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.
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.
Only a few players, such as University of Houston transfer Darian Lazard, have college football playing experience. "Some of the guys are wide-eyed," says the redshirt junior, who, after playing a limited role as a wide receiver at UH, figures to be one of the Huskies' best players.
Along with on-the-field challenges — against SHSU, the Huskies ran 22 second-half plays for a total of zero yards — HBU's expensive venture will be challenged to capture attention in Houston's crowded sports scene.
That doesn't necessarily concern Moniaci, who says that HBU has removed a negative from its reputation. "If you're in Texas and you're not playing football, it almost begs the question, 'Why aren't you?' " he says.
In a state where "football" is often uttered immediately after "God" — and often before — he might be right.
It was three days before the beginning of HBU's fall practice, and everyone was scrambling. The city had only earlier that morning certified that the team's locker and weight rooms complied with regulations, and the hassles — somebody forgot to install toilet-paper holders in the bathrooms — seemed endless.
"When you're going through one of these, you really have to be okay with duct tape and bailing wire for a while," says upbeat Moniaci, who seemed to be dealing with that day's crisis just fine as he spotted an assistant coach in the football office hallway and playfully slugged him on the shoulder.
Founded in 1960, Houston Baptist College opened in 1963 with 193 freshman and 30 faculty members. When Sloan took over HBU's presidency in September 2006, he vowed to bump enrollment at the modest 100-acre campus up to 10,000 students over the following ten to 12 years. The school, which became Houston Baptist University in 1973, has an endowment of approximately $84 million.
Under Sloan's watch, HBU, which accepted 35 percent of applicants in 2012-2013, has unveiled an undergraduate program in cinema and new media arts and a master's program in philosophy. An online-only master's in education, a pre-law program and a doctorate in philosophy are also in the works.
Moniaci explains that football is key to making HBU an attractive college option. "Also, we needed and still need more engagement with our alumni," he says. "Unfortunately, we have a history of our alums not coming back to campus very much."
In its short history, HBU's athletic reputation has been made with its men's gymnastics and men's soccer teams. However, gymnastics has never recovered from its 1990 NCAA probation for major rules violations, while men's soccer, which will remain in the Western Athletic Conference because the Southland doesn't sponsor the sport, has taken a nosedive in terms of wins and losses. (HBU men's soccer head coach Steve Jones didn't respond to the Houston Press's interview requests.)
Starting a college football program isn't cheap, especially if a school has never played the sport. Unlike Lamar University, which already had a football stadium when it resuscitated its 21-year-dead program in 2010, HBU faced costs that were on the extreme high end.
Moving forward, Moniaci estimates that the program's annual operating cost, which includes coaches' salaries, will be roughly $1 million, "the majority of which will be funded from the income brought in from the tuition, room, board, books and fees of the members of the football team," he says. "Any revenue generated from the football team in excess of what is needed to fund the program will be dedicated to offsetting college costs for all students at HBU, many of whom are on some sort of financial aid from the institution."
According to the National Football Foundation, 2013 is a record year for new NCAA football programs. Unlike the late 1980s and early- to mid-1990s, when Lamar, the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and Boston University shuttered football due to waning interest and high operational costs, 33 football programs were added between 2008 and 2012.
Don't look for the trend to slow down anytime soon: Between 2014 and 2016, 11 more institutions will add pricey football programs to their budgets.
They include Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas, with an enrollment of 600; Paine College, a historically black college that hosts 900 students on its Augusta, Georgia, campus; and the 1,042-student College of Idaho in Caldwell, a liberal arts school that used to be called Albertson College of Idaho (in honor of the founder of the grocery-store chain).
"When I first came in here, I told some of our coaches that I want to line up against a couple of people and literally get our lips knocked in," says Shealy. "Our players need to know how hard it is to win a ball game and how much it takes to be good."
A month before the SHSU game, Shealy — whose father, Dal Shealy, is a former assistant at the University of Tennessee, Iowa State University and Auburn University — sat at his desk inside his office at the former site of the Memorial Hermann Wellness Center. A royal blue jersey draped the back of a chair, and the floor was covered with squat cardboard boxes filled with uniforms that the coach hadn't had time to go through.
After a stint on his dad's coaching staff at Baylor and success at small and large schools all around the country, Shealy found himself in a frying pan at Kansas when he took over as co-defensive coordinator for Carl Torbush, who had abruptly retired to fight (and eventually beat) low-grade prostate cancer. The Jayhawks, who rarely compete with the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners in the elite Big 12, allowed the most points in the nation and finished 2-10.
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.
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.
With the lack of a practice field, a portion of the Huskies' spring football drills took place on HBU's soccer pitch. The Husky soccer teams aren't exactly living the high life — the women's squad dresses in a room across campus that the players recently painted themselves, and the men's team can't even claim a legitimate locker room. If you've ever watched 250-pound-plus, cleat-wearing players running, stomping and shuffling on a grass field for hours and hours, you can imagine what that looked like by the end of spring football.
On September 14, the Huskies, who had taken a nine-hour bus ride to the South Plains city of Plainview, played against Wayland Baptist, an NAIA school that revived its football team in 2012 after a 72-year absence.
In front of nearly 4,000 spectators, HBU, which stockpiled 626 yards of total offense, broke a 28-28 halftime tie and blistered the Jackrabbits for a 52-28 victory, the first in its program's history.
According to Erdmann and Hickey, winning games is just a part of building a program that's not going to face-plant.
"Make sure you have a fighting chance with everything. Make sure it's funded appropriately and those funds are not heavy into revenue streams that will fluctuate," says Erdmann.
Hickey adds, "Your city leaders [and] major donors to your campus need to be in sync with you. Otherwise, you're going to run into too many walls."
Of course, the casual fan doesn't care how a school's budget is balanced or how a donor may or may not be nurtured. He or she just wants to see wins, something Erdmann can testify to.
"[The fan base] has been loyal and hung in there with us, but the time is coming where we have to reward them," Erdmann says about the South Alabama football team, the Jaguars, who were initiated as a full-time member of the FBS this season and have started 2-1.
In the future, when HBU faces big boys like Sam Houston State, it won't be able to get away with what transpired in Huntsville in the middle of the fourth quarter.
With a spinning ball on the ground in the end zone and a charging mob of third-string Bearkats ready to pounce, the result of an errant long snap hitting the leg of an HBU upback, David Dunkin, the Huskies' backup quarterback, who was forced into punting duties, swiveled 180 degrees and booted the ball hard and high out of the back of the end zone.
The football clanged off the right upright and into the arms of a Sam Houston defender. For the football version of The Bad News Bears, the Bearkats were awarded a safety for illegal kicking. Eight more minutes of game time later, it was all over.
"Obviously it's hard," Shealy said in a post-game interview with the Press and a handful of other media outlets. "Probably wonder why you're playing them in the first place because you knew that could happen."
After the game, the Huskies, who included a starting offensive lineman hobbling on crutches, slowly made their way from the sideline, the 74-0 result looming on the scoreboard behind them.
As the battered team walked up the stairs and into the locker room, the remaining Husky fans rose from the aluminum benches and shouted, "H-B-U! H-B-U!" It was the first opportunity they'd had to cheer all night.
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