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.

On November 28, 2011, one day after the season's end, KU cleaned house, firing Torbush's successor, Gill and his staff after just two seasons. Out of work, Shealy received calls from his coaching buddies telling him about jobs that were about to open. His KU contract didn't expire until the spring, so he had wiggle room to be picky.

When HBU reached out, Shealy, with coaxing from his south Houston-born wife, Holly, accepted the offer. The couple, who have four children, built a home in the Perry Forest area of Katy.

Shealy, one of five finalists for the HBU gig, quickly went to work, hiring assistant coaches such as the well-regarded offensive coordinator Scott Smith, who has coached at Baylor, Southern Methodist University and the University of Arkansas as well as Highland Park, Garland and Odessa Permian high schools.

Ka'Darius Baker, a state championship-winning quarterback at Navasota High, chose the academically tough university over a number of in-state schools due to the recruiting efforts of HBU assistant coach Shannon Kelley, a former Texas Longhorns quarterback and husband to Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton.
Photo by Michael Starghill, Jr.
Ka'Darius Baker, a state championship-winning quarterback at Navasota High, chose the academically tough university over a number of in-state schools due to the recruiting efforts of HBU assistant coach Shannon Kelley, a former Texas Longhorns quarterback and husband to Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton.
Playing a developmental schedule this season, HBU, in 2014, will jump to the Southland Conference, where they will face the Sam Houston State Bearkats on a regular basis. In the first game in their program's history, the Huskies fell to the Bearkats in Huntsville 74-0.
Photo by Michael Starghill, Jr.
Playing a developmental schedule this season, HBU, in 2014, will jump to the Southland Conference, where they will face the Sam Houston State Bearkats on a regular basis. In the first game in their program's history, the Huskies fell to the Bearkats in Huntsville 74-0.

In August 2012 and February 2013, the Huskies signed better-than-anticipated recruiting classes that included quarterback Jonathan Fleming, a native of Spring who played one season at Abilene Christian; Jackie Robinson Jr. (no relation to the baseball star), a star running back who helped lead Pearland High to its first state title in school history in 2010; and Baker, a state championship-winning quarterback from Navasota High.

Rounding out the roster are a handful of transfers from Texas Southern, Texas Lutheran and Washington State. So far this season, freshman running back B.J. Kelly, a three-time all-state running back from Waco, and freshman defensive end Kameron Lecoq, a Fort Worth Dunbar High School graduate, look as if they can develop into special talents.

"I fell in love with the coaches and the environment," says redshirt junior Lazard, who was buried on UH's depth chart. The fast and athletic receiver, who played for a brand-new football program at Pearland Dawson High, really wanted to stay in Houston. "I was ready for a fresh start," says Lazard, a kinesiology major who has "no hard feelings" toward the Cougars.

Because 2013 is considered a developmental season, every player can see game action without using a year of eligibility, which was an attraction for some. Shealy says that he also leveraged Houston's strong job market and HBU's academic prestige — one that's not too far away from Southern Methodist University's and Texas Christian University's — as part of the recruiting pitch.

Baker wants to start his own business one day, so he's interested in majoring in business or engineering. While Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin and several junior colleges expressed interest in Baker, the freshman chose HBU because coach Kelley never stopped recruiting him.
_____________________

On August 17, more than 200 people packed the grass berms at HBU's brand-new Dunham Field, which awkwardly butts heads with a CVS Pharmacy at the corner of Fondren and Beechnut, to watch HBU's debut scrimmage. As the shoulder pads popped and helmets thwacked with NCAA-level intensity, a man remarked to his buddy in an east Texas drawl, "I don't know how we're going to block anybody with this undersize offensive line."

The sounds of big-time Texas football had arrived.

Typically, when a school starts a college football program, there's a minimum of two years to prepare for the first game. Some, like the University of Texas at San Antonio, a state research institution with an enrollment of more than 30,000, take even longer.

"When I first got here in the fall of 1999," says UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey, "I told the president that we didn't need to start football because it was cost-prohibitive. After a year, I realized I had made a mistake."

UTSA made the announcement eight years later. Shealy, who attended a UTSA practice in 2010 at the invite of Roadrunners head coach Larry Coker, says that UTSA coaches and players were frustrated because they practiced and ground on for two years without the reward of playing a game.

Not wanting to break stride, HBU followed the lead of the University of South Alabama, a 50-year-old, 15,000-student school in Mobile that competes with the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers for newspaper inches and television airtime in the Southeastern Conference-batty region.

"We didn't tippy-toe into this thing...I think our pace was just right," says South Alabama athletic director Joel Erdmann, who adds that the team was able to generate excitement by going 17-0 in its first two seasons while playing a baby-cheek-soft schedule.

As expected, HBU's quick turnaround has hit some snags.

There was hope that Dunham Field would be ready for game play this season, but the first of two 5,000-seat grandstands hasn't been installed. Only eight weeks before HBU's anticipated September 21 home opener against Texas College, a religious, historically black four-year school in Tyler, the game was moved to November 2 due to a scheduling conflict, an almost unheard-of scenario in major college football. And during recruiting season, the admissions department was buried with an additional 300 transcripts from football recruits.

One of Erdmann's and Hickey's biggest takeaways from their respective start-ups was the importance of suitable facilities, which, given HBU's land-strapped location and its modest size, could be a thorn in its side, according to Shealy. "[At the FBS level], you might be able to accelerate facility development because you have significant state resources or 50,000 alums, which could mean you have more millionaires in that alum base," says Shealy.

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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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