Ex-Panther Mike Minter prepares Campbell for Charlotte 49ers

Photo by Will Bratton
Photo by Will Bratton

— Campbell is Buies Creek. Buies Creek is Campbell. There are 4,663 students on campus, 3,000 of them undergraduates. There are no hotels, no big-time restaurants, no bars and no liquor by the drink. There is a gold-brown statue of an athletic looking camel.

Across U.S. 421 from the camel is Barker-Lane Stadium. On the artificial turf, whistle hanging from his neck, is football coach Mike Minter.

"I'm where I'm supposed to be," says Minter, 39. "You try to fight it, you try to do other things. But the Lord has a funny way of making you know where you're supposed to be."

Also funny is where Minter will be at noon Saturday. He and his Fighting Camels will travel by bus three hours west to play the Charlotte 49ers.

Think about it. The football game, scheduled long before Minter was hired, will be the first for the 49ers as a program and the first for Minter as a college head coach. They'll play at Jerry Richardson Stadium. For 10 seasons Minter played safety for the Panthers, the team Richardson owns.

Before committing to his new profession, Minter sat with Richardson.

"Mike was a leader of the defense and anybody who knows him knows he can motivate people," Richardson says Tuesday. "I told him about how coaches live almost as gypsies. The better they perform, the more they move. I wanted to make sure Mike understood that."

Minter understood. He sold his house north of Charlotte and moved his family to Nebraska. Minter, who grew up in Oklahoma, had helped lead the Cornhuskers to two national championships in 1994 and '95. His wife is from Nebraska. The Minters have three children in school there and Nebraska is their home.

Minter could be a gypsy. He couldn't ask his family to be.

After coaching Concord's First Assembly Christian to two state championships in three seasons, Minter worked as an assistant for a year at Johnson C. Smith and an assistant for a year at Liberty. He accepted the Campbell job in November.

As a player, Minter was so intense that a former teammate told me he didn't like to warm up with him because when they cracked pads Minter hit him as if it was fourth-and-1.

Out here in the 5,500-seat stadium, beneath the CU water tower and in front of the construction crews building seats and suites, Minter is calm. He moves from group to group urging and imploring but, despite the hammering, never yelling.

"I expected an in-your-face NFL defensive back," says athletics director Bob Roller. "But he's a teacher. There's an incredible lack of yelling."

Starting over

Campbell, which had long abandoned football, started it again in 2008. The Fighting Camels play in the Pioneer Football League with Davidson. They have a record of 14-41 in their five seasons and only once have won more than three games. They won one game in 2012.

Why Minter?

"A lot of teams were looking for coaches and somebody was going to hire Mike," says Roller. "I knew it. It was in my heart and in my gut."

Roller had never met Minter. Roller called him. They talked 90 minutes.

"It was love at first sight," says Minter. "Or first sound."

At 5 the next morning Minter sent Roller what Roller says is the longest text message in the history of text messages. Roller's employers expected candidates to fly into Raleigh and drive south to campus for interviews. After the text, there were no other candidates.

"I wouldn't be overstating it if I said he has been transformational," says Roller.

When a keynote speaker was required to address incoming freshmen at the medallion ceremony – freshmen receive a medallion and return it when they graduate – Minter was the choice.

"I'm not out of touch with reality," says Roller. "I don't expect Mike to stay forever. But before he goes we're going to be a playoff team."

Let's imagine the home of a high school football star as Minter, one of the most popular players in Panthers history, comes to the door. The Fighting Camels do not offer football scholarships. So what's the pitch? Play for me at a Baptist school in Buies Creek and take out a loan?

Do you perhaps let it slip that you played in the NFL?

Minter considers the question in his office in the Irvin Warren Athletic center. Above him a picture of his hero, Muhammad Ali, implores a prone Sonny Liston to get up off the canvas.

"I say guess what. Every other head coach that comes in here, they watched football on Sunday," Minter tells the players he courts. "I played it on Sunday. So when I tell you something, that's how it is."

Campbell junior safety Brandon Stegall played for Minter at First Assembly and remembers their first meeting.

"I'm sitting there a 16-year-old kid and I'm about to get coached by an NFL safety," Stegall says.

'Not a novelty act'

Many people once were a big deal. But what they were doesn't last. Former football stars fail as coaches and commentators and at other jobs between.

"He's not a novelty act," says Roller.

Fred Whitfield, the chief operating officer and president of the Charlotte Bobcats, received his undergraduate and MBA at Campbell and starred for the basketball team. He is true to his school.

"Mike is the perfect hire," says Whitfield. "He has the reputation and the work ethic and commitment."

Minter is a friend of Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose, and before the 49ers decided to add football, served as an ambassador for the school.

Didn't you want the 49ers' football job?

"Yeahhhh," Minter says, letting the word dangle beneath Ali and Liston. "Absolutely."

One senses a bit of an edge.

"Just tell them not to beat us too bad," Minter says. "They've been saying they're going to beat us 49-0."

They said that?

"(Chancellor Phillip) Dubois did," says Minter. "I like him; he's a visionary. But he said it. It's documented."

I didn't think Charlotte-area chancellors are allowed to talk trash.

"He said it jokingly," says Rose.

Dubois was talking to 49ers fans and said 49-0 would be a nice score.

Campbell won one more game than the 49ers last season, and has upperclassmen. Yet Minter does not talk like a favorite.

"They play at a level of speed we're not used to," he says. "They're well coached. The hope is we don't give them anything, make them earn everything, and we're still in it in the fourth quarter. Let me put it this way. If I'm them, I feel pretty good. They have 63 scholarships. We don't have any."

Charlotte is starting fresh and Campbell is starting over. The only certainty is that tickets are hard to come by, as the constant ring of Minter's cell phone attests. He has 12 tickets and they're going to his pastor and his pastor's family and employees at Minter's Charlotte business.

"I can't get anymore," Minter says. "They don't want any orange and black in that stadium."

They can't keep you off the field.

"I'm sure Mr. Richardson is going to be there Saturday," Minter says. "So it will be good to play in front of him and show him what we can do. Man, if I was drawing the movie up, I couldn't have written it any better."