The coronavirus pandemic has hit sports hard in 2020, but it was still shocking to learn on Tuesday that Azusa Pacific University, with one of the richest college football traditions in the San Gabriel Valley, ended its football program after 55 years of competition in both the NAIA and most recently NCAA Division II.

APU left the NAIA to join the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in 2012 and began playing in the NCAA Division II. Since then the program improved annually, finally qualifying for the Division II playoffs in 2016 and 2018.

APU eventually moved from its small high-school sized home campus field to nearby Citrus College, where its fan base was strong, often packing the stadium.

Azusa Pacific won its only National Championship in 1998, travelling to Savannah, Tennessee to defeat Olivet Nazarene in front of a packed small town that treated the event like its own Super Bowl.

Joel Sanchez, who played on the ’98 championship team and went on to coach football at El Monte High and lives in Covina, called it a sad day when he heard the news his alma mater had dropped football.

“It’s sad, especially seeing how far the program has come,” Sanchez said. “I spent four years there and winning the school’s only national championship means a lot, and it was a great place for other kids in the San Gabriel Valley to go too.

“When I played it was the NAIA and it was a great program that kept on building and you got to play games out of state, it was a great experience. And then you saw it (graduate) to Division II and was competing and just a great outlet for kids locally that could have a great college football experience. So, it’s a sad day. I just heard and read about it, and it’s a sad day for sure. That was a special place to play and watch football games, I will miss it for sure.”

APU ending its football program comes on the heels of Occidental College ending its football program toward the end of the summer, and other local schools like the University of La Verne and Whittier College canceling their football seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

APU has a rich tradition in several sports, but football simply became too expensive it appears, forcing APU to shift its focus to the remaining 18 sports. APU’s Felix Events Center is one of the SGV’s crown jewels and is home to Cougars men’s and women’s basketball, and has hosted several CIF-SS championship finals in boys and girls basketball.

Although the pandemic wasn’t mentioned specifically as a reason for APU to end football, it played a big role. APU was running out of local teams that it could compete against, and playing an NCAA Division II schedule required a lot of out of state games, which simply became too expensive.

Azusa Pacific athletic director Gary Pine, who began his career there as the schools sports information director, delivered the news.

“This is an extremely difficult decision,” Pine said. “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.”

APU’s most well known alum, Christian Okoye, who graduated in 1987 and went on to the NFL where he was a two-time Pro Bowl running back with the Kansas City Chiefs, weighed in.

“I’m saddened, but I understand the decision,” Okoye said. “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.”

Okoye, wasn’t the only notable alum, many remember Doug Barnett, who graduated in 1982 and was the first APU player to play in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins.

“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.’”

APU explained in a press release that the decision reflects a decline in mostly smaller college football programs over the past 30 years, noting that 14 California four-year colleges had dropped football during that time span.

APU was also the only NCAA Division II school in California, and even when it was in the NAIA, it was the only team in California, and that meant too many games out of state with rising costs that became too difficult to support.

The school said that current football players on athletic scholarships will continue to receive support until they finish their education.

 

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By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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