A program of tremendous grit and success, Cougar football embodied one of the many things that APU’s philosophy is absorbed by – community.

Many tales of success are not met without significant difficulty. Azusa Pacific football is no exception to this rule. Through humble beginnings, a young, inexperienced program would transition into a staple of the Azusa community. This rise to notoriety seemed improbable when one looks back upon how APU football began. 

While football is generally credited for coming to Azusa’s campus in 1965, that year was simply when Azusa College merged with Los Angeles Pacific College, allowing for a bigger football team and creating the Azusa Pacific name that the program would gladly bear for 55 years. 

Before the merger, it was a team that competed in six-man football and would face other small schools in the area, playing their home games in what is now known as the Church of the Open Door in Glendora, Calif.

Once football was added to APU’s official sports, it was immediately titled as a directionless program. During the next 12 years, APU was home to five different head coaches who accumulated a collective record of 43-70-1. Along with on-field struggles, arguments from faculty were being presented that football was hurting the university’s mentality and reputation. They were near the brink of an internal collapse.

“There was always a constant pressure to drop football,” said then-athletic director Cliff Hamlow. “It was primarily a finance matter, but every once in a while we would get players who would come on and not meet the university’s standards as members of a Christian community. And faculty would pick up on that.”

The Cougars were in desperate need of someone who could bring a winning culture on and off the field. Jim Milhon stepped into that role, and he is often regarded as the savior of football at APU.

It was not simply the continuous success that Milhon brought (10 winning seasons during his 17-year tenure, including seven straight), nor was it solely the level of talent he coached (13 NAIA All-American Scholar-Athletes). His coaching abilities brought sustainability to a dying program and made Cougar football a predominant tradition on campus.

“When I hired Jim, I mentioned to him that it wasn’t about how many games we win, but it was about what kind of experience the players would have and their development as young men,” said Hamlow. “Jim was very committed to that. He was their pastor.”

Milhon had set the standard. With his teams breaking a total of 39 school records, the program was asked to meet these expectations year after year. His success created a legacy that would send five players to the NFL, win an NAIA National Championship, secure four GNAC conference titles in six years and eventually transition APU football to NCAA Division II status. All while building the character – and faith – of hundreds of young men.

To APU, that final testament was always the most important.

Photo courtesy of APU Sports Information

The mission statement of APU football was “Building champions while pursuing championships.” There was certainly intentionality involved when the importance of building the player was placed before the importance of bringing success.

Aaron Berry, who was named the GNAC Defensive Player of the Year his final season playing linebacker, grew up in a single-parent, struggling household in Perris, Calif., and became the first college graduate out of his family. He moved back to the area he grew up in to coach football and gave back the gift of pride through humility, one that was given to him through competing under the APU way.

Similarly, Josh Henderson — who is a member of the 2013 Hall of Fame class for APU Athletics — played linebacker and grew up in a broken home of drug addicts in Fontana, Calif. After growing as a player and man of faith at APU, Henderson went on to coach the sport he loves. Currently the head coach at Grace Brethern High School, Henderson’s teams have won two CIF Championships and five league titles.

Marques Cooper is now a police officer and football coach, most recently as an assistant coach for the Cougars. Before his professional career, he was a player for Azusa. Living in Compton, Calif., Cooper would wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and take public transit to early practices. Throughout his four years, he failed to miss a single one.

“I’ve coached so many guys that have touched my life tremendously,” said longtime linebacker coach Bo Beatty. “And our coaches have done so much more than build these guys as players. We would speak truth into those young men’s lives. About being winners in life. About standing up for your marriage. About being good employees. Being the type of people you can count on. It was unique.”

For former quarterback Andrew Elffers, the greatest on-field memories weren’t built during games or practice. It was after practice when football became most memorable.

“We would end each practice gathered around the cross that was on our practice field,” he said. “There, (head) coach Santa Cruz and the rest of the staff would elaborate on what it takes to be a great player, but an even better man. Those life lessons and biblical teachings, at the foot of the cross, they’ll forever be with me.”

There was an incredible commitment to the program from those who participated in APU football. The players showcased their dedication when it became game time. 

Earlier on in the program’s history, games against APU’s local rival University of La Verne (ULV) were always entertaining matchups. One game ended in controversy, as the result of the contest relied on a toe-drag touchdown reception in the opponent’s endzone. The official ruled it a complete catch, and APU narrowly escaped with the victory. At the time, Roland Ortmayer was the head football coach at ULV, and his wife, Corni, was sitting in the stands.

“She came running down the field to me, yelling in my face about how bad those officials were and how we didn’t deserve the win,” said Hamlow. “It grew into a great rivalry. When we faced each other it became a community event, and the players would usually play their best football during those games.”

