There's a sense of dread hovering over Morgan State football coach Lee Hull, but it has little to do with Richmond, his team's opponent in its first Football Championship Subdivision playoff game in school history.
"I still think I'm dreaming and that somebody is going to wake me up and say that this has all been a cruel joke," Hull said. "But it's great. It's a great feeling."
As the Bears (7-5) prepare to meet the Spiders (8-4) in Saturday's first-round game at Robins Stadium in Richmond at 1 p.m., excitement surrounding the program's success has grown immensely.
Tickets for the 8,700-seat stadium have been sold out, at least two busloads of students will depart from Morgan State's campus, and athletic director Floyd Kerr's phone hasn't stopped ringing since Saturday when the team captured a share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and earned the league's automatic berth in the postseason.
The enthusiasm is well deserved considering how improbable the Bears' path to this stage was.
After going 5-7 last season, the school declined to renew the contract of coach Donald Hill-Eley, who had spent 12 years leading the program. Following series of interviews, the search committee settled on a wide receivers coach at the University of Maryland who had never been a head coach or even an offensive coordinator.
"I'm old school, and my upbringing was through tutors who were organizers — they communicated well, and they paid a lot of attention to detail," Kerr said. "[Hull] brought those three things there, and he brought a persona that really helped support that. It all started at his press conference when [former Terp and current Ravens wide receiver] Torrey Smith showed up and so did [Hull's] son, and his wife and family were there. I knew this was going to be a huge change for Morgan's football program because those messages he gave then were indicators that this program was going to go somewhere."
In his first few months on the job, Hull sought to change the culture within the program, seeking to instill discipline and accountability. He scheduled Monday morning meetings with coaches and players to discuss academics and off-field behavior, jettisoned players whose grades weren't high enough and encouraged players to sit at the front of their classrooms and become leaders.
It took a while, but the players bought into Hull's demands.
That didn't mean everyone bought in, though. At the end of July, the MEAC released its preseason poll and the Bears discovered that they were picked to finish ninth in the conference. (There are 11 teams in the league, but Florida A&M and Savannah State were not included in the poll because they were not eligible for the postseason.)
Hull printed "9" on sheets of paper and had the papers attached to every player's locker and the wall in his own office. The players fumed over a prediction that they considered an insult.
"I thought that was ridiculous," said redshirt junior wide receiver Andrew King (Atholton). "We finished third last year [with a 5-3 conference record]. But it was probably because we had a new coach. We didn't see a problem with that, though."
That setback seemed trivial after freshman defensive lineman Marquese Meadow died Aug. 24. The Washington, D.C., resident collapsed during an Aug. 10 practice, and an autopsy revealed that complications related to heatstroke contributed to his death.
Players and coaches grieved, and senior inside linebacker Cody Acker said the memory of Meadow brought the team together.
"It gave us a goal that was bigger than anything," Acker said. "You always want to win just because of your competitive nature, but having someone to win for because he was in our lives and we lost him, that definitely brought us closer."
After losing its first two games by a field goal each, Morgan State went 4-1 in its next five and asserted itself into the MEAC race. But redshirt senior quarterback Robert Council, who had started the first seven games, injured his groin.
Redshirt junior Moses Skillon filled in, going 1-1 as a starter during Council's injury. After both quarterbacks fared miserably in a 45-0 loss to North Carolina A&T on Nov. 8, Hull named Skillon his starter.
Kerr said Skillon embodied a team mantra, "Be ready so that you don't have to get ready."
"I think these kids have bought into that, and Moses Skillon is a kid who really bought into that," Kerr said. "I feel really happy for him, because he's in his third year here, and he's basically sat out all these years waiting his turn. And when he got his opportunity, he made the best of it."
Skillon led the Bears to wins against South Carolina State and Delaware State, and when North Carolina Central upset North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State defeated Norfolk State on Saturday, Morgan State's first MEAC championship in 35 years was sealed.
Hull's former boss is in a small group not surprised by his immediate success.
"Lee did a good job, and it's great to see guys that have worked for you who get their opportunity to be head coaches and have success," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "Lee did an outstanding job at Morgan State this year."
Overall, this year has been a fulfilling experience for Hull.
"One of the coaches said to me, 'In your first year, you've probably been through everything that a coach who has been coaching for 15 years has been through,'" Hull said. "It's been tough at times. But I'll be a better coach and a better person for this in the long run."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Matt Zenitz contributed to this article.