Whatever It Takes: Houston Baptist University Turns to Football to Build a Name

Houston Baptist University decides the best way to grow is to start a football team for the first time in its 50-year history.

Whatever It Takes: Houston Baptist University Turns to Football to Build a Name

On August 30, the opening Saturday of the 2013 college football season, for the first game in their program's history, the Houston Baptist University Huskies drew the Division I Football Championship Subdivision version of the LSU Tigers: the fourth-ranked Sam Houston State University Bearkats.

In the past two seasons, the Bearkats finished as national runners-up in the FCS. A year ago, HBU, located off the Southwest Freeway at Fondren Road, didn't even have a football on its urban Sharpstown campus.

HBU also didn't have a football field, a football coach, a football helmet, a helmet logo or a ticket office for any of its 14 varsity sports. Before football and its roughly $10 million start-up cost arrived at the commuter school that enrolled a record number of 2,910 undergraduate and graduate students for the 2013-2014 school year, student-athlete volunteers sold tickets PTA bake-sale-style.

The private university, located at Southwest Freeway at Fondren Road, saw all-time high enrollment for the 2013-2014 school year. HBU officials say that football is key to the school's long-term plan to grow the student body fivefold.
Photo by Michael Starghill, Jr.
The private university, located at Southwest Freeway at Fondren Road, saw all-time high enrollment for the 2013-2014 school year. HBU officials say that football is key to the school's long-term plan to grow the student body fivefold.
Husky wide receiver Darian Lazard, one of the team's best players, transferred from the University of Houston to contribute to the start-up program.
Photo by Michael Starghill, Jr.
Husky wide receiver Darian Lazard, one of the team's best players, transferred from the University of Houston to contribute to the start-up program.

Toward the end of the first quarter, the crowded house at Huntsville's Bowers Stadium watched as white-clad HBU quarterback Ka'Darius Baker, lined up in the spread option formation, lofted a majestic spiral into the end zone. Husky receiver Zack Lazarine streaked down the right sideline and jumped for the ball. An SHSU defender, sporting the Bearkats' all-Tang-orange look, broke up the would-be touchdown at the last moment.

The Bearkats' cheer squad, which outnumbered HBU's by a four-to-one margin, let out loud screams and booming applause as the SHSU band played a triumphant ditty. The stout HBU contingent, which didn't include a marching band because the school hadn't had time to assemble one, groaned.

The Huskies wouldn't cross midfield again. Final score: SHSU 74, HBU 0.

In November 2011, HBU announced it was joining the Southland Conference and venturing into the big business of college football. HBU — along with the Texas Hill Country's Southwestern University and Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee — is one of the 12 schools that have unveiled upstart football programs for the 2013 season.

HBU is an academically stringent school that's often overlooked in a city of 2.1 million people, and football is a key part of President Robert Sloan's master plan to quintuple the student population. (Despite the religious name, only about a third of HBU's students are Baptist, and 30 percent aren't even Christians.) They seem to be well on their way: For the 2013-2014 year, 568 freshman, the most in school history, arrived on HBU's tiny campus this fall and squeezed upperclassmen out of their parking spots.

"Why are we doing this? The whys are pretty simple. We're trying to grow this institution," says Steve Moniaci, HBU's gray-haired and energetic athletic director, who spent 26 years at Rice University as an assistant athletic director. "Study after study has shown that one way to attract more attention is to have a robust athletic department. The leader in the clubhouse is college football."

Instead of taking more than two years to sign multiple recruiting classes and master the schemes on a practice field, HBU is following a model that Moniaci, 56, says has been executed only one other time. In 2013, the Huskies play a developmental seven-game season, mostly against small colleges, before facing off against Southland Conference foes Stephen F. Austin State and SHSU on a regular basis starting in 2014. This season, a majority of the home games, including the opener on September 28 against Oklahoma Baptist, take place at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory's Crusader Stadium.

By all indications, the quickly constructed program has been solid. In less than two years, HBU has installed a top-notch football field that will host games in 2014, locker and weight rooms that were completed only three days before the start of fall practice, and a football coaches' conference room that was once an X-ray room for Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital.

Moniaci is confident that he found the perfect man for the start-up project when, in April 2012, he hired Vic Shealy as head coach. The even-tempered 52-year-old son of a football coach has been an assistant at Baylor University, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the United States Air Force Academy, and was the 1998 NAIA national championship-winning head coach at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles.

Shealy, who lost his most recent job as the Kansas Jayhawks' defensive coordinator when former head coach Turner Gill was fired after two poor seasons, believes he's found a little slice of utopia at HBU.

"I think that Houston is the top football area in the nation," says Shealy, who sifted through an astounding 600 applications for nine spots on his coaching staff, which includes Shannon Kelley, a former University of Texas quarterback who's married to Olympic gold-winning gymnast and Wheaties box cover girl Mary Lou Retton.

"[For a coach,] if I wanted to go to a school that's in one of the most fertile football areas in the country, this would be a pretty doggone perfect place," says Shealy, who estimates that two-thirds of HBU's roster is composed of Houston kids.

Nearly a third of the 119 players who suit up for HBU are on partial or full athletic scholarships. (Starting next season, HBU will be allotted 63 scholarships, which is an FBS standard.) The remaining players, who may never see the field, are paying HBU's full $27,930 tuition to be part of a team that may not be competitive for years.

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8 comments
susanwilliams407
susanwilliams407

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scottscott
scottscott

Football is not needed in the world. I have checkers and a board.
But if they want football, that's great. We are only here for a moment in time.

letsgetbizet
letsgetbizet

What would be even better than putting money into existing programs is not cutting existing programs from the university completely to funnel money into the football program. The author of this article doesn't seem to realize that it was announced that the entire HBU instrumental program was going to be cut during the 2010-2011 school year. At the time concerned music students were told that there would be no football program for "a long time". I guess at HBU time is of the essence only when it benefits their athletes.

roguebotanist
roguebotanist

Shoot, might as wallow in the money trough like the big boys and suck the life out of  academics to fund it.

Margaret Bott
Margaret Bott

They need to put the $$$$ into their wonderful art department and art gallery instead of starting a football program. Even just a portion of those funds would make a huge difference to the students and faculty and the community in SW Houston.

Jeff Hill
Jeff Hill

Football at HBU. That's high school 4A, right?

le_creole_vacher
le_creole_vacher

@letsgetbizet HBU barely has a music program...I swear dont you people realize a strong mind and a weak body doesnt match?  I thought you supposed intellects would value a balance but obviously you would prefer being the fat tuba player that plays WoW on his days off.  Besides that, you should be proud that HBU demands its athletes to be scholars as well....no degree in communications here...

tony.b
tony.b

@Jeff Hill Is it? I though with their enrollment, it would be 5A,...

 
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