In recent memory, the 2014 game against then-second ranked Grand Valley State remains one of the most memorable moments in campus history. Not only was it APU’s first game as a DII member, but a nationally televised contest. The Cougars outdueled Grand Valley in triple overtime, 26-23. The game is often remembered for tailback Terrell Watson’s performance, who ran the ball 42 times for 202 yards and earned three touchdowns. But for CJ Broussard, who was a sophomore at cornerback, it was the game that put him on the map.

“That was my first career start,” Broussard mentioned. “I was playing boundary corner, and in that game, I had an interception, forced fumble and a fumble recovery. And beating that team, in that way, it was really a coming-out party for myself and the program as a whole in DII.”

The season opener in 2010 was against the University of San Diego. USD was a school that had APU’s number throughout the last several years, particularly when Jim Harbaugh — current head coach at the University of Michigan — was at the helm. Going into this game, the Cougars had an inexperienced coaching staff with a 25-year-old Rudy Carlton being hired as the next offensive coordinator. In his first game in the new position, the underdogs played spoiler, as APU’s offense scored 42 points by the final whistle.

“What people forget about that game is that San Diego scored a touchdown on their first play,” Carlton smirkingly noted. “Yet we ended up beating them in pretty dominant fashion. And it just seemed like that win was the turning point for the program. To reach the sidelines and see the players celebrate beating a team like USD, you could just kinda feel that something special was starting to be built.”

And, of course, there is 1998. Considered by many as one of the greatest campaigns in APU athletic history, the Cougars would win an NAIA Championship that was backboned by a 12-2 record. Led by tailback and NAIA Player of the Year Jack Williams, that team had the makings of a championship squad due to their ability to control the ball on both sides of the field, along with maintaining an exceptional bond through competition.

“I was a sophomore when they won in ’98, and I was a student worker for sports information,” said former APU Sports Information Director Joe Reinsch. “I was a 19-year-old, wide-eyed kid who would just get quotes from players after the game. But for them to go on that playoff run, and to see the attention our campus was getting from everyone between local papers to The L.A. Times, it was just amazing to be a part of that journey. We were beginning to see national excitement for APU football.”

Photo courtesy of APU Sports Information

Those past moments are cherished. The past players and coaches of such spirit are cherished. And now, the program of over 55 years will be cherished similarly, as Cougar football is now only capable of storing fond memories rather than building new ones.

Gary Pine, the university’s athletic director of nearly 10 years, sent a mass email last month informing the community that APU football was coming to an immediate end due to financial constraints and a lack of regional opponents.

“The long-term trends of college football in California have eroded the fiscal sustainability of many programs, ours included, and caused annual departmental deficits,” Pine wrote in the release. “The strategic reallocation of funding strengthens our Athletics portfolio and overall commitment to student-athletic success. These measures create the right environment for the next chapter in Cougar Athletics.”

The same Cougar Athletics that Pine speaks of will take a blow they have never witnessed before. With football gone, not only is the university losing a program that fully encapsulated the spirit of APU’s student body – one that would nearly pack Citrus Stadium full every Saturday night – but they are also saying goodbye to a team enriched through a history of changing lives for the better.

“In 1954 when we had about 15 players on the football roster, did I envision the program to become what it was? Absolutely not,” Hamlow said. “Every single person that was hired on our staff and coached football had a heart for ministry, and that’s what makes me the proudest.”

Hamlow introduced a tradition that ended up being exactly what he intended it to be: a chain of ministry through player and coach. The team was an opportunity for people like Bo Beatty to learn how to combine football with the word of God and influence a young man like Elffers to pursue a career where he could have a direct and personal impact on people’s lives. It was never about just the game, but building men into people who inspire change. 

“People always asked Santa Cruz in 2014 if that was the best team he had ever coached up to that point in his career. And his response was always ‘Give me about 10 years, and I’ll be able to answer that,'” Broussard remembered. “He would need to wait until we become husbands. Until we become fathers. Until we become business owners and contributors to our communities. Only then would he know the impact the program had on his guys.”

While the Cougars may no longer take the field on Saturdays, under the bright lights of Citrus, with the roar of support from The ZU in the background, APU football will survive through its legacy; one that has contributed to hundreds of difference-makers who are seeking to live like Jesus in their professional and personal lives. 

And heck, isn’t that what being a Cougar is all about?

“My prayer was always that God would make the seeds that I was sowing into eternal fruit and not just temporal,” Carlton said. “And the way I want to honor APU football is by taking the APU way across the country, and I pleaded with my players to do the exact same thing. The mantra of ‘Building champions while pursuing championships’ won’t die here; it’ll keep moving on.”