A celebrated lineage at Azusa Pacific, Pine’s commitment and passion for Cougar Athletics has made APU his home away from home.

It might be hard to believe, but it is indeed true: Gary Pine was not always a Cougar.

In 1992, Pine was the assistant sports information director at the University of Southern California. That same year he was also named the director of communications for the Big West Conference. To him, it was his perfect job. He always pictured himself as a Division I administrator, and at USC he was working for one of the most illustrious DI athletic departments in the state of California.

However,  in ’93 he received an unanticipated phone call from Azusa Pacific. They were looking to hire an associate director of athletics, and Gary, who had previously worked as a sports information director for the Cougars, was one of the first individuals that new Athletic Director Terry Franson reached out to for the job.

When he told coworkers at USC about the offer, they knew what he was going to do right away.

“They told me ‘Well you’re going back,'” Pine mentioned. “And I asked them why they thought that, and they responded with ‘You love Azusa Pacific. You talk about it all the time, and we can tell from your passion for that place you’re gonna go back.'”

At first, Pine did not share those same feelings, and he was surprised to hear them so confident in their assessment. After all, Gary is a realist in a lot of ways. He understood that in terms of escalating in the collegiate athletic field, having his name associated with USC looked far better on his resume than with the NAIA’s APU. After all, the moment he was hired at USC was one of the great accomplishments of his professional career — he says that he remembers it as if it were “two weeks ago” when he got that phone call offer while on vacation in Iowa.

With his experiences at a DI program, he simply assumed that he would remain a DI administrator for the rest of his life. But deep down there was a feeling of disconnect. He often compared his new workspace to his experiences at APU, and he noticed that the latter was more dedicated to people and building a tight-knit community. Those values meant everything to Pine, and he felt that giving up the position could end up being one of his greater mistakes. He decided to call his wife, Sheri, looking for the clarity that she never failed to give.

After nearly an hour-long conversation, Sheri bluntly asked what Gary thought he was gonna do: “I think we’re gonna go back,” he said.

Pine has now worked in college athletics for 41 years now, and 37 of them have been with the Cougars. He has witnessed several of APU’s most beloved athletic moments. He has seen the powerful presence of Christian Okoye and the quick feet of Terrell Watson take over the collegiate football world. He was here to see the perfect season from women’s soccer in ’98 when they won the NAIA Championship. He saw Stephen Vogt and Kirk Nieuwenhuis lead the baseball program to two College World Series births.

In 2010, Pine would eventually earn his dream job as APU’s athletic director. One of his first accomplishments as an athletic director was his commitment to the university’s first-ever institutional self-study. In what was likely his most dedicated pursuit as an employee for APU, Gary ended up writing a 319-page document. In it, he noticed that the longtime oral tradition that the department had was not applicable anymore. There was a desperate need for handwritten policies, handbooks and compliance manuals. So, he continued his writing ways and spearheaded that transition.

Most importantly, Gary Pine ended up being one of the main contributors towards making APU’s department an NCAA-backed program for the Pacific West Conference — the NCAA’s largest conference in the west region.

It is hard to find a time where Pine was not a key contributor to this university’s athletic image. But it is the family dynamic rather than the accomplishments that cross his mind first, and when asked about what he is most grateful for, he mentioned that only one image crosses his mind when asked that question.

“All three of my sons grew up around APU. When they were little boys they were the ball boys for football or basketball. They would run after foul balls and all around the empty field after games. And in those moments I knew they were safe. This place provided me a tremendous environment to raise a family; I’m not so sure I would have had that if I stayed in DI,” Pine said.

. . .

There is no one with a more storied APU lineage than Pine. A member of the ’84 graduating class himself, he met Sheri on Azusa’s campus, who was also an APU alum. That same love story exists for Gary’s parents, Laurence and Alice, who both graduated from the institution in 1946. His sons refrenced above all attended and graduated from APU. His brother, Loren, graduated in ’69. In total, there are more than 20 family relatives of Gary’s who have attended this university.

