NASHVILLE (BP) -– There were no bowl games, championships or confetti dropping out of the sky for the football coaches and players of Oklahoma Baptist and Houston Baptist universities this past season. The two brand new programs took their lumps in their first season — and enjoyed some victories both on and off the field.
Both OBU coach Chris Jensen and Vic Shealy, HBU’s coach, shared their thoughts on the season and pointed out a few lessons they learned while starting up football on two Baptist campuses.
Though both programs ended their seasons with only three victories (OBU,3-8; HBU,3-4) both coaches said they are optimistic about next season. They also touched on the spiritual impact the programs already seem to be having on some athletes who otherwise might not attend a Baptist – or Christian — university.
For OBU, located in Shawnee, the school hasn’t played a down of football since the 1940s.
Coming out of the Great Depression of the 30s, Jensen said, the school was unable to afford the program and it ended up shutting down “mostly for financial reasons.” The team had just won a conference championship, he said, and a couple years before that they beat Arkansas University in a game.
“It’s my understanding … that at the end of the last season they played, there was a deficit of $10,000. The president said if somebody will step up and cover this cost, we’ll keep the football program; and nobody stepped up and … so they cut the program.”
When football finally returned to OBU Aug. 31, the fans’ response to the team was “unbelievable,” Jensen said. The university’s track facility had been transformed into a football field for their opening game against Southwestern College. The OBU Bison kept the score close but ultimately lost 22-26.
“We had over 5,000 people show up for that first game,” Jensen said. “At our level that’s a phenomenal crowd.”
And that was on a day when the temperature reached well over 100 degrees, he said.
“Just brutally hot,” he recalled. “I think our kids really battled hard, and they approached their business in the right way which helped us be in the game.
“A lot of the games we were [close],” he added. “We ended up having those moments where everything went wrong, and we couldn’t bounce back from it at times.”
‘Starting from scratch’
B.J. Kelly, HBU’s running back for the Huskies, also experienced a tough opener against a dominant Sam Houston State University, a game they lost 74-0. Kelly, chuckling to himself, called it a “learning experience.”
“Personally, I felt we could have played in that game…,” he said. “It’s just that we were overwhelmed as a unit. But personally, I was really excited to play in that game just because I like being the underdog in situations.”
Kelly, a successful high school player out of Waco, Texas, said being on a new program taught him a lot about perseverance. During his entire high school career, he said, he’d only experienced four or five losses.
“I wasn’t used to losing,” Kelly said, adding that his faith has helped him keep everything in perspective. “Every day … I really have considered it joy. We should consider it joy even when we go through hardships … the grinding. [Next season] I feel like we’ll be ready.”
Despite HBU’s tough losses, Coach Shealy said the team has enjoyed great fan support and looks forward to building an exciting tradition on campus.
And with that comes some humorous — and humbling — moments.
“When you look at HBU, there was not an ounce of a football culture on campus,” Shealy said, as he recalled beginning his work in 2012. “I know that when I arrived there was not a football on campus.
“I didn’t have an office,” he said. “We had no locker rooms. Our players our first whole year had to kind of use their dorm rooms as a locker room.”
Even running out before a game to pump up the crowd seemed a little awkward the first time since the team had never charged onto a field together before, Kelly said.
“Everything is brand new,” the running back said. “New coaching staff … new lockers room, new everything.”
Shealy said, “We are literally starting from scratch. … There are things you just wouldn’t think about, but our players were incredibly patient.”
After completing its first season, HBU appears to be off and running toward next season.
Jensen said OBU’s team ran into their share of awkward moments as well.
Simple things like scheduling practices for the new program weren’t easy. This past year, because of a slew of scheduling conflicts, OBU football practices began at 6:30 a.m. This led to some early mornings when portable lights had to be brought in for practice because it was still dark.
“The funniest thing is before we got those lights, my special teams coordinator … would be underneath [a] street light with all of his players trying to do walkthroughs so that they could see,” he said.
‘My mission field’
In addition to their on-the-field responsibilities, the coaches recognize their roles as spiritual mentors off the field.
Though both schools carry Baptist in the name, the coaches acknowledged that football is going to bring students on campus who don’t always share the same Christian values.
“I would love for all of my players to be Christians, but the reality is that not all of our players are,” Jensen said. “But they are presented with the Gospel here.”
Jensen, who said he likes “wearing my faith out front,” described coaching as “my mission field.”
Whether through player-led Bible studies or having the team pray for those going through struggles, Jensen said his players are exposed to what it means to live out the Christian walk.
“It is a critical part of the environment at Oklahoma Baptist University, and it is something they’re going to be exposed to while they’re here,” he said.
Nyko Symonds, OBU’s wide receiver and a team captain, said his life has transformed since transferring from Oklahoma University’s football team to OBU for more playing time. (Read more of Symond’s testimony in separate BP story.)
Since deciding to transfer, Symonds has changed his communications major to pastoral ministry and is minoring in Bible. While Symonds added that OU has a tremendous program and strong believers on the team, he said he believes God led him to OBU for a reason.
“Just being at [OBU], I feel like God is doing such a big thing with this group of guys that’s there right now,” he said.
“I think it really showed me God is calling me to preach the Word in some form or fashion. … OBU is such a special place — such a great place to be a part of.”
HBU’s Kelly shared about the ministry opportunities he’s encountered with friends who become more curious about following Jesus.
“That’s the Lord bringing them there, putting them in a situation and them following Him — without them even knowing it,” he said. “It’s a blessing in disguise.”
Kelly said he was able to lead a friend of a fellow teammate to Christ.
“One night we [were] just praying together, and he … was saying how he wanted the Lord to come into his heart, and He did. It’s things like that that just keep me going.”
Since the program began, about 20 HBU football players have made decisions for Christ.
“I do believe at the end of the day that the Lord is going to look at us and not care too much about how many championships we’ve won,” he said.
“I believe I’m held accountable to how many lives are … becoming a Christ follower,” he said. “If we’re successful in that area then our program hopefully is going to be successful.”
Shawn Hendricks is managing editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).