Azusa Pacific Drops Football Program

Andrew Elffers (Class of 2018) played locally at Maranatha before going on to play quarterback for APU. (Photo by Duane Barker).

By Tim Peterson

Azusa Pacific has dropped its football program after 55 years the school announced Tuesday. The Cougars did not play in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. They went 1-9 overall in 2019.

Here is the release sent by the school. Information and story courtesy of Corey Langerveld.

Football Draws to a Close at Azusa Pacific

By Corey Langerveld

After significant review and careful consideration, Azusa Pacific University ends its intercollegiate football program this month after 55 years of competition in the NCAA and NAIA. Director of Athletics Gary Pine announced the decision today. 

This decision was reached by the university’s President’s Cabinet with support by the Board of Trustees after discussions throughout the fall that included analysis on multiple fronts with key stakeholders. It reflects the trajectory of intercollegiate athletics in California and upholds the best interests of Cougar Athletics and the university moving forward.

“This is an extremely difficult decision,” said Pine. “I love Cougar football, and it has meant a lot to all of us. Unfortunately, the long-term trends of college football in California have eroded the fiscal sustainability of many programs, ours included, and caused annual departmental deficits. The strategic reallocation of funding strengthens our Athletics portfolio and overall commitment to student-athletic success. These measures create the right environment for the next chapter in Cougar Athletics.”

Ending the program is part of a restructure to streamline athletics resources. Moving forward, the program will invest further in advancing excellence in the 18 remaining sports.

“I’m saddened, but I understand the decision,” said former Cougar great Christian Okoye ’87, a two-time NFL Pro Bowl running back with the Kansas City Chiefs. “Like so many other football alumni, I am thankful that God brought me to Azusa Pacific. The influence of the university and those who trained me made me who I am today. My friends and teammates feel the same way.”

This decision reflects the decline of California football over the past 30 years. During this time, 14 California four-year colleges have dropped football from their intercollegiate rosters, while only 1 (Chapman in 1994) has added the sport. From a high of 37 football-playing schools in California in 1975, only 17 still have the sport. Azusa Pacific was the only NCAA Division II or NAIA school in California with football, and while that status created a unique recruiting proposition for the university, it eventually became an expensive one as well.

With fewer in-state opponents, APU had to stretch its vision for contests. Since 2005, Cougar football has averaged three airplane flights per season, and over the past four years, that average climbed to five, including 2019 when all six road games required air travel, making Azusa Pacific the only NCAA Division II or III school in the nation forced to fly to all of its road games. Between 2006-09, Azusa Pacific played games in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Montana, along with its routine contests in Oregon and Washington. In 2007 alone, APU football traveled more than 17,000 miles to fulfill its 11-game schedule. The move to the NCAA temporarily offset the burden of extraordinary travel costs.

More than 2,000 men have identified with Cougar football since the program’s inception. Along with Okoye, among the many standouts are NAIA Hall of Famers Doug Barnett ’82, the first Cougar to play in the NFL, enjoying a five-year career with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Football Team, and in the NCAA-era of APU football, running back Terrell Watson ’16 who led college football in rushing and parlayed that success into a three-year career in the NFL.

After the Okoye-led Cougars narrowly missed the NAIA playoffs in1985, Azusa Pacific finally broke through in grand fashion in 1998, qualifying for its first-ever postseason berth and then running the table to win the NAIA national championship. The title run began a stretch in which Azusa Pacific made the playoffs six times in eight years.The Cougars returned to the NAIA playoffs in 2010 and 2011 before turning their attention to the NCAA, qualifying for the Division II playoffs in 2016 and 2018.

In 2012, APU began its first and only conference membership, joining Great Northwest Athletic Conference which in turn offered a stable and competitive home, a steady schedule, and new gridiron rivalries. In a span of 6 years, Azusa Pacific won the conference crown 4 times while enjoying intense competition with strong teams.

“There has been a lot of great men and success associated with Cougar football,” Pine added.  “However, its true impact is the changed lives of many players. As longtime Cougar coach Jim Milhon once said, ‘We don’t play football at Azusa Pacific because we have to beat someone, but rather because of the good it has on the students of the university.’” 

The university is assessing how to reallocate operational and scholarship funds within the Athletics Department and across the university to promote athletic and academic excellence, while honoring the legacy of Cougar football. APU intends to further its recruitment efforts of those transferring from community colleges and urban high schools to uphold the momentum football provided in recruiting students who reflect the rich diversity of its Southern California location. 

Current football players holding athletic scholarships who decide to finish their education at APU and achieve satisfactory academic progress will continue to receive that support. The Athletics Department will assist current team members who wish to transfer.

4 Comments to "Azusa Pacific Drops Football Program"

  1. January 17, 2021 - 12:57 am | Permalink

    Athletic director Gary Pine said the decision was prompted by other four-year schools in California dropping the sport over the last 30 years, giving Azusa Pacific fewer in-state opponents to play, which led to higher travel costs. In 2019, the Cougars had to fly to all six of their road games, making them the only Division II or III school in the country forced to do that. Azusa Pacific produced such standouts as Christian Okoye, Doug Barnett and Terrell Watson, all of whom went on to play in the NFL.

  2. ?'s Gravatar ?
    December 16, 2020 - 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Big time football, that is football with TV deals is the only type of football that will survive. Club football for high school aged kids will exist but unless you are an elite athlete parents will have to pay through the nose for their kids to play on club teams. With equipment, referees, insurance,coaching stipends, bands,cheerleaders and security expenses going through the roof high school football is going,going,gone.

  3. Go Stangs's Gravatar Go Stangs
    December 16, 2020 - 4:56 am | Permalink

    Makes sense that they couldn’t justify the expense of all that travel. But couldn’t they find a way to move to D3? With the demise of Occidental football, the SCIAC has a space on their schedule. Having four opponents within a 10-15 minute drive might have been a nice change.

    On another note, how well supported were they? I never heard of people going to their games. Did they sell many seats, or was it mostly just parents and girlfriends rattling around in a mostly empty stadium?

    Seems like this is a tough time to be in the minor league business.

  4. Concerned fan's Gravatar Concerned fan
    December 15, 2020 - 11:49 pm | Permalink

    The writing was in the wall when victor santacruz left. It’s horrible to see football dying here in California

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