The FCS National Championship game will feature two of the most impressive programs in the nation.
The Story of Sam Washington
Some will tell you that the joy of success does not come in the absence of struggle.
Often times, the lessons that we learn through our struggle is what prepares us for our breakthrough.
North Carolina A&T head football coach, Sam Washington, is now enjoying his football breakthrough on a national stage.
Washington was the defensive coordinator that helped lead the Aggies to their first Celebration Bowl title in 2015 and was the mastermind behind one of the best HBCU defenses ever when North Carolina A&T went undefeated and captured another Celebration Bowl Championship in 2017.
In 2018, he won another HBCU national championship in his first season as head coach of the Aggies and just recently led North Carolina A&T to its third straight HBCU national championship this past December in the 2019 Celebration Bowl with a 64-44 victory against Alcorn State.
The rise of Washington and the North Carolina A&T program has been meteoric. But for Washington, the winner’s podium at Mercedes Benz Stadium is not where his story begins.
The story begins in a small community in Tampa, Florida, and with a mother that pushed him to a game at eight years old that would help teach him one of the most key lessons of life: It’s not about if adversity hits you, it’s how you handle it when it does.
“Football has been tremendous for me,” said Washington. “I’ve eaten out of a can and I’ve eaten with my feet under the table at the White House, if you do this thing right it will travel with you and take you places you never dreamed of.”
In his small Tampa community, Washington says he was the only eight year old to ever play with the Tampa Eagles and by nine years old he was a co-captain.
This was a huge milestone in a community that Washington says saw 10 players from his little league eventually play in NFL. And even with all of that competition, Washington says he only lost three football games in five years playing with the Tampa Eagles.
From his humble upbringing with his mother, Washington became a standout defensive back for Mississippi Valley State in the late 70s and early 80s. His Delta Devil career overlapped with eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice, before Washington graduated in 1982.
Washington’s Coaching Career
Washington would then go on to have multiple coaching stints with various HBCUs before finding his home in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The people that I have met along my journey the likes of Tony Dungy, Chuck Knowles, Bill Parcels, Football has been great to me,” Washington said “It molded me and developed me into who I am today.”
And who is he is today is a coach that has made history. Washington’s second straight win against Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl placed the Tampa native in a rare stratosphere of coaches that have compiled success early in their head coaching career.
“Not many coaches won two national championships in their first two years as a head coach,” said Aggies star running back and Black College Football player of the year finalist, Jah-Maine Martin. “It’s rare for him to even be able to be in that position it’s a blessing, it’s great and I feel like he’s got some years to go and he’s going to fulfill his destiny.”
Washington Fosters a Bond With His Players
A key part of Washington’s success has been his ability to instill confidence into his players. Whether it is with viral memes or crazy locker room dances with his players after big wins, Washington has gained a level of trust with his players that not many coaches obtain. This helps give his players a comfort that helps them perform on the field.
“Whenever he step we gonna step behind him, we got a lot of love for our coach and we gonna stand behind him through anything.” said former FCS All American and Aggies defensive back Mac McCain.
“He’s a team coach, a lot of coaches they don’t even ask the team certain questions about how they want to go about certain stuff they just make their own plans and everybody gotta follow them,” said Martin. “Coach Washington actually asks us and takes a vote to see how we actually want to do stuff he’s more of a player coach. “
That player-coach has helped North Carolina A&T become the only FCS school to have a player selected in the NFL Draft in each of the last three seasons. Not only has his tutelage paid off on the collegiate level but it has helped foster the success of Aggies in the pros.
“He always told me when I first got here that I could be a real good corner that just stuck with me and that just gave me confidence that I could do this, “ said McCain.
“He gives us great confidence, he’s behind us 100,000 percent and we are behind him 100,000 percent, said Martin. “He’s played a lot of football and seen a lot of football so he know what he talking about. “
Washington’s Confidence is Real
Over 50 years in the game of football have helped make him a savant on the gridiron.
He has grown his knowledge without losing that competitive edge he acquired from his childhood days in Tampa.
“We’ll put our little team up against anybody, I haven’t met a team out there we can’t beat, I really have not.” Washington stated. “I try to keep it as realistic as possible but I just truly believe we have a chance, if we do the little things right and we’ll have a chance.”
Washington has been keeping it real his whole career. Some of his critics will say that he has been a little too real.
Washington came under fire for comments he made throughout the 2019 season against other MEAC teams.
Most notably his comments calling Florida A&M “a lesser team” after losing a game against the rattlers in October and saying that the Aggies allowed themselves to “fall into their trap” while down in Tallahassee.
Washington went on to criticize some of the calls made by the officials late in that game against FAMU that he felt were crucial in the outcome.
The MEAC would later fine Washington $500 for his comments on the officiating.
“There are sometimes I need to hesitate before I speak out, but I’m going to speak my mind and I’ll deal with the consequences,” said Washington.
“I’m just being me, that’s just the honest truth what you see is what you get with me, I don’t sugarcoat it, I don’t dress it up, I just try to do right by people and I expect people to do right by me.”
It’s safe to say Washington has done right by his team and by the A&T fans.
Washington wouldn’t get into what the Celebration Bowl victory meant for his status among FCS coaches or what it meant for his legacy as one of the best HBCU football coaches ever.
However, the outspoken Tampa kid would rather focus on what got him here and the lessons he learned in his small Florida community that have made one of the best coaches in all of FCS Football.
“I think it’s very important that I do the little things right and well and keep everything in between the lines and let the chips fall where they may,” said Washington. “You can’t hope something is going to happen you gotta sit down and think out a little plan and then execute it and take it one step at a time. “
Those steps have led Washington to the Mountaintop for the fourth time in five years. They have cemented his spot as one of the top FCS coaches in the sport and crystallized his legacy at North Carolina A&T.
Many will wonder about the next steps for Washington. Will he look for a new challenge outside of North Carolina A&T maybe at another school or in the professional ranks?
“I’m not sure where my journey is going to begin or end,” said Washington. “I’m just enjoying the ride.”
North Carolina A&T will face off against perennial FCS power, North Dakota State, early in the 2020 season.