had. The second year, I brought that crowd of freshmen in here. Those are the kids that just left after five years, who brought a winning attitude. They are going to be hard to replace.”
After going 4-6 in his debut season at FSU, Hayes’ teams have gone 6-5, 6-3, 8-3 and 8-2 overall and have lost just four games in CIAA regular-season play. Those records might have been even better if not for COVID-19, which led the CIAA to cancel the 2020 football season. Fayetteville State would have been one of the favorites to win the title that year.
As the Broncos prepare for a highly anticipated 2022 season opener against regional rival UNC Pembroke on Sept. 3 at Jeralds Stadium, Hayes must find replacements for 22 players who completed their eligibility at the end of last season.
“There is a winning expectation, and we know it,” Hayes says. “We’re going to try to continue that.”
Tom McAllister will be among the thousands expected to be in the stands when the Broncos take on UNC Pembroke.
McAllister started attending FSU football games during his prep days, spent just around the corner at E.E. Smith High School. He left Fayetteville to pursue a career in the Washington area for 30 years before retiring and returning to his hometown. He now is at Jeralds Stadium for all of Fayetteville State’s home football games and travels to many of the Broncos’ away contests.
“Everybody wants to attend games now. The students, alumni, everybody is pumped up for football season,” McAllister says. “When I was in high school, I used to go over there a lot to football games. They were fair, but most of the time they had losing seasons. When I retired and came back here, things had changed. That’s why I joined the (booster) club. Now I go to almost every game. We went all the way up to Pennsylvania last year to watch them play, and I’ve been to all four of the championship games in Salem, Virginia.”
Interest in Fayetteville State football has also been enhanced the past two years by its connection to the National Football League. Former Bronco offensive lineman Kion Smith signed a reserve/futures contract with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in January after spending the 2021 season on the practice squad. A reserve/futures contract is the same as a typical NFL contract, except it doesn’t take effect until the start of the next league year.
Then in late April, FSU cornerback Joshua Williams became the program’s first player since 1976 to be selected in the NFL Draft. Williams was taken in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Because of Josh, a lot of kids have seen you can come to a small school like Fayetteville State and still get that NFL recognition and get drafted,” Hayes says.
So fans coming to Jeralds Stadium on a Saturday this fall have the chance to see a winning team with potential NFL talent in an exciting environment.
“I can’t wait,” McAllister says. “It’s the best place to spend a Saturday afternoon.”