Big step for small school: Arizona Christian adding football

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                </div>Last year about this time we posted an article about how colleges all around the country are adding football programs to their sports offerings.  Five were supposed to be added […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Last year about this time we posted an article about how colleges all around the country are adding football programs to their sports offerings.  Five were supposed to be added in 2012 and 17 more in the next two years.

Now we can add one more to the list.  And this one is right here in our own back yard.

Arizona Christian University has suddenly decided to join the wave of schools looking to use football as a way to increase visibility on the national level, attract new enrollment, and expand their donor bases.

The move, an unexpected and major commitment for the small Christian university in west Phoenix that was founded in 1960, is just the latest step in a re-branding effort undertaken over the past few years under the direction of ACU President Len Munsil.  Baseball and women’s basketball programs were added in 2011, and a new track & field program last season.

Munsil says he has been tinkering with the idea of football for awhile, recognizing the niche that exists in the marketplace of college athletics.  But the decision to move on the idea wasn’t made until recently when he had an opportunity to discuss the plan with other small-college presidents.

“We could not be more thrilled to begin the only non-Division I, four-year college football program in Arizona,” he said in a news release announcing the latest addition to the school’s athletics offerings, bringing the total to 16, split evenly between men’s and women’s sports.

“Thousands of young men play high-school football in Arizona, but only a few can play for one of the three major universities,” he points out.  Since Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, which moved up to D-I this year, doesn’t offer football, the recruiting opportunities are divided among the two Pac-12 schools, Arizona and Arizona State, and Northern Arizona University, which is D-I but an FCS program that competes in the Big Sky Conference.

“Each year, hundreds of Arizona players go out of state to play small-college football,” said Munsil.  “We are excited to be able to provide an opportunity for many of these student athletes to continue their career in front of family and friends.”

As would be expected with a small school of roughly 600 on-campus students, ACU recruits heavily from the pool of talent in Arizona and its team rosters are filled with local athletes.

But it’s one thing to gradually build a sports program that will help brand a new identity for the school overall, as ACU has been doing since it changed its name from Southwestern College a few years back.  It’s another thing to jump into a major sports program like football that requires money and facilities.  Lots of money.

In an article in The Arizona Republic, Munsil pegged the figure at $100,000 to get the program off the ground.  He expects to cover those expenses with the increased enrollment that will come with the addition of another sport, combined with donor support.

And Munsil isn’t waiting around to get this off the ground.  He and his staff have already secured commitments from other programs that will enable the Firestorm to play a complete schedule of games next fall; that schedule is supposed to be released in a couple of weeks.

According to the school, the new football coach will be expected to recruit at least 65 players for the first team, with “sizable athletic scholarships” available to reel in the prospective athletes.  Games will likely be played at a large high school with adequate stadium facilities, or perhaps at a community college.

That new head coach will be found through a national search that is said to be underway now.  And, based on the hires for the other sports programs, the school will look for high-profile talent, hopefully with good visibility in Arizona.

They brought in Doyle Wilson, who was a former Major League player and scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, to take over the reins of the baseball program after the first year under an interim coach.  His local visibility comes from the seven years he spent building Chandler-Gilbert Community College into a national contender.

At ACU, he has already won a conference championship and made an appearance in the NCCAA College World Series.

And they hired Jerry Conner two years ago to try to breathe new life into a moribund women’s basketball program.  Conner spent 32 years as the boys’ head coach at Shadow Mountain High School in east Phoenix and was inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002.

That experiment didn’t go as well, however.  Conner posted a 9-18 record his first year (which was actually six wins better than the year before) and then went 4-23 last season, unable to win a single conference game after the school went from being an independent to a member of the Golden States Athletic Conference.  He was replaced over the summer with Odell Berry, the girls basketball coach at Liberty High School in Peoria.

The new football team is expected to compete as an NAIA independent for 2014, but will also look to football-only conferences that might be a wise move down the road.

We’ll have to wait awhile before finding out what kind of a head coach Munsil can attract.  The inaugural coach won’t have much in the way of recruiting tools just yet, but the school did create a clever motto for the program:

“Firestorm football…undefeated since 1960.”

(Artwork: ACU Athletics)