By Matt Levin
From the “laughingstock” of college football to conference champions and school heroes.
It was nearly 20 years ago when Northeastern football won their first and only conference championship in their 76 year history. November 23, 2002 is a day often forgotten in our sports lore after the school cut its program in 2009. But for Northeastern football alumni, the 2002 season is one they will never forget.
For years, Northeastern was the laughingstock of Division I-AA (now FCS) college football. Between 1979 and 2002, they had only four seasons where they finished with a winning record. Northeastern joined the Atlantic-10 conference in 1997 and until 2002, they had a record of 14-27 against other teams in the conference.
So what was different about the 2002 team compared to any other team in Northeastern football history? It was their head coach, Don Brown. Brown became the head coach in 2000, with his main goal being to change the culture of the program and instill a winning mentality.
“Everybody was used to losing,” safety Anthony Nolen, who played at Northeastern from 2001 to 2003, said. “By week three or four, he benched two senior starters and put in a freshman, Shawn Brady, at quarterback. He opened everyone’s eyes. The best players play, seniority doesn’t get you anything.”
Charles Hughley, who played defensive back at Northeastern from 2001 to 2006, reiterated Nolen’s point.
“During that first year, a lot of freshmen ended up taking starting spots. A lot of players who didn’t have the winning fabric lost their jobs. Shawn Brady, myself, I can go on and on.”
William Griffin, a running back at Northeastern from 1999 to 2002, noticed the change in his teammates’ mentality once Coach Brown entered Northeastern in 2000.
“My sophomore year was the transition year,” Griffin said. “Starting my junior year, to tell you the truth, everyone was dedicated. Senior year, we all had confidence. People knew the system and the plays.”
In 2001, Northeastern went 5-6 overall and 4-5 in conference play. The team began to hit its stride towards the end of the season, winning four of their last six games. Safety Mike Jackson, who played at Northeastern from 2000 to 2003, described 2001 as the year when the team “scratched the surface.” By 2002, Northeastern football had a winning culture and the team was like a family.
“The championship year was different. We had something to prove and we had the talent to do it,” Nolen said. “We had a year under our belt and had a team that no one had seen before. We knew we were good and the confidence was there.”
Jackson also took notice of the team’s culture.
“We felt like we were winners in everything that we did. We were brothers. We took care of each other,” he said. “We fought in a good way. We really pushed each other in the locker room and on the field. It is really because of our leadership. Our coaches deliberately made us feel uncomfortable to prepare us and it accumulated in wins.”
Michael Rosenborough, a right tackle at Northeastern from 2002 to 2005, was a freshman on the 2002 team, but took notice of the leadership of the upperclassmen.
“I always remember them being like veterans,” he said. “They expected you to show up, go to work, and give it your all.”
Hughley emphasized how the team was like a brotherhood.
“It was the best example of camaraderie of any team I’ve ever played on … Even to this day, I still keep in contact with a majority of my collegiate teammates more than any other team I’ve played on.”
The 2002 Northeastern football team was one of their most talented teams in school history. The team would finish the year with six players making First Team All-Conference (Steve Anzalone, Liam Ezekiel, Tim Gale, Miro Kesic, John McDonald, and Art Smith). Three players would make Second Team All-Conference (Kurt Abrams, Tom Olivo, and Adam Walter) and an additional one would make Third Team All-Conference (Adam Bourget).
Entering the 2002 season, Northeastern was projected to finish 10th in the Atlantic-10 Conference preseason poll. Second to last. Again. But the people inside the program knew it would be different, especially after that first game.
“We went out to Ohio [University] and we smacked them. That’s when we were like, ‘Okay, we can play with anybody,’” Nolen said. “We had our motivation guys give the ra-ra speeches. Coach Brown was that guy. You put a helmet on him, he would play too.”
Hughley noted that the team was “focused on winning the national championship. There was cussing, I used to bark before every game because of that. People complained, but instead of reprimanding us, Coach Brown just told us that people were talking about us.”
The 2002 team was the best team Northeastern put on the field. But they still faced an obstacle that previous teams had a hard time getting past: the field itself. Northeastern football practiced and played on Parsons Field.
For some, it is hard to be motivated to play when one is playing Division I football on a field comparable to that of a high school field.
“When I came to a field on a recruiting trip, I thought it was a practice field,” Griffin said. “Parson’s Field is located in Brookline; teams will usually take a bus to get there. The field is in the middle of a neighborhood, so games and practices are not allowed to be held at night.”
When asked about playing on Parsons Field, Hughley started laughing.
“It was a subpar collegiate field for most sports,” he said. “There were not too many fans.”
But Hughley said Coach Brown taught the team to embrace the field, turning it into a home field advantage.
“Coach Brown emphasized that this was the dogyard. When people came here to play, it was uncomfortable for them,” Hughley said.
From 2001 to 2003, Northeastern would only lose one non-playoff game at Parsons Field. Rosenborough reiterated that Parsons Field brought out the best of Northeastern football.
“It was the greatest home field advantage in the nation,” Rosenborough said. “As you played, you got to appreciate how much of a home field advantage it was. Teams were like, ‘What is going on here?’ Teams hated coming in there; the visiting locker room was so small. It sucked but it was ours.”
Today, Parsons Field is still used by the men’s and women’s soccer and baseball teams, and was renovated in 2019 to include new state-of-the-art turf.
Not only was the field subpar, but so were the fans; Northeastern students rarely came to games, if they came at all.
The crowd at Parsons Field was “built up of cheerleaders, your parents, your family and your girlfriend,” Jackson said.
Griffin said that the crowd at games before the 2002 season was “pathetic.” But when the team started winning in 2002, people began to take notice.
“We had a packed stadium my senior year. They had to put extra seating in the endzone because it would overflow. It was awesome,” he said. “To us, it was like, ‘Protect our house;’ it was our home field. For my first three years, it was a complaining session. That field was an issue until our coaching staff turned a negative into a positive, made it a mentality of protecting our house.”
In the 2002 season, Northeastern would finish with a record of 10-3 and a conference record of 7-2, the most wins they ever had in a season. In the Atlantic-10 championship, Northeastern had a matchup against James Madison University. The game wasn’t even close.
Nolen remembers the game like it was yesterday.
“We had black over black home field jerseys; we knew we had to win,” Nolen said. “It was an unbelievable feeling. We went from sucking to winning a championship. You put the hard work in and it pays off. By halftime, we were looking at the playoff game.”
Northeastern would crush JMU 41-10, winning a conference title for the first – and only – time in school history.
Though the team had expectations of a national championship, those dreams would fall short after a 29-24 upset loss to Fordham in the first round of the playoffs. The memories and lessons these players learned, though, was something that they would never forget.
Jackson, who is currently the head coach of Towson University’s track and field and cross country program, uses what he learned during football in his coaching.
“I learned a lot in my experience as a young man, to be ready for hard moments. It planted the seeds for my career,” he said. “Coach Brown taught me there was nothing that I can’t accomplish. He said to kick the door in, don’t wait for someone to open the door. This was the foundation for me as a coach. I didn’t realize how much I took from him until I started doing it.”
Rosenborough also fondly remembers his time at Northeastern.
“I miss the team. I legit miss Parsons Field. There is not a field like that anywhere else,” he said. “I am thankful for the opportunity. I would not change it, I would go back all over again.”