S.C. State coach Buddy Pough (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

S.C. State coach Buddy Pough, a former USC assistant coach, brings his Bulldogs to Williams-Brice Stadium on Oct. 1. File/AP

Buddy Pough is as old-school as they come, in his 20th season as head coach at his old school, S.C. State, where he was an All-MEAC offensive lineman in his hometown.

But all that knowledge makes Pough more flexible in a college football time full of newness.

He originally was opposed to a Celebration Bowl concept that in 2015 began matching champions of the two most prominent conferences among Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the MEAC and SWAC. Pough preferred participation in the FCS playoffs.

Not anymore.

“The S.C. State fan base is as excited and energized as I’ve ever seen them,” Pough, 68, said as he prepared the Bulldogs for a Dec. 18 Celebration Bowl clash with SWAC champ Jackson State and head coach Deion Sanders at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Dome.

Pough can also see the benefits of an alternative approach to what’s best for HBCU sports success: integration into a non-HBCU conference. Hampton and North Carolina A&T have joined the Big South Conference and other schools might follow.

This appears to be a critical, fascinating time for HBCU fans, boosters, administrators and athletes.

Sanders’ dazzling leap into coaching has sparked interest. From increased ESPN coverage to television commercials starring “Coach Prime,” the HBCU spotlight has never been brighter. The highlight came on the Dec. 15 early signing day when Sanders got five-star cornerback prospect Travis Hunter to flip his commitment from Florida State, Sanders' alma mater, to Jackson State. 

"I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow," Hunter explained, "make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more."

But North Carolina A&T and Hampton didn’t bail out because HBCU conference cash was flowing in.

“There’s room for the different schools of thought,” Pough said. “You have some schools that want to go more mainstream and some of us want to stay in our traditional HBCU leagues.”

The Celebration Bowl certainly comes with perks, including swag bags for players.

Delta is providing charter flights for both teams.

Truist will give all the players a financial literacy seminar.

The teams will tour the College Football Hall of Fame.

Celebration Bowl officials say the game has been linked to enrollment application increases for participating schools.

That includes North Carolina A&T, a winner of four of the five games but not involved this season after the bolt to the Big South.

N.C. A&T and Hampton

“I had some great memories in the MEAC, but looking forward I’m really excited about what the Big South has to bring for us,” N.C. A&T head coach Sam Washington said at Big South Media Day last summer of the Aggies’ 2020 decision to switch leagues (N.C. A&T in its 2021 Big South debut finished in a tie for third place).

Only one of N.C. A&T’s 13 board members objected to the move, in big part because the school estimates it will save approximately $500,000 per year in sports team travel costs by playing within the geographically-friendly Big South.

That’s big money for any FCS athletic department and something that surely caught the attention of administrators at S.C. State, where a financial crisis in 2015 threatened to temporarily shutter the school for one fiscal year.

As with Jackson State and Sanders, Tennessee State has received extra attention this season because of a former NFL star-turned-head coach, Eddie George. But the Tigers left HBCU-heavy scheduling to join the Ohio Valley Conference in 1986.

Pough thinks S.C. State will stay the MEAC course.

“I don’t necessarily have an exact plan for what would be best as far as the football-playing schools are concerned,” he said, “but I can tell you that we seem to like what we’re doing and I think we’ll continue to go that way.”

On to Atlanta and a push for Celebration Bowl growth.

Tony Elliott, Billy Napier

“It was obvious from the very beginning that this was something that should have been,” Pough said. “This game will get bigger and better as we continue to build. It’s moving at warp speed.”

Pough also said he hopes S.C. State can steal “a little luster” from the publicity Sanders has generated for Jackson State. The coach is too modest: Orangeburg is shining itself as 2021 has been a great year for former S.C. State players and coaches.

Donnie Shell became the fourth former S.C. State player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame joining Marion Motley, Deacon Jones and Harry Carson. All other Palmetto State schools have combined for one Pro Football Hall of Famer, Clemson's Brian Dawkins.

Billy Napier, whose first full-time coaching job was as quarterbacks coach under Pough in 2005, was hired as Florida head coach.

Tony Elliott, whose first full-time coaching job was as Bulldogs wide receivers coach under Pough in 2006 and 2007, was hired as Virginia head coach.

Which shows that HBCU football – from the glory days of legendary former Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson to schools jumping to the Big South to S.C. State vs. Coach Prime in Atlanta – has worked for the benefit of all of football.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff