ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (BP) — This year’s Ouachita Baptist University Tigers football team was the winningest in the school’s history. And while college football is a big deal in the South, where many enjoy cheering on their favorite team regardless of the record, it is especially nice to cheer for a winner — on and off the field.
The Tigers went undefeated in the Great American Conference — winning the conference for the second year in a row — and won their first contest during the NCAA Division II playoffs before losing in the quarterfinals to Ferris State University, a school with a student enrollment nearly 10 times that of Ouachita’s.
While many small Baptist colleges and universities do not have football programs, Ouachita’s dates back to the late 19th century. The first “Battle of the Ravine,” the nickname for Ouachita’s longstanding rivalry game with cross-highway rival Henderson State University, dates back to 1895.
“When you grow up in the state of Arkansas … everybody is always talking about the Razorbacks. But I am so proud of our guys. They work just as hard and do all the same things that those guys do,” said Todd Knight, Ouachita alumnus and Tigers head football coach for the past 19 years.
“It just brings a lot of pride to the university, and it’s been fun to have been a small part of that,” Knight said. “Getting to coach these guys has been an honor for me.”
Ben Sells, president of Ouachita, said, “This semester I’ve talked with students, including football players, about how developing resilience contributes to ‘lives of meaningful work,’ our university mission-related theme this year. I’m very proud of Tiger football’s record performance, and I’m especially pleased with the character and resilience that our student-athletes displayed.”
He noted, “The collective efforts of players, coaches, marching band, cheerleaders, alumni and fans fostered wonderful school spirit and brought positive attention to Ouachita Baptist University,” he said.
According to Knight, every team is special but this year’s team stood out based on its player-led culture.
“You may have heard the old statement that a player-led team is better than a coach-led team,” the coach said. “That is really what we have. We have some really strong leadership from within.”
While there are many Christian coaches and players at non-Christian public and private institutions across the country, Knight acknowledged, the spiritual support that he, the rest of the coaching staff and players receive at Ouachita is unique and refreshing.
Within the football program, Knight said the entire coaching staff attempts to “show the guys what it means to be a Christian father, a Christian coach and work for the university that we do.”
“That is part of our mission and part of who we are,” he said. “And hopefully the guys gravitate to that and see that we are different in ways.”
While physical attributes, skill and other athletic markers are keys to recruiting high-level players, Knight said he and his staff also focus on recruiting football players who want to buy into the mission of the Tiger football team — which directly correlates to the mission of the university.
Ouachita bases its foundation on five values: faith, scholarship, growth, character and community. Through these five values the school aims to develop students who “foster the love of God” and display “reasoned engagement of the world.”
Holding to Ouachita’s values, Knight said, the Tigers football team is “a mission field.”
By the time a Ouachita football player graduates, the goal of Knight and his coaching staff is for the players to “know who they are in their faith, know who they are as a man and know where they are headed,” he said.
“If that happens, nobody is going to be talking to me about this season, or how many we have won or lost, in another 20 years,” Knight noted. “They are going to be talking about the quality of young men that come out of our program.”
One of the spiritual leaders of the Tigers football team, wide receiver Drew Harris, became a Christian while attending the university and currently leads a Bible study for the football team.
Without the spiritual leadership of players like Harris off the field, Knight said, “We probably wouldn’t be where we are on the field.”
“It’s just been amazing to watch that happen and see how a bunch of guys in our program are learning how to lead in that (spiritual) area too by watching Drew,” Knight said.
“Wins and losses really don’t change how you feel about people,” Knight said. “We make a lot of mistakes. We are not perfect. We are a football team that is growing and learning what total manhood is really about: the physical, the mental and the spiritual. It takes all those things to become a real man.”
Ouachita Baptist University is affiliated with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.