Does APU envy its football past and is there any hope for its return?
It’s hard to walk through a fall evening without feeling reminded of football season. I may be a few years removed from high school, but when that cool, slow-moving air hits, I feel I should be getting ready for that week’s football game.
For students attending one of the approximately 858 football colleges in the United States, the football experience lives on post-high school. That was also the case for Azusa Pacific University until the program shut down in December 2020. Now, nearly three years later, do people wish APU still had a football team, or are they content with leaving it in the past?
During my college search, I couldn’t have cared less if APU had football. However, during my freshman year, I met two girls who told me that when football left, a bit of APU’s glory did as well. Then, during my sophomore year, I covered APU’s football alumni reunion and that’s when I understood what those girls were talking about. Since then I’ve longed for something I never had.
It seems I’m not the only one who desires a football team. APU’s Athletic Director, Dr. Gary Pine agreed.
“Football didn’t just draw in 115 students [on the team], but it drew in other students too… that’s reflective of the impact of football on our culture,” Pine said.
APU freshman, Jenna Reed, and sophomore, Sam Edinger, agreed with this sentiment. Reed believes more students would come to APU if there was a football team and Edinger said the return of football would be a game-changer for the school.
They could be onto something. Pine described how now more than ever people are seeing the football experience in the media and wondering why they can’t have it. In the fall, especially, college football is all over social media. In fact, just as I opened Instagram to look at college football accounts, my feed suggested an Instagram reel of Notre Dame’s student section. The caption read, “Nothing like college football.”
But what sets football apart from other sports? For Pine, whether a team brings in 10,000 or 100,000 spectators, no other sport can replicate football’s electrifying effects across campuses and communities.
“Saturdays are shut down across the country for college football and then Sunday afternoon we’re watching football, so football, like no other sport, has an impact on this country,” Pine said.
Before Jenna Reed became a cheerleader for APU, she was the cheer captain of her high school’s football team. Her senior season was extra special because they won every game except the last. With this success, the student section at her football games felt more alive than at any other sporting event.
“It felt like the high school thing,” Reed said.
Like Reed’s senior season, when a football team performs well, Pine believes the community’s morale can be significantly lifted. Adding to the thrill, in football so much is riding on one game, large crowds of people from all over the campus and even the city come out eager to see what the roller coaster ride brings. If the team wins, an immeasurable healthy pride spreads all over campus.
Largely because of this effect, in Pine’s 40 years at APU, his favorite memories involve football.
Pine recalled the 1998 National Championship winning season where APU played all three playoff games at home which stirred the entire campus. There were also games where a train of cars climbed the hill towards the hillside field. Imagine that. Attendees (who mostly sat on beach chairs) braved out-of-bound balls and wildlife like rattlesnakes, all to see their team play.
“I miss football. In fact, that helmet behind there, that was signed by the team when we won our first road game as an NCAA DII team in 2012. There were times where I thought, ‘I need to hide that helmet’ because it just reminds me of what once was,” Pine said.
However, this yearning for APU football isn’t the same for everyone. 2020 APU graduate, Veronica Lawrie, said from her perspective, she saw more student interest in intramural games and games against Biola than in football. Additionally, where others felt the football team brought APU together like a small town, to Lawrie, the football team didn’t feel that integrated into campus.
As a part of student government, Lawrie dealt with APU’s challenges during COVID-19, including discussions about football. When the team was dropped, it didn’t feel like there was much change at APU for Lawrie.
“During Covid, we’re going to school remote so it didn’t affect us as much because we’re not going to the games. There was no campus life,” said Lawrie.
For those who feel differently than Lawrie, are they longing for football in vain? APU did have a convincing reason for dropping the program. To begin with, football has always been an expensive sport. Pine said for decades, discussions of cutting the program arose, but nothing was ever serious until COVID-19 came around. However, even with the pandemic, he believed the team could have survived it if they had more teams to play.
In fact, APU was the last California DII school to have football. Thus, APU had to fly to every away game. In all of the first 27 years of APU football, when DII and NAIA football teams were prevalent in California, they only traveled out of state twice. Plus, away games were so close that APU students would often drive to them. Today, there are only two DII schools west of the four corners that have football, showing that football may take time to come back.
Pine cited California’s tight competition for the entertainment dollar and a complicated funding issue as the main contributing factors to the demise of California football.
The ladder factor arose from the 1993 settlement between the California State University system and the California chapter of the National Organization for Women which required greater equality for funding and participation in men’s and women’s athletic programs. Unfortunately though, instead of investing in women’s sports, men’s athletic funds were cut. Pine stated that if some of the Cal State schools brought back football, he could see it making a comeback at APU too.
Sam Edinger believes there’s a reason to have hope for APU football because he’s experienced a college team’s comeback firsthand.
“The private Christian school [George Fox University] near where I’m from didn’t have a football team my whole life, but they just got it nine years ago again so it is possible,” Edinger said.
It might have taken George Fox football 46 years to come back, but in its return, the school restored a piece of its identity.
Looking at the example of George Fox, I don’t believe APU will ever be the same without its football team. When I recall the football alum’s testimonies of pranks, fellowship and life-altering experiences, I know without football, APU is missing something. And without the games that Pine said brought together at times 6000 people, I think this community is missing a little something as well.
I do, however, find comfort in these bittersweet words from Pine: “I still miss the Hillside field and we’ve been away from there since 1986. We went on and we did well and we did fine and we’ll be okay but yeah I see that helmet and I think, ‘that was a pretty cool time.’”