Justin Petersen is a loud and proud alum of Azusa Pacific University. We crossed paths when he was just randomly searching the internet regarding APU football and found The Lion Wire. He publishes an alumni sports newsletter and wanted to sit down and discuss the site, TAMUC the school and our athletic department, and just talk some D2 football. We thank him for the Q&A and hope to see it in a copy of his quarterly newsletter soon!
JP: So, tell us about your site, The Lion Wire? How did it get started?
TLW: Well, back in early 2012 when I was finishing up my MBA in graduate school, I started to write on a WordPress site to provide a fan’s view of the situation of Lion athletics. Back then, just about every program with the exception of Women’s Soccer and Men’s Basketball was pretty awful. Back then, I called my site “Prairie Lion Nation” due to our location on the Texas Blackland Prairies. I was not thrilled by the name, but it was good enough for the time being. Then I changed it to “Blogging The Blacklands” in 2015 and then finally made the change to The Lion Wire in late 2016. I was doing it by myself until late 2017 when I added Russell McLean, a good friend who has the enthusiasm I needed, and then added Billy Minor in 2018, the first person ever to subscribe to the site, and one of the best receivers in program history who is really good about knowing what these current players go through.
JP: Would it be far to call your site commentary?
TLW: Totally, but commentary based on stats and results, which are pretty hard to refute. We are not hard news as in we just report the score and the box scores and stats. We draw conclusions. A good example is if we face a top 10 team and blow them out 52-7, we are going to be glowing about how well we played, but if we beat a hapless team by that much but turned the ball over 4 times and had 200 yards in penalties, we are going to have a much different take on it. It is a fan community and as long as people say their piece without getting personal, that is fine. If a fan says “Coach so and so is just not a good fit as a coach in my opinion” or “We need to change quarterbacks” that is completely fine, but if it gets personal by saying “Coach or player is an awful person and a moron” we won’t tolerate bashing coaches. Criticism is one thing, bashing is another.
JP: Tell us about your writers.
TLW: Well, I guess ill start with me. 3 of the past 4 generations on my Dad’s side graduated from Commerce and I got a Business degree in Fall of 2007. I had never intended to go to A&M-Commerce, in fact, I almost went to your school out of High School to be on your track team like I told you before, but God had other plans for me. I worked about 3 years after college and went back to school to get my MBA and graduated in Fall of 2012. I did not play college football, but developed an intense interest in it watching the games as a student and also watching the offensive innovations of the past 15 years. Russell was in school here from 1979-1981 and was a punter, student assistant, and sideline guy and just loved being a Lion. He played with Wade Wilson and under Ernest Hawkins, the greatest head coach in program history, and before our natty in 2017, witnessed first hand the closest we had come to winning another national title since 1972 during the 1980 season when we lost in the NAIA Division I semifinals. Russ is our hard stats guy and I brought him on when I realized I needed help in late 2017, and talk about an answered prayer. He brought more than what I thought I needed and he analyzes the film and stats and draws conclusions from that. He also knows about Texas High School football as much as anyone I have ever known so he does our Football recruiting. He is a West Texas boy, so that is in his blood, and he just loves being close to the program and is the most outgoing out of all us. The guy has never met a stranger. Billy Minor, like I said is one of the best receivers in school history. He is from Paris, TX, which is just south of the Red River near Oklahoma. He was a two time All-conference performer, won a conference title in 1990 and was an integral part of the success that we had from 1988-1992, including being National quarterfinalists in 1990 and 1991. He signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1993 and also played some Arena League Football with the Dallas Texans in 1993. He coaches youth sports where he lives now and really serves as kind of the more cerebral guy on staff. Russ and I are pretty emotional and intense, and Billy has a more measured temperament, he’s more of a thinker and usually reigns Russ and I back in to think more and cool our jets, (laughs). Billy also knows about what it’s like to be a great player on great teams and the ups and downs of that life for a college athlete. When we evaluate players coming in, especially on offense, Billy has a knack for identifying strengths and weaknesses of that players and how good they will be and is usually right, so both of those guys are invaluable. We are all different in many ways, but our differences make the site what it is, so that is very important to have different inputs and personalities. The one thing we all share aside from our fan passion is the fact non of us thought we would have ended up at ETSU/TAMUC. Russ visited Commerce in high school during a trip and after returning a basketball after a pickup game, met the legendary Coach Ernest Hawkins, chatted with him as he knew some people from Russ’s hometown, and left with an invitation to walk on in the fall of 1979. Despite a stellar high school football career, Billy was headed for the Military before he attended a tryout during the Summer and was awarded a scholarship, and I was headed for Aggieland (Texas A&M University) before my Dad asked me to actually visit the Commerce campus in the late Spring of 2005 and then I realized that Commerce is where I needed to be and got a scholarship to attend. All of us agree it was one of the best decisions of our life.”
