Put it this way: In the coarse art of picking bowl-game winners, it has grown common to pinpoint teams that might not care so much based on regular season disappointments, then to wager upon their opponents. It happens with just about every bowl at some point, yet as the Celebration Bowl proved again Saturday when the points gushed and spilled as if from a slot machine in North Carolina A&T's 64-44 win over Alcorn State, not caring all that much will never happen here.
"We'll never have a team like that," Sam Washington, North Carolina A&T's second-year coach, had said Friday. "I can tell you. That'll never happen."
Those words came even before his program came to qualify as dynastic with a third straight Celebration Bowl win and a fourth out of five. It came before his graduate quarterback, Kylil Carter, made violin-worthy throws toward six touchdown passes, then treated reporters to a detailed tour of his collection of rings, lined upon the interview dais. It came before the defensive bones of Washington, formerly a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back under Chuck Noll, suffered through a seven-touchdown third quarter that clearly offended the fibers of his being — at least his team "won" the quarter, 28-21 — and wound up at the habitual trophy presentation saying: "It's people. And it's players. That's what it's all about."
The Celebration Bowl could major in meaning simply for its homage to those extraordinary beings imperishable against American history's vile tides: historically black colleges and universities. Somehow, it boasts pure-football resonance, too. It's a one-off, authentic, a chance to declare a national title and a bowl from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision so fetching that the Football Bowl Association edited its bylaws to include a Celebration among the aristocrats.
"As we communicate to not only the city but also the officials of the state, there are only two Division I HBCU conferences," John Grant, the Atlanta civic leader and the bowl's executive director, said in an interview in November. "That's the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference. There are only two. So this game can't be duplicated. It is an asset. There can only be one, and we now have it."
It pits the MEAC winner against the SWAC winner instead of having both venture separately into the FCS playoffs (which generated less splash and value). It seeks a wider experience as with its partnership with the dynamic Greek communities of HBCUs. It radiates with life and bands and tubas swaying back and forth in unison in the stands after touchdowns. It has yet to yield even one dud, with Saturday's scoreboard glee piled atop 2015 (a stop at the 9-yard line with nine seconds left), 2016 (a blocked extra point with 2:14 left), 2017 (a winning touchdown with 38 seconds left) and 2018 (a missed two-point conversion try with 12 minutes left).
Bowls have croaked here and there and everywhere through time, but this one . . .
Asked if he has a scintilla of doubt it will exist 50 years from now, Grant said he had no such scintilla.
"Why wouldn't you keep it around for a hundred years and continue to grow?" he said. "It makes business sense to do so. And if you've got the only one that exists — if I'm out in the desert and there's one horse, I'm riding it. And right now, ESPN [which owns the bowl] and Walt Disney [which owns ESPN] have that one horse [to televise on Disney's ABC]. And what I'm proud of, the fact is, they're riding it."
Call it a smallish horse adjacent the bigger, louder, richer Football Bowl Subdivision, but call it one of those stouthearted horses nonetheless. Its TV ratings last year surpassed those of 13 FBS bowls, according to the Football Foundation, and pulled up nearly identical to five others, including Auburn against Purdue and Minnesota vs. Georgia Tech. Its customary in-stadium attendance — 32,968 on Saturday, its second-highest to date — puts it well above other early bowls.
Even all of that can't match a further boon: Rapidly the bowl has roosted itself high in the consciousness of the 19 MEAC and SWAC teams and their coaches, right on from even the hellish heat of August practice in places such as southwest Mississippi near the Mississippi River, where Alcorn State players' minds filled with Celebration all the way back to last spring. Such preoccupation seemed clear in the exhilaration of the aftermath, when a North Carolina A&T freshman, linebacker Jacob Roberts, sat on the 50-yard line with his defensive player of the game trophy, posing for photo after photo while appearing to be one of the world's happiest people.
"Happy. Amazed. In shock," Roberts described himself.
"Lovely," Carter described his feelings.
The same could go for those fielding applications, the pile of which has thickened at North Carolina A&T, as reported by the Greensboro News & Record and others, because of the Celebration Bowl and the annual three hours of national TV.
"Oh, man," Washington said, before describing the ripples of the recognition.
"I tell you what," Alcorn State Coach Fred McNair said, before describing the same.
Calling it "an A-1 championship bowl" and "top-of-the-line from every angle," Washington said it "made a great platform for us to showcase our talent."
And speaking in the national dialect of recruiting, McNair said after the game: "Just playing in the Celebration Bowl [for the third time in five years] gives us an edge on some SWAC teams in terms of recruiting. . . . It's been good for us, man."
It breathes from year to year already. Jah-Maine Martin, the North Carolina A&T running back who had gained 1,336 yards coming in here but got only 31 last Celebration Bowl against Alcorn State, said Friday, "They had a good run defense last year, and they held us to minimum yards, and that stuck with me for the whole year [even after a win], and I need revenge."
On Saturday, he had 1 net yard at halftime, with his team using the pass to punish the Braves for the extra defender in the box. Maybe he spent halftime miffed while the bands romped with precision outside. On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, he picked his way behind lineman De'jour Simpson, rolled 75 yards up the right side and slipped only slightly without toppling after he had run all the way into a stadium tunnel.
The tunnel trip seemed to convey again the grand meaning of this, as a quieter event had Friday, when three Alcorn State players finished a news conference and asked charmingly for their name cards, as keepsakes. Maybe someday they will relish them in their dotage while the Celebration Bowl reaches its own dotage, long after Year 5 when Grant already had said, "There isn't a coach or an athletic director or a university president or chancellor who doesn't say, 'Our goal is to get to Atlanta.' "