Yet, Pine is humble about that tradition. When asked if he knew any lineage similar to the Pine name, Gary laughed and started listing a few. He mentioned the family of former campus president Jon Wallace and ZUMedia’s very own Reid Conant’s family as a few examples. Yet, once he finished his list, he felt confident that the Pine name holds strong in such a contest.

“There’s been a Pine at APU in every decade since the 1940s except for the 70s. It’s a rich and deep part of our family, and each and every one of us is proud to be APU people,” he said.

Despite deep roots in the city of Azusa, Pine grew up nowhere near the state. Despite being born in California, his family moved to Michigan when he was 18 months old. The youngest of five children, Gary remembers his family referencing California often at family dinners, as his siblings had several childhood memories in the state. In seventh grade, he made himself a promise that he would head to California in pursuit of a college degree.

“California at the time really held true to its mantra of the ‘Golden State,'” Pine noted. “I would tell my friends about vacations I would take to California and they’d be jealous, and it was a point of pride to mention how I was going there for college. During that period the state was really a big deal to a lot of people.”

When he first made it to APU, he vividly remembers the moment he fell in love with California. Looking out of his window facing north in Adams Hall, he was expecting to see the fog that had been there the day before — it had been overcast for nearly a week at that point. But when he looked outside, the sky was blue and it was perfectly clear. From the window, he saw the foothills for the first time. Pine had no idea that the campus was so close to mountains and seeing that made him even more confident that he wanted to stay put in the west.

Growing up as an athlete himself, sports and competition was something that Pine was very attracted to. Although Pine was not a student-athlete, he immediately gravitated towards the athletics office and worked as a student employee in sports information. He did every task you can think of: filing papers, taking stats, driving teams to games, even doing laundry. 

His dedication to sports information was quite apparent to Cliff Hamlow, who was the athletic director throughout Gary’s four years as a student. He offered Pine the department’s first-ever full-time SID position, one that paid a yearly salary of just $11,000. That number did not matter to Gary; he accepted the offer with exultation. He had simply fallen in love with Cougars athletics.

“Over time I just learned to admire it all. Seeing the media coverage that Okoye got from publications like USA Today and Sports Illustrated, and working on the sidelines for a basketball game at Northern Arizona University that was played in a giant football-sized dome; those were the kind of things that caught my imagination,” he said. “I quickly learned that I was meant to be in this college culture.”

Gary had several opportunities to move on from his alma mater. Not only was he an employee at USC, but he was even an intern with the Los Angeles Angels his senior year. With a dream of working in the front office of Major League Baseball, it was a potential stepping stone to turn hope into reality. Over time, though, he noticed that the culture of the MLB did not suit him as well as college athletics did. APU was always the perfect fit, and the individuals in the department were a big reason for that.

Three of Pine’s biggest role models are his three predecessors — Hamlow, Franson and Bill Odell. All members of the NAIA Hall of Fame, Pine is the only individual to serve as the righthand man for each of these athletic directors. And to this day, Pine uses lessons from those three men to further develop his professional character.

“I stand on the shoulders of those guys,” Pine expressed. “I’ve learned something from all of them. Cliff was one of the toughest and most fair men I’ve ever met. Terry was incredible when it came to relating to people. And Bill was a phenomenal problem solver. I continue to take those lessons that they taught me and implement them into my leadership and decision-making. But, realistically, I don’t think I could ever compare to those three men. They are just amazing colleagues and friends.”

. . .

When Gary was on the brink of becoming APU’s fourth athletic director, Cougar athletics was experiencing unprecedented success in the NAIA. A member of the Golden State Athletic Conference, in 2007 a majority of the university’s programs noticed similar trends when it came to postseason play.