JP: “Obvisouly you and I touched base when I found out Harvey Martin played for you guys in the 70’s, but what has the history of the school been in regards to Football?”
TLW: “Well, we have been playing football since 1914, but we joined the Lone Star Conference in 1931 and have been members ever since. The rest of the original schools have either moved up to Division I-FCS or Division I-FBS. We have won our conference or division 25 times and have had success in just about every decade. The 30’s, and 50’s are probably our two best decades from pure wins, but we won the NAIA title in 1972 and Harvey Martin was on that team. The last 7 years have been very fruitful and we had a lot of success from 1970-1996. Our University changed it’s name (I’ll get into that later) and from 1996 to 2012 we only had 2 winning seasons, and two division titles. We went through 3 coaching staffs with all different backgrounds, but when Colby Carthel was hired he just had the magic touch and did exactly what we needed to return to being a top team in the country. We played in the Tangerine Bowl 4 times in the 50’s winning 3 and tying one, blitzed our way through the NAIA playoffs in ’72, went to the NAIA Semis in 1980. Since we joined the NCAA in 1982, we have made the playoffs in 1990, 1991, 1995, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and last year. We also played in bowl games in 2013 and 2014. So we have 25 conference titles, 2 National titles, 4 Bowl Wins. We have played in 28 postseason games and have won 18 of them, and truth be told, could very well have closer to 4-5 national championships is a few things had gone our way or we had been in a different position.”
JP: “Who are some notable Lion players football fans may have heard of?”
TLW: Harvey Martin of course, aside from him, Wade Wilson had a long NFL career and was All-Pro in 1988 I believe, Dwight White won 4 Super Bowls and was a member of the Steelers feared Iron Curtain defense of the ’70’s. Autry Beamon played in a Super Bowl and was a starter in the NFL, Tim Collier was also a starter and won a Super Bowl ring with San Francisco. Alan Veingrad started for the Dallas Cowboys and won a Super Bowl. Curtis Buckley became a feared special teams performer in the NFL and all you have to do is go to youtube and type in “Curtis Buckley knocks out Brian Mitchell” and you will see what I am talking about. Also, we have had some great Arena League Coaches and players such as Mike Trigg, Gary Compton, and Clint Dolezel. We have also had 4 former QB’s start in the NFL (Wade Wilson with Minnesota, Kyle Mackey with Miami, Will Cureton with Cleveland, and Sam McCord with Oakland) and also had 3 QB’s start in the Arena League as well (Mike Trigg, Bob Bounds, and Clint Dolezel. I could name many more.
JP: “Tell us about your University and some notable alums you have.”
