BUIES CREEK — The last time Earl Smith was on the sidelines for a Campbell University football game, his team was playing on the baseball field with the bleachers turned so the players wouldn’t ruin the infield.
On Aug. 30, Smith sat in a motorized wheelchair on a high-tech, artificial turf field in a new stadium watching the Camels take the field for the first time in 58 years.
Smith was coach when Campbell last played football in 1950. Now 91 years old, he returned to see his former team play its 2008 opener against the Birmingham-Southern College Panthers. He was one of 5,845 people in attendance, the largest crowd ever at a Campbell home athletic event.
Campbell took an early 3-0 lead in the game, but went on to lose 12-6.
The Camels also lost 32-21 on the road Sept. 6 to Methodist University in Fayetteville.
Smith said he didn’t know Campbell was bringing football back until the announcement in April 2006. When school officials asked him if he and some of his former players could come to the school for a special event, he thought they might be receiving some sort of honor.
Instead, Campbell President Jerry Wallace and other school officials came out throwing footballs to a gathered crowd.
“It was exciting,” he said. “I had no idea.”
“I was jolted in fact because I didn’t think they’d ever have football again,” he said.
Football was discontinued in 1950 because the school couldn’t afford it, Smith said. At the time the school had two major financial drains, a farm that grew food to feed the 300 students and the football program, he said.
“I was in agreement with them,” he said. “In fact, we were about to go broke.”
Smith left for East Carolina University, where he helped coach football, baseball and basketball. In 40 years of coaching, he said he only had one team with a losing record.
At Campbell, his football teams ran the single wing offense and various defenses.
“In fact we might change (the defense) during the game,” he said. “If you sit still on defense, they’ll beat you to death.”
After Campbell won three straight championships, other schools broke up the conference. Another coach told Smith that the other schools thought Campbell was spending too much on football.
In fact, Campbell was spending less than other schools, according to Smith.
“We just worked harder,” he said.
Smith said Campbell didn’t have good facilities then, but played good football.
“I mean we played good football,” he said.
Before the game Aug. 30, Smith and some of his former players were introduced. They waved as the crowd cheered.
Smith said he loved his players. Many served in World War II before coming to college, he said.
“They were just like my sons,” he said.
Now Smith’s granddaughter, a student at Campbell, can enjoy football’s return.
“I’m just tickled to death they’re bringing football back,” he said.
Before they were introduced to the crowd, Smith and his former players met inside Campbell’s new field house to reminisce and tell stories of their days with the team.
Calvin Perry, 82, played wingback in 1948-49.
“We were very close back in those days,” he said.
Bill Small, who attended Campbell between 1953-1955 when it was a junior college, agreed that the added sport would unite students, faculty and alumni. Small, who lives in Fair Bluff, tailgated before the game and holds season tickets.
“We’re excited to have football at Campbell,” said Small, who commented on the good turnout. “We think it will unify the students.”
Small said home games would keep students on campus over the weekends.
That extra time in Buies Creek will pay off for the local economy as well as Campbell, he said.
Just before the game started, the Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team delivered the game ball to the field. Campbell president Jerry Wallace waved it to the crowd.
Excited fans, some in orange wigs and body paint, filled the stands. Many Fighting Camel parents cheered on the team.
“We are thrilled,” said Deborah Constantine, mother of wide receiver Paul Constantine of Raleigh. “It’s a wonderful thing to have football back at Campbell.”
At halftime Wallace and Board of Trustees Chairman Harold Wells announced that the new facility has been named Barker-Lane Stadium, in recognition of contributions from Fuquay-Varina entrepreneurs Bob Barker and Don Lane. Barker and Lane have made a joint pledge of $4 million dollars to the football program.
Austin Dancer, a freshman, was excited to be at the game.
“I came from a high school that was big on football,” Dancer said. “I love the atmosphere of a college football game.”
Campbell alumna Lauren Purdy of Greenville, said football games are great for school spirit.
Purdy, who majored in trust and investment management and received her master’s degree in business administration, works for a subsidiary of BB&T as a credit manager and internal auditor.
“It was kind of hard to get in the school spirit when I was a student here because we didn’t have a football team,” she said. “I think football will really unite Campbell.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Campbell University Communications contributed to this report.)