Victor Santa Cruz
Head coach Victor Santa Cruz has taken Azusa Pacific football to the next level, and the future couldn't be brighter for one of NCAA Division II's newest up-and-coming football powers.
Santa Cruz guided Azusa Pacific through its transition into NCAA membership by leading the Cougars to consecutive 10-win seasons and back-to-back Great Northwest Athletic Conference championships in 2013 and 2014, which were the program's second and third seasons of NCAA competition.
In 2013, Santa Cruz took a Cougar team picked fifth in the GNAC preseason poll to a 9-1 league record before concluding the historic season with a dominant postseason win in the Victory Bowl, 67-0 over Greenville College, to give Azusa Pacific its third 10-win season in program history. For his efforts, Santa Cruz was named the 2013 GNAC and National Christian College Athletic Association Coach of the Year.
A year later, his team repeated the GNAC title with another 10-win campaign, this time starting the year with a thrilling nationally-televised 26-23 double-overtime win over Division II's all-time winningest program Grand Valley State in front of a school-record crowd of 6,199 plus the national TV audience. The Cougars responded from the season's lone setback with a season-ending nine-game win streak, led by Terrell Watson, who was the NCAA's leading rusher (all divisions) with 195.7 rushing yards per game. The 10-1 campaign was not only the first time Azusa Pacific produced back-to-back 10-win seasons, it also pushed the Cougars' record over the past four years to 33-13.
The outstanding coaching staff Santa Cruz has assembled includes NFL Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, who was instrumental in the development of former walk-on tight end Luke Marquardt into an NFL-caliber offensive lineman (currently with the San Francisco 49ers) and 2014 graduate Cody Clay, who signed a post-draft free agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons and entered training camp with the Dallas Cowboys. In addition, running backs coach Ben Buys helped Watson, the 2015 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl MVP, earn an NFL free agent contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.
For all his recent success on the field, Santa Cruz is just as proud of the impact he's made on the program by placing his emphasis on the transformation of young men who can achieve success after graduation. His focus on academics has resulted in landing a league-high 32 players from Azusa Pacific on the GNAC All-Academic team over the past three seasons.
"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 used a four-game winning streak at the end of the 2012 season as a springboard into consecutive 10-win seasons and GNAC championships in 2013 and 2014 as the program has piled up a 24-3 record since winning its Homecoming game in 2012. The first three years of Division II competition came on the heels of back-to-back playoff appearances which wrapped up the program's long-standing affiliation as an NAIA independent program, and Santa Cruz was recognized as the NAIA Independent Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2011.
The 2011 season, which was Azusa Pacific's final year competing in the NAIA, opened 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 6,124 (school attendance record at the time). 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, Montana, 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 Division 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.
That final round of Cougar success in the NAIA was even more rewarding due to the process it took for an independent program to get there. Santa Cruz annually clashed with some of the nation's top programs, putting together schedules comprised primarily of top NCAA Division II, Division I FCS, and NAIA programs. As a result, the Cougars 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, Santa Cruz's players lived up to his challenge to compete 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 Azusa Pacific took on another challenging schedule in 2007. 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 tough schedule 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.).
As the schedule grew increasingly difficult, and the Cougars featured several young players at key positions, Santa Cruz helped crystallize the hard knocks of 2008 and 2009 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 that Carroll, the eventual NAIA champion, faced until the national title game.
Now in his 15th year on the Cougar coaching staff, Santa Cruz came to Azusa Pacific in 2001, serving five seasons as an assistant before taking over as head coach in 2006. 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) at the time they graduated.
In 2004, 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 produced what was arguably the best defense in program history. Although the unit was not necessarily gifted with size, it had an inordinate amount of speed and ruggedness, and 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 players' lives 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. (14), Izabella (12), and Levi (9).
SANTA CRUZ COACHING RECORD Final Year School Overall Conf 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 2012 Azusa Pacific 4-7 4-6 2-3 2-4 - 2013 Azusa Pacific 10-2 9-1 4-1 6-1 RV 2014 Azusa Pacific 10-1 6-0 6-0 4-1 23 53-45 19-7 30-17 23-28