Victor Santa Cruz
Victor Santa Cruz approaches life in a similar vein that resembles his style of play while a linebacker at the University of Hawai'i. He accepts life's challenges as expected obstacles either to be knocked down or shed in order to accomplish the task at hand.
Now in his seventh season as the head coach at Azusa Pacific, Santa Cruz is a fearless and optimistic leader who has infused a highly competitive spirit with a personal and caring approach to make Azusa Pacific football a unique brand of play.
"I'm a passionate guy," said Santa Cruz. "I'm passionate about Jesus Christ, my family and Azusa Pacific. Through competition on the field and in the classroom, I want to see young men exit this program with an understanding of effective process, a sense of self, and the vision to become successful husbands, fathers, employees and employers."
It's a philosophy that has delivered concrete results, as evidenced by Azusa Pacific's recent success both on and off the field. The Cougars have posted a 15-7 record over the past two years, wrapping up the program's long-standing affiliation as an NAIA independent with back-to-back playoff appearances while Santa Cruz was named NAIA Independent Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2011. Last year, Azusa Pacific's top-five final ranking was accompanied by a variety of academic honors bestowed upon Cougar student-athletes, including a program-record five CoSIDA Academic All-District selections along with five more Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athlete recipients in 2011.
The 2011 season, which was Azusa Pacific's last year in the NAIA as the school transitions into NCAA Division II membership, opened at home with a narrow 42-40 loss to University of San Diego in a wild shootout that featured 48 combined fourth-quarter points in front of a school-record crowd of 6,124. Despite the season-opening defeat, Santa Cruz guided his team to six straight wins by an average margin of 38 points. The only other regular-season loss was a 38-31 setback at Lindenwood, but a resilient set of Cougars regrouped and closed out the regular season with back-to-back blowout wins over fellow NAIA independents Southern Oregon and Menlo to earn a spot in the 16-team NAIA playoffs.
Azusa Pacific piled up 587 yards of total offense in a 49-26 first-round playoff win before traveling to Helena, Mont., for the second consecutive postseason, for a quarterfinal matchup with defending national champion Carroll College. The Cougars scored on the game's opening possession and didn't trail until late in the fourth quarter when Carroll chewed up over eight minutes of the clock with an 18-play scoring drive to edge the Cougars, 17-14.
Santa Cruz's 2011 offense, led by two-time NAIA Independent Offensive Player of the Year QB John van den Raadt, rushed for a school-record 3,915 yards in 2011 (326.2 yards per game) and also set the program's single-season records for scoring (45.6 points per game) and total offense (496.4 yards per game). Van den Raadt, who started 40 consecutive games for Santa Cruz, ended up shattering the program's career record for total offense, finishing with 9,335 yards which included another program-record of 6,639 yards passing. He was the only QB in scholarship college football (non-NCAA Div. III) to average 100 yards rushing per game, and he was the leading rusher for Santa Cruz's offense which led the NAIA in rushing (3,915 yards) and scoring average (45.6), and also ranked as college football's most productive rushing offense by averaging 7.6 yards per rush attempt, making Azusa Pacific the only four-year college football program at any level in 2011 to average over seven yards per rush.
The latest round of Cougar success was even more rewarding due to the process it took to get there. Santa Cruz has taken on every opponent that has come Azusa Pacific's way, putting together schedules comprised primarily of top NCAA Division II, Division I FCS, and NAIA programs. As a result, the Cougars have traveled throughout the country to play teams in Florida, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Missouri, Washington, Montana, and Oklahoma. The wide range of experiences the well-traveled program collected throughout the process helped prepare the Cougars for a successful 2010 season which featured the program's first NAIA playoff appearance since 2005.
True to his word, his players have competed in the classroom as well. In 2009, Azusa Pacific was one of just three football programs in the nation to earn the NAIA's prestigious title of "Scholar Team" for maintaining a team-wide grade point average of better than 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale).
As a head coach, Santa Cruz's first team took on the most difficult schedule in program history. Of Azusa Pacific's 10 opponents in 2006, six combined for an impressive 60-10 (.857) record. One opponent went on to capture the NCAA I-AA mid-major championship (San Diego) and another was the NCAA Division III runner-up (Wisconsin-Whitewater). The Cougars endured just their second losing season in nine years, but it set the table for the following season, when again in 2007 Azusa Pacific took on a challenging schedule. This time his Cougars fashioned a 6-5 record against seven nationally-ranked teams and an NCAA Division I FCS foe.