TLW: “Well, we are the fourth oldest public school in Texas as were founded in 1889 as East Texas Normal College in a town about 20 minutes to the east called Cooper. The school burned down in 1894 and then they moved into Commerce due to the location of a railroad and it being a hub during those days. They kept the East Texas name and it became a Teacher’s college, then a state college, and then a state university in 1965. In fact, we were the first school in ALL of Texas to offer a Ph.D program. Then in 1996, the Board of Regents decided to join the Texas A&M University system, and they came in and changed the name to Texas A&M University-Commerce. A lot of people were upset by that and I can see why. There were a lot of reasons that were given, mainly because the A&M system felt that we were more North Texas and not East Texas (I actually agree with them) but the name was more than just about geography, it was about identity, and that is something that the University lost and enrollment declined as did the performance our athletic department. When I enrolled as an undergrad in 2005, we had about 8,500 students, now we have over 13,000. The school has really been booming and every time you go through there, new buildings are being built. It’s really exciting as an alum to watch. As far as notable alums that are non-athletes, Sam Rayburn was the longest serving Speaker of the House in US History, Mike Conaway, who is a Congressman who represents The Permian Basin in US House of Representatives and chaired two House Committees when the GOP was in the majority. Duane Allen, who has been the lead singer of the Oak Ridge Boys for almost 50 years, Alphonso Jackson, who served in the George W. Bush Administration as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, John Carlos, who performed the iconic “silent protest” during the 1968 Olympics, and Mike Miller, who is the current coach of the New York Knicks, and as I said earlier there are many more.
JP: “What are some things that you would like others to know about TAMUC?”
TLW: “We are the highest ranked education school in Texas and 13th in the entire nation. If you want to be a teacher and get an A&M-Commerce degree, you are going to get hired by a good school district in DFW or East Texas. Our Business school is in the top 25% worldwide, our Distance MBA program is Top 10 nationally, we have an award winning planetarium, and our Bio-Chemistry department has some of the most well respected people conducting research in the fields of medicine and biomedical sciences. Plus, we just opened a school of nursing with an amazing facility.”
JP: Aside from football, what other sports does TAMUC have strong traditions in?
TLW: “We have national championships in Men’s Basketball and multiple NCAA/NAIA tournament appearances. We also have national championships in Men’s team golf and two in team tennis. As recently as last year, we have had individuals win national titles in Track and Field events. Our Women’s Soccer team is a perennial contender and has made many runs at national titles, and our Women’s Basketball team went to the NCAA Elite 8 in 2007. Over the past couple of seasons, our Women’s program has made tremendous strides in all sports. Our Women’s Basketball team could have very well won the National Championship this year had our season not been cut short, our Volleyball team won their conference twice in the past 3 years, and our Women’s track team is very strong as well. We have a strong tradition in many sports, but right now, all of our programs are very solid.”
JP: “Let’s talk some football. Your team had a very successful coach and last season had a new coach and didn’t seem to miss a beat. Is that just your culture?”
TLW: “Partly yes, but also you have to give a lot of credit to our athletic director Tim McMurray for finding a great hire in David Bailiff and Coach Bailiff and his staff coming in and not just meeting expectations but exceeding them. Your average fan thought we were going to be down this past year and we had our struggles, but the coaches were just great in this transition and I really liked how they took the previous culture and built on it. There is an expectation that all athletes, not just football players, but all athletes take care of business on the field/court/track, in the classroom, and in the community. Like my co-writer Russ said a year ago, at this point, we are not about winning games, but seasons, and that means National Championships.”
JP: “Who would you say is your biggest rival?”
TLW: “I was waiting for this one! Ha! In the past few seasons, it had been Tarleton State, just southwest of Ft. Worth. Rude and nasty fans who have an unearned superiority complex and their players are dirty. They beat us in the regular season this past year on 2-3 VERY questionable calls, but we got our revenge in the playoffs by knocking them out in the first round, something they howled about having to play in because they did not get a first round bye. Well, we gave them a permanent one from the Division II playoffs.”
JP: “I did attend our playoff game against them in 2018 in Stephenville. Awful atmosphere and I heard Texans were friendly, well they were not to us. They were telling us we didn’t even belong there. Although to be fair we did play like we didn’t deserve to be there.”
TLW: “Well, after we beat them in the playoffs, they tried to take out our quarterback on the final victory huddle snap and when the team were shaking hands, one of their players spit on our running back (I heard in the face) and almost started a HUGE brawl. Our coach was very mad we reacted and said there would be none of that while the TSU fans had a “boys will be boys” attitude. They also booed and heckled our radio network guys. So it was satisfying to beat them on every level so all I can say to them is good riddance to bad rubbish. However to answer your question, probably West Texas A&M is our biggest rival, someone I know you are familiar with. We are in an arms race with them in every sport, and before we became the conference’s best football program, West Texas was the best and and they were very good. It’s not nasty because the WT folks actually have some class, but we just just enough acrimony to make it enjoyable.”
