After going 12-2, Azusa Pacific’s football team in 1998 managed to win their first-ever NAIA Football National Championship in program history. 

In 1998, the Azusa Pacific football program won their last 10 games of the season, which was enough for them to reach the NAIA playoffs for the first time. Coached by Vic Shealy who was in his third and final season with the Cougars that campaign, he had an up-and-down tenure with APU up to this point, holding an 11-7-1 career record before the success of ’98.

The offense heading into that season was led by two transfers in junior running back Jack Williams, who came from Brigham Young University, and senior quarterback Geoff Buffum, coming from Linfield College. 

Buffum was the first quarterback in Cougar history to throw over 3,000 yards in a regular season, and he also managed to set a school record in touchdown passes with 23. Williams was able to rush for 1,647 yards throughout the season, finishing just short of former APU running back Christian Okoye’s record of 1,680 yards. 

Led by a fast defensive backfield with senior safety Scott Thomas and sophomore linebacker Joel Zaengle, who also played safety, APU’s defense was one of the NAIA national leaders in yards surrendered with an average of 303.2. They also gave up an average of 19.9 points to their opponents.

Williams, wide receiver Bryan Frisina (who were both asked to play defense due to the team’s limited roster) and freshman Mike Cory held the cornerback positions. Their secondary was accountable for 21 of the Cougars’ 23 interceptions that year. Senior linebacker Elbert Baker was able to record 5.5 sacks, also leading the team in tackles with 109.

Their defensive line was anchored by seniors Oscar Burgueno and Joel McGivney. Both were lethal throughout the entire championship year, as Burgueno led the team with eight sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss and McGivney had 3.5 sacks and eight tackles per loss.

The Cougars played their season opener against the University of San Diego Toreros, which was a team that had won six straight games against APU. Buffum played well in his Cougar debut, throwing 18 for 33 with 205 yards and a touchdown pass in the 14-7 victory. 

Giving Shealy a coaching record of 3-1 in season openers, it was the program’s first time beating an NCAA Division I-AA team.

“That fourth-quarter effort is what our whole preseason effort has been about. This is a turning point for our program. That (USD) is a great team, picked to win their conference, and we beat them.” Shealy said after the victory.

After that game, the Cougars went on to beat Olivet Nazarene 31-24 in their home opener, making it their 10th time ever to open a season winning back-to-back contests. However, the Cougar’s went on to lose two road games against Central Washington, 17-51, and Hardin-Simmons, 17-30. 

“We knew we had enough talent to compete, so while those two games were disappointing to lose, sometimes when you play tough teams early on who bloody your nose a little bit, that helps you find those areas as a coach that you need to go in and work the hardest to improve,” Shealy noted.

With their record being 2-2, the Cougars headed back to home field in order to face Chapman University, a program they have never beaten before. Their playoff dreams were in jeopardy and they had to respond if they wanted to make the postseason.

The Cougars scored first with a pair of long runs by Williams, which set up Buffum with a 1-yard touchdown run. The game went back and forth and Chapman strode into the fourth quarter with a 21-20 lead.

The Cougars were able to contain Chapman’s offense, leaving them scoreless in the fourth. Buffum, with three minutes left in the game, threw a 10-yard touchdown to Davis, which was enough to win the game 26-21.

After beating Chapman they were able to win their next two games by blowing out La Verne 42-22 and beating Humboldt State 20-13. With those two wins, they were able to get back in the playoff race and climbed the ranks in the NAIA coaches poll, being rewarded with the 16th rank. 

They then went on to beat Whittier College 27-9 on the road, which was enough for them to rank in the top 10. They then went on to dominate Occidental College 49-7 behind a huge performance from junior running back DeAngelo Gossett, who finished the game with 200 rushing yards. They were now only one win away from a trip to the NAIA playoffs.

