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 current Athletic Director Bill Odell, Azusa Pacific has established a name in collegiate circles. Today, that name stands as a model in terms of student impact, integrity, leadership, and success. The 7-sport men’s program of the 1950s has grown into a 17-sport, nationally honored, dual-gender athletics program that involves nearly 300 student-athletes each year.
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 on the NAIA’s local level. In less than a decade, the Cougars emerged as a force on the NAIA’s 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 ever national championship, the first of four consecutive NCCAA titles.
For more than two decades, Azusa Pacific has provided women’s athletic 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 18 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, the Ezinwa twins, and Davidson and Osmond ’94, all of whom went on to enjoy Olympic glory, and of course, NFL great Christian Okoye ’88, 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, 1989, 1994, and 1995 national meets. As the century came to a close, APU emerged as one of the premiere 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 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 45 Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) titles, including an unprecedented 8 straight in men’s basketball. Beyond that, Azusa Pacific earned a second place finish in the prestigious Sears Directors’ Cup in 1998-99 when the Cougars won 2 national titles, had 5 final-four appearances, 3 top-20 finishes, and a pair of regional playoff births to close out the decade.
The new millennium has not slowed Azusa Pacific. Through the first 7 years of the new decade, Azusa Pacific has won 12 national titles, advanced to 18 semifinals, posted 13 national runner-up finishes, and won 45 GSAC championships. The success of Cougar Athletics continues to accelerate, as Azusa Pacific claimed its sixth consecutive NACDA Directors’ Cup in 2010 in record-breaking fashion. The Cougars shattered the previous NAIA record in the competition for the prestigious Directors’ Cup, which is awarded each year to the best overall athletics program.
Leading the way, the Cougar track and field program claimed the men’s indoor and women’s outdoor national titles. Baseball capped the program’s first-ever 50-win campaign with its first trip to the NAIA World Series in 23 years. A year after playing in it’s first-ever NAIA championship game, men’s soccer returned to the NAIA title game and joined women’s soccer as national runner-up. Men’s basketball reached its 12th straight NAIA Tournament and reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year. Men’s tennis became the first NAIA program to advance to 5 straight national title matches, and women’s tennis advanced to the national quarterfinals for the fourth straight season. Volleyball made its first-ever back-to-back NAIA Tournament appearances, and women’s basketball appeared in its fourth straight national tournament to mark a 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.
Azusa Pacific is one of two schools to have finished in the top 10 in each year of the Directors’ Cup since its inception on the NAIA level in 1996. Azusa Pacific now ranks third among active NAIA institutions with 34 national championships and second with 55 top-2 finishes. Additionally, Azusa Pacific has claimed a conference-leading 104 GSAC championships.