Intercollegiate athletics have been an integral and celebrated aspect of Azusa Pacific University campus life since the 1940s. Since that time, under the direction of NAIA hall of famers Cliff Hamlow, Terry Franson, and Bill Odell, along with current athletics director Gary Pine, Azusa Pacific has become a model in terms of student impact, integrity, leadership, and success. The seven-sport men’s program of the 1950s has grown into a 19-sport, nationally honored, dual-sex athletics program that involves more than 450 student-athletes each year, and Azusa Pacific has claimed 48 national championships and 113 conference championships.
Azusa Pacific’s athletics program is two years into a three-year path toward National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II membership, with full membership anticipated in the 2014–15 school year. The university’s NCAA Division II application was approved in July 2011, beginning the three-year transition period.
In 1965, the university was granted membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), giving the athletics program its first national affiliation, which validated a fledgling competitiveness with the program. Within three years, Azusa Pacific was competing for postseason titles at the NAIA’s local level. In less than a decade, the Cougars emerged as a force on the NAIA national scene.
In addition to the NAIA, APU adopted a secondary association with the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA). In 1969, behind the play of such Cougar greats as Chuck Boswell ’73, Dennis Dickens ’72, Dennis Vanzant ’74, and Jim Wilson ’73, Azusa Pacific basketball captured the university’s first national championship, and the first of four consecutive NCCAA titles.
For more than three decades, Azusa Pacific has provided women’s athletics competition, but it was in the mid-1970s that the university formally sponsored intercollegiate women’s basketball and volleyball. Coaches Sue Hebel (basketball) and Alane LeGrand (volleyball) quickly established programs that became regional powers. In 1979, LeGrand led her volleyball team to the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Division III national crown. The following year, she coached Azusa Pacific to its first of 37 NAIA national championships, capturing the title in the first year the association sponsored women’s championships.
If LeGrand opened the door for Azusa Pacific’s NAIA title aspirations, Terry Franson owns the championship room. In 1983, he began a string of wins that small-college track and field had never seen. In the course of 13 years, Franson led Azusa Pacific to 11 NAIA national championships in men’s outdoor track and field, producing many of the greatest athletes in the school’s history: Mike Barnett ’83, Innocent Egbunike ’86, Dave Johnson ’86, and twins Davidson and Osmond Ezinwa ’94, all of whom went on to enjoy Olympic glory; and of course, NFL great Christian Okoye ’87, who was a track standout before he began his fabled football career at Azusa Pacific. Along the way, Franson brought the NAIA championship to the city of Azusa, hosting the 1988, ’89, ’94, and ’95 national meets. As the century came to a close, APU emerged as one of the premier small-college athletics programs in the nation.
Over the course of the 1990s, APU captured seven national championships, including the 1998 NAIA crown in football and women’s soccer, the first national titles for both sports. The Cougars also added five more to their lengthy collection in men’s track and field. During that decade, all 14 Cougar sports won a combined 39 Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) titles, including the first seven of an unprecedented nine straight GSAC titles in men’s basketball. Azusa Pacific also earned a second-place finish in the prestigious Directors’ Cup in 1998–99, when the Cougars won two national titles, had five final-four appearances, three more top-20 finishes, and a pair of regional playoff berths to close out the decade.
As much as the 1990s elevated Azusa Pacific to national prominence, the following decade propelled the Cougars into an elite class of athletics programs. Eighteen NAIA championships over a 10-year span more than doubled the program’s number of NAIA titles. More than half of Azusa Pacific’s GSAC-record 112 conference titles came in the first decade of the new millennium, as Cougar teams claimed 59 GSAC championships during the 10-year span.
Midway through the decade, Azusa Pacific ascended to the top of the NAIA in the competition for the prestigious NACDA Directors’ Cup, which is awarded annually to the nation’s best overall athletics program. After finishing in the top five for six straight years, Azusa Pacific won its first Directors’ Cup for the 2004–05 season, scoring in 12 of their 14 intercollegiate sports to tally what was then a Directors’ Cup-record 881 points and finish 182 points ahead of runner-up Lindenwood University (Mo.).
After repeating as Directors’ Cup champion in 2006, Azusa Pacific shattered its own scoring record with 978.25 points en route to its third consecutive Directors’ Cup trophy in 2007. Leading the way, the Cougar track and field program claimed men’s indoor and women’s outdoor national titles, while baseball capped its first 50-win campaign with its first trip to the NAIA World Series in 23 years. Just a year after playing in its first NAIA championship game, men’s soccer returned to the title game and joined women’s soccer as national runner-up. Men’s basketball qualified for its 12th straight NAIA Tournament and reached the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year. Men’s tennis became the first NAIA program to advance to five straight national title matches, and women’s tennis advanced to the national quarterfinals for the fourth season in a row. Volleyball made its first back-to-back national tournament appearances, and women’s basketball appeared in its fourth consecutive national tournament to mark another program first. Cross country turned in a pair of top-10 finishes at the national meet, with the men recording their highest showing ever in third place.
After winning its fourth and fifth consecutive Directors’ Cups in 2008 and 2009, Azusa Pacific closed out the decade by become the first NAIA school to claim six consecutive Directors’ Cups. The Cougars won the 2010 trophy by the closest margin in the award’s 15-year history, edging runner-up Simon Fraser University (B.C.) by just three points.
The run continued into the next decade with two more years atop the Directors’ Cup standings before Azusa Pacific’s transition into NCAA Division II brought the Cougars’ NAIA era to a close with eight consecutive Directors’ Cup trophies. Azusa Pacific is the only school to finish in the top 10 every year of the Directors’ Cup since its inception on the NAIA level in 1996 until concluding its NAIA membership in 2012, an unprecedented 17-year run among the nation’s best. Azusa Pacific ranked third among active NAIA institutions with 37 national championships, and the Cougars claimed a conference-record 112 GSAC championships before changing national and conference affiliations in 2012.
After competing for NAIA and GSAC championships during its exploratory year of NCAA Division II candidacy in 2011–12, Azusa Pacific joined NCAA Division II’s Pacific West Conference (PacWest) in most sports beginning in 2012–13. Football joined the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) as an associate member, its first conference membership after competing for 46 years as an independent program in the NAIA. Women’s swimming and diving is a member of the Pacific Coast Swimming and Diving Conference (PCSC), and acrobatics and tumbling is one of six founding members of the growing National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA). Women’s water polo, which was added in 2009, competed for five years as an independent program before joining the startup Golden Coast Conference in the spring of 2014.
Azusa Pacific continues to maintain a secondary national affiliation with the National Christian College Athletic Association, competing for NCCAA championships during its transition into NCAA Division II. In 2012–13, Cougar teams claimed five NCCAA national championships, winning titles in women’s cross country, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, women’s outdoor track and field, and men’s tennis. Women’s cross country also claimed APU’s first PacWest championship. As a result of its performance at NCCAA national championship competition, Azusa Pacific was presented with the NCCAA’s 2012–13 Presidential Award for Excellence, honoring the Cougars as the association’s top overall athletics program. The award extended Azusa Pacific’s streak of winning the top overall honor within its championship affiliation to nine consecutive years.