Both men’s and women’s soccer reached the NAIA Championship match that season, with the men conquering Concordia Irvine, a GSAC opponent, in the final. Men’s and women’s basketball were consistently in the NAIA Tournament bracket, and when they reached the Elite Eight, half of the remaining teams came from their conference. For volleyball, it was much of the same, as the Final Four consistently were suited in the GSAC. Regional tournaments such as these were meant to see the NAIA’s best teams from across the county meet, and when those tournaments consistently finished with teams within their conference, Pine and the rest of the department had a revelation.

“I was definitely thinking of raising the bar in that way. The idea of transitioning to NCAA was heavy on my mind and heart,” Pine said. “And I walked into Bill Odell’s office one day and he told me ‘Hey Gary I’ve been thinking; is it time for us to look at the NCAA?’ That moment, and the fact that both of us were thinking about this, was a powerful moment where God made it clear that it was the right decision for the department.”

With an initial desire to bring the entire GSAC through an NCAA transition, that plan fell through due to some programs within the conference feeling that the jump was not the right decision for them. Ultimately, APU broke away from the NAIA and went through its own independent adjustment. They led by example as Cal Baptist made the jump to DII nearly simultaneously with APU. Fresno Pacific, Point Loma and Concordia Irvine soon followed, and seeing the success that these programs were having, Biola eventually made that jump in 2019.

Azusa Pacific was the leading figure of that movement, and having won eight straight Director Cups — which was handed out by the NAIA each year to signify the best athletic program of the association — the NCAA was thrilled to have them on board. Nevertheless, Pine used the metaphor “choppy waters” in describing that shift. It was a three-year process and after the first season, Pine realized that there was a foundational change that needed to occur. Personnel was moved, policy making became a priority, and by year three APU was a model member of the NCAA.

“When we decided to go to DII, mostly every coach for us was on board. But there were two that reached out to me and wondered if we were ready for that push and were worried for their teams. By 2015 there were no more reservations. Everyone knew that the NCAA was the perfect fit for Azusa Pacific,” he mentioned.

For several APU teams, the transition into DII has been effortless. This year alone, women’s basketball reached the Elite Eight in the DII bracket for a second consecutive year. Women’s track and field was ranked as the top women’s DII program in the country. Men’s and women’s tennis experienced tremendous success in 2021 as both nationally ranked in the top-seven. APU has grown accustomed to success, yet the department continues to place its commitment to building champions above statistical success — which will always make APU stand out over its competition.

“Being in DII made our testimony and our mission for Christ a lit bit wider and more profound,” said Pine. “There were a lot of faith-based schools in the NAIA, so we were pretty homogeneous with them. For the NCAA you have a lot of public and secular schools, and because of that our department was motivated to find a seat at the table and share our mission even more.”

. . .

This is going to be my last story for ZUNews. Out of the 117 stories that I have written, well over half of them have been related to APU athletics. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, this was the first time I had a conversation with Gary Pine.

When we did converse, it felt as if we had had 100 conversations prior. His ability to tell stories stuck out right away, and his love for sports shined through with every word he spoke. But the most obvious distinction of his character was his commitment to APU. 

He, along with every coach, player and alumni I have spoken with over my two and a half years of covering the Cougars firmly believes in the mission of competition through Christ. That a department doesn’t solely need to focus on titles and victories to obtain consistent prominence. This theology is what makes APU and its athletic department such a special place.

Gary Pine has been a major influence in building that culture.

I mentioned to him that I would be graduating this week, and he offered his congratulations and referenced that I will always have a home at APU. He thanked me for the time and mentioned it was an honor to talk to me, wished me luck and hung up the phone.

It all hit me at once. A career of telling stories about this unique and remarkable place was coming to an end. Without Gary, I wouldn’t have had nearly as wonderful of a department to cover week after week. Without ZUMedia, I wouldn’t have had a platform to tell these stories. And without APU, I wouldn’t have a place to call a second home. It was the perfect mixture for me, and I am eternally grateful for it all. 

So, no Mr. Pine, the honor was all mine. And now, it is time for the next chapter.