JP: “Let’s talk about your team. 11 wins last year and a national quarterfinal appearance. How high are expectations to make it to the national championship game?”
TLW: “They are higher than they were before the 2017 season. On offense, we have a quarterback that is simply amazing, backs and receivers that are stacked with talent that have a lot of experience, a good offensive line that is coming back, and multiple starters and key players on defense and special teams. Talent is not the issue, if we do have one, it will be how do we handle playing out of our comfort zone. Going to LA will be fun, but we have to stay focused and take care of business and take you guys seriously. It’s not like you guys have not tasted success before. Plus our fanbase would be so thrilled to play the national title game in McKinney, which is about 40 minutes north of Dallas, and 45 miles east of Commerce. Between the proximity to our campus and the number of alums in the DFW metro area, that stadium would be packed in blue and gold.”
JP: “All athletic programs have deficiencies or things they wish were better. For your school and team, what would that be for you?”
TLW: “Without a doubt the facilities are still a work in progress, but there has been substantial progress made. When I arrived in 2005, our stadium was one sided, and grass with a chain link fence and in dire need of upgrades and repair in every way, shape, and form. In the past 15 years, we have have had 3 new artificial surfaces, we added 3,500 seats along with an additional press box and chair back seating to the east side of the stadium. We also got a new video scoreboard that is going to be replaced by a brand new video board that has an LED display will measure 25.2 feet high by 75.6 feet wide to bring 1,905 square feet of visual real estate to events held at the stadium. Also, the west side of the stadium has gotten the massive renovations it has needed. In addition to 500 or so chair back seats for season ticket holders. They have turned empty storage rooms into merchandise shops and fan and former player lounges, upgraded the food services, and installed TV’s at the entrances to the stands so if you are grabbing a burger or talking to a friend, you can keep watching the game in the tunnel area. Last but not least, we just completed a huge addition to our locker rooms that makes it a football facility any school would be proud and of and they spared no expense in making it. Our AD is a great guy and fantastic at putting a staff together to make our overall department great. Our track is first rate, as is our softball and soccer facilities, but the big sports here are Basketball and Football and those are thee facilities that need the most attention, and they are getting it.”
JP: “Finally, let’s talk about Division II Football. You seem to know a lot about it. What are some of the things you would like to change or have concerns going forward?”
TLW: “There are 3 big things. First is how many D2 schools are either dropping football or going to D3 or D1. We need Division II to be strong. I think the GNAC is a great example of what happens when people drop football. Having Humboldt drop their program, which was successful was a huge blow to your conference now having to play round robin. You guys have to go to Oregon, Washington, and Canada to play your road conference games. That is a drain on your budget I am sure. We need to do everything we can to incentivize teams to stay Division II and not drop football programs. Second, we need instant replay in Division II. The players on this level play as hard as they do on the Division I Level and they deserve to have the best quality officiating. We also need better quality officials. Finally, we need the playoffs to be totally renovated. I believe that every outright conference champion should go in addition to adding a first round game for top seeds. No first round byes. That would give you 32 teams and that way you could fit conference champs along with every ranked top 25 team to get a shot, and maybe even some teams that are just outside of it. That way every team that has earned a shot gets in. Then seed them based on geography.”
JP: “It may be too early for predictions, but how do you see your season playing out in regards to the regular season, and how do you see our match-up going?”
TLW: “I firmly believe we will go undefeated in the regular season for the first time in 60 years. We have had some close finishes, but the way the schedule shakes out and the talent we have, I think this is the year to be undefeated AND win a national championship, or at least make it back to the quarterfinals. As far as our game I believe you guys will be tougher than even you think and the road trip will make it harder, but I believe our defense shines and our offense find’s its groove in a 35-7 win.”
JP: “Thanks for sitting down with us and good luck during your season, and see you in October, Go Cougars!”
TLW: “Pleasure is all mine! Go Lions!”