In 2008, only two NAIA programs, fellow west coast independent Southern Oregon and eventual national runner-up Carroll, were willing to put Azusa Pacific on the schedule, and yet another challenging slate resulted in a midseason four-game losing streak by a combined margin of only 17 points. Despite losing eight of nine to start the 2009 campaign, the Cougars gave a hint of what was to come in 2010, winning back-to-back games to close out the year, including a 37-3 drubbing of NAIA playoff-bound Langston (Okla.).
After a two-year stretch in which the Cougars faced an increasingly difficult schedule with a number of young players at key positions, Santa Cruz helped crystallize the hard knocks of the 2008 and 2009 seasons into the foundation of Azusa Pacific's return to the playoffs in 2010. The Cougars jumped out to a 4-0 record with an unbeaten September, then rallied from three straight defeats to win their last two and earn a first-round playoff matchup at Carroll in snowy Helena, Mont., where the game-time conditions featured five-degree temperatures with a steady snowfall throughout the contest. Still, it was Azusa Pacific that struck first and stayed within a touchdown until the final three minutes of the game, and the 35-21 final score represented the toughest playoff competition Carroll, the eventual NAIA champion, faced until the national title game.
Now in his 12th year on the Cougar coaching staff, Santa Cruz came to Azusa Pacific in 2001. During his first three seasons he served as the offensive coordinator, overseeing the development of the program's all-time leading passer (Luke Winslow) and the fourth-best all-time rusher (Ben Buys).
Seven years ago Santa Cruz became the Cougar defensive coordinator and his coaching star began to shine. In his first year as the defensive coordinator, he redesigned and then produced what is arguably the best defense in program history. A unit not necessarily gifted with size but rather with an inordinate amount of speed and ruggedness, the 2004 Cougars allowed just 135 points in 14 games (school-record low 9.6 points a game) and registered an NAIA-leading 55 quarterback sacks. Better yet, in three NAIA playoff games, the Cougars surrendered just 17 points, holding two of the NAIA's top four offenses (No. 1 Sioux Falls and No. 4 Northwestern Oklahoma) to a combined three points. Despite losing several key figures from that squad, it was still the 2005 defense that propelled Azusa Pacific back to the NAIA playoffs for a sixth time in eight years.
Prior to arriving at Azusa Pacific for his first collegiate coaching assignment, Santa Cruz spent five seasons as an assistant at El Camino High School in Oceanside, Calif., coaching the linebackers. He served under longtime area coach Herb Meyer.
At the same time he served as the San Diego County director of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. While with FCA he established the infrastructure for its 1999 start-up and then raised funds for the $200,000 annual budget.
Santa Cruz played his collegiate ball at the University of Hawai'i, where he was a four-year linebacker for the Warriors, tallying 139 tackles (83 solo) during his career. He redshirted the 1990 season and then played in 46 games over the next four seasons (1991-94). As a 1992 sophomore, he played on the Rainbows' Western Athletic Conference championship team that beat Illinois in the Holiday Bowl.
As a collegiate coach, Santa Cruz has been credited for maintaining an atmosphere of Cougar football that impacts the lives of players beyond the field.
"I've come to realize that no matter what level you're at, you and your players want to win," said Santa Cruz. "Moving up or staying isn't necessarily my goal but making an impression on my players, working hard, and raising my family are."
Santa Cruz has developed and directs the Azusa Pacific Football Academic Organization and Success Strategy which works with all transfers and freshmen in their quest for achievement in the classroom. His first team, the 2006 Cougars, was named to the first-ever NAIA Scholar Team.
The son of a former U.S. Marines major, Santa Cruz lived in Hawai'i, Arizona, Japan, Orange County and San Diego, where he became a prep standout at Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, Calif. He was the Palomar League Defensive Player of the Year while collecting All-CIF honors as a 1989 senior.
Prior to his coaching career, Santa Cruz worked in sales and marketing for the Sport Supply Group.
Santa Cruz graduated from the University of Hawai'i with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1995, and he completed a Master's in organizational leadership from Azusa Pacific in 2010.
Santa Cruz, who also teaches in the university's exercise and sport science department, lives in Rancho Cucamonga with his wife Jamie and their three children, Victor, Jr. (11), Izabella (9), and Levi (6).
SANTA CRUZ COACHING RECORD Final Year School Overall Home Away Ranking 2006 Azusa Pacific 3-7 2-2 1-5 - 2007 Azusa Pacific 6-5 3-2 3-3 21st 2008 Azusa Pacific 2-8 2-3 0-5 - 2009 Azusa Pacific 3-8 2-4 1-4 - 2010 Azusa Pacific 6-4 2-1 4-3 15th 2011 Azusa Pacific 9-3 7-1 2-2 5th 29-35 18-13 11-22