They had to face Pomona-Pitzer in their final regular-season game, holding onto an 11-2 record. APU scored first with Buffum’s 1-yard score and would cap a 13-play, 63-yard drive. They would score again in the fourth, this time thanks to Buffum’s arm after throwing a 90-yard bomb to Scott Thomas, giving them a 14-0 lead with less than 10 minutes in the game. That score would stand, and the Cougars had finally clinched a playoff berth.

It was the Cougars’ defense, however, that made a real impact. They held Pomona-Pitzer to only 141 yards in total offense, with a minimal 12 rushing yards.

“We didn’t play with confidence on offense, and I was afraid of a letdown after the Occidental win. You couldn’t ask for a better game to enter the playoffs,” said Shealy. “It’s a great feeling to make it in, especially since the emotions were so high today. The saying goes that defense wins championships but offense entertains the crowd. We didn’t entertain our crowd much today, but our defense won a game.”

With their first-ever playoff appearance, APU president Dr. Richard Felix and the university administration put together a combative host bid for the first round of the playoffs. They got what they wanted, and a home game was rewarded to the eighth-seeded Cougars.

They went on to face the seventh-ranked Taylor (Ind.) University Trojans in the first round. Azusa started strong, leading the game 21-0 early in the second quarter. However, Taylor (Ind.) University managed to cut the deficit in half at 28-14 with 8:18 left in the third. After exchanging punts, the Trojans scored another touchdown when running back Chad McBeth, threw a 38-yard touchdown to tight end Pete Brummond for a 38-yard touchdown, decreasing the deficit to a single score. 

Trojans’ placekicker Micky Dockery missed the extra point kick after the touchdown, but he made it up by kicking an onside kick which was recovered by corner Andy Liechty. The Trojans would both score and convert the two-point conversion, knotting it up at 28. 

Nevertheless, Cougars kicker Jim Daichendt secured the win with eight seconds remaining after a 27-yard field goal.

After winning their first playoff game, they moved on to face another team they historically struggled against in the Central Washington Wildcats. Early in the game, the Wildcats took a 7-0 lead. The Cougars’ answer to the opening touchdown: 28 straight points on four consecutive touchdowns.

While Central Washington made it an interesting game by cutting the lead in half before the halftime break and responding to another APU touchdown with two of their own, the Wildcats couldn’t make the comeback. The 35-28 result favored the Cougars, and Azusa secured a semifinal berth against Huron University.

Huron had the NAIA’s top-scoring offense, outscoring their opponents 113-25 during their playoff run. Yet three quarters into the semifinal game, the Cougars defense held their own by only allowing 14 points, compared to APU’s 23 points.

However, Huron’s running back Artist Bishop scored a three-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, only giving the Cougars a two-point lead. And on their next drive, they would ultimately take a 24-23 lead after a 37-yard field goal.

It would take an impressive offensive drive from the Cougars to secure a win, which is exactly how they responded. Yet another field goal from Daichendt gave Azusa the late lead, with the defense going on to seal the win. 

A rematch against regular-season opponent Olivet Nazarene, whom they beat 31-24 in their home opener, was in store in the NAIA Championship game.

Both programs were similar in several senses. Not only were both making their first championship appearance, but they both also made their first playoff appearance in ’98. With that, they both had won their playoff games of the tournament by a touchdown or less.

At halftime, the Cougars were trailing 14-7 which remained the score heading into the final quarter of play. A safety from APU made it a 14-9 game with just less than ten minutes remaining. On their next drive, Williams carried the football across the goal line on third and goal and provided Azusa with a one-point lead. A successful two-point conversion made it a three-point deficit.

The defense, as they had done all season, was able to secure the victory. However, this time it was a different feeling for the Cougars, as they left the field as NAIA Champions.

“That victory, in which we could say we were football champions, I think really impacted the whole university quite a bit in terms of our self-esteem and how we viewed ourselves,” said Gary Pine, who was the sports information director that year. “People were very proud of it because it represented a lot of who we were: we weren’t perfect, we didn’t go 14-0 and blow people out, but we were people of character who never gave up and were always going to dig in and fight.”