It has been just over a month since Azusa Pacific University out of the Los Angeles Area announced they would be immediately shutting their football program down. The Cougars were typically one of the top programs in the GNAC and also played to usually packed crowds at Citrus Stadium in Glendora, California. A beautiful scene for night games as the stadium sat in the valley of the San Gabriel mountains that looked just look a mini Rose Bowl. Losing this program is not just bad for the Lions, who are now out an in important in region opponent for 2021, but for all of Division II college football. Without the Cougars, the GNAC is just left with 3 teams that play football.
There has been a disturbing trend in Division II football the past 2-3 seasons as APU is not the only school that has dropped it’s football program recently. In the GNAC, Humboldt State dropped their program in 2018, as did Malone University out of the GMAC. That was followed up with Gulf South member Florida Tech dropping their program in 2019, and Minnesota-Crookston and St. Cloud State out of the Northern Sun Conference. That does not include schools that were once Division II such as Oklahoma Panhandle State and McMurry dropping down to NAIA and NCAA Division III, respectively.
There are a lot of reasons why football programs go. Money is always at the top of the list. Budget cuts have to be made at some schools to keep the rest of the programs alive and football is always the first to go because it consumes so much and if they are not putting fans in the stands and selling merchandise and carrying their own weight, that program gets cut. It is basic economics, and that happens.
The complacency and lack of care about it happening is what bothers me.
Another reason is that there is among many schools, a hatred of football. Yes, you read that correctly. I know, that sounds hard to believe down here in The Lone Star State, but in many other states, academics and people in the Ivory tower see football as nothing more than a sport played by brutes and knuckle dragging rubes, not like them, who are so smart and educated. They cannot see the benefit that so many have received by playing sports. The snobbishness and vitriol that so many in the academic realm have toward sports and football in particular makes it easier for schools who do not have a strong fan base to get rid of the program. Football teaches discipline, accountability, toughness that is both mental and physical, proper response to authority, how to get up when you get knocked down, how to handle success, and how to overcome adversity. Those ideas are very unpopular these days with so many young post modern beta-hipsters becoming college instructors who want to churn out a generation of soft and weak children offended by everything and everybody rather than strong and competent adults that can tackle life and all the challenges it brings.
Another reason is the prevalent and wrongheaded belief that unless a program is Division I, that program is essentially irrelevant and not worthy of support. Somehow, the end goal according to the arm chair quarterbacks is for every school to make the move to Division I. That is just not reality. Some schools are just Division II, Division III or NAIA in culture. Commerce, Texas is not a college town for a Division I school. It is however, a PERFECT town for a good Division II program. I asked a friend of mine named Marc Parrish, who graduated from nearby Austin College in Sherman and writes a lot of history of regarding Austin College athletics, if there was any chance they might want to join the LSC. He said there was just no way, it was not a culture fit academically or athletically. Austin College is a Division III school, and nobody should try to make it something that it is not. The argument could be made that Oklahoma Panhandle State is an NAIA school and should never have moved to up to Division II. Again, culture. You are what you are, and there is nothing wrong with being Division II, especially when you are winning. People often ask “when are you guys moving to Division I?” The answer to that is “hopefully never.” That is just not who we are.
Perhaps the biggest reason to keep NCAA Division II football programs strong is the sense of community. When I was kicking around where to find some insight, I found someone that I have known for 15 years (yikes) who was in my Business School graduating class that has since become a wife, a mother of 3, and a leader in her community in nearby Sulphur Springs. Emily Glass (Wilder) has 2 degrees from TAMUC and is a Kappa Delta alum. She really provided some great insight to why having a strong sports base is important to her. She is not what I would call football crazy, but she loves The Lions, she told me; “We love taking them to the games, just like we enjoy taking them to plays and concerts at the university. To be on campus is magical. It’s such a fun experience in general and adds to the pride we all feel for TAMUC. I’m a third generation Lion who met my husband there, and I love knowing that my parents (who also met there) and grandfather enjoyed similar experiences. Also, football games are especially fun for me because it’s about more than the game. My kids absolutely love the band and cheerleaders. The excitement felt at the games is unparalleled. While I’m not a huge football fan and don’t follow any professional team, I am a HUGE Lion fan, and I love supporting my alma mater any chance I get.”
Emily got that because she knows that in smaller non-metro areas, you need the draw of something bigger than yourself. Her high school did not even have a football program, but that did not stop her from going to games as a kid with her parents and appreciating being a Lion. That is when I got it. Community and fellowship as Lions are perhaps the most rewarding things about this program. Do we want to win? Of course we do, but what fun is winning when you don’t have fans you can share it with? Emily and I remember the days of one sided stadiums with grass and chain link fences surrounding a stadium that saw maybe 2,500 fans on a good day and everyone leaving at the half. Now, people like us can come back and be proud of how far we have come back as a program and what it has done. It is great to see it come full circle.
When he was AD, Ryan Ivey told me that the biggest thing to sell to his student-athletes is that it is ok to be what you are. It is ok to be Commerce. We are Commerce, be proud, hold your head high and be proud of a school that is 4th oldest public institution in Texas that is 132 years old this fall. There is a Japanese short story that came from Okinawa that I heard years ago and had to dig to find it “there are many fish that swim in many ponds. The fish that swim in the smallest ponds do not know nor give regard to how big other ponds are, nor do they seek to swim in them. They must rule their own pond, by establishing territory, fending off aggressors, and fighting for what is theirs. Much you can learn from a fish.” Indeed.
Division II football is important, and it is worth fighting for to save. Our pond may not be as big as others, but we are all swimming in it, and it is our pond. Thousands of us are proud of what we are and we do not want to be made into something we are not. We need to do all we can from others who think they know better poaching us from the pond and trying to make us swim into some place we don’t belong or poach others and leave us with nothing to play for and nobody to play against.
Division II football is our pond, and we need to save it.