Road to the Cup
Fall 1965 offered no time to think of a long-term strategic plan. The future of an athletics program hung in the balance, and crises lurked around every corner. For then 28-year-old director of athletics Cliff Hamlow, only one priority remained: holding the ship together however he could, a feat which may not have been possible were it not for the unsolicited, yet much-appreciated, help of Mildred Magruder, Ph.D., English professor extraordinaire.
From Rivals to Teammates
Forty years ago, the merger of Azusa College and Los Angeles Pacific College was still in its infancy. The newly formed Azusa Pacific University faced latent volcanoes of dissatisfaction and dissension, with no place on campus more volatile than the intercollegiate athletics program. Here, once fierce rivals now became unnatural teammates. This created, at best, tenuous relationships.
Azusa College personnel, including Hamlow, secured nearly every coaching position, even for the sport of football, a Los Angeles Pacific-prized possession, which it brought to the table during merger negotiations. With a larger enrollment and a more stable financial footing, Azusa Pacific garnered membership in the prestigious National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a move that gave the new athletics program a certain degree of nationwide respect. However, national reputation played second string to the bigger issue of the time: coming together and “doing” intercollegiate athletics right on one single campus.
Enter Magruder, a little lady with a mighty punch, and a knack for disarming people and changing lives. “She loved the athletes and they loved her,” said Hamlow. “She was their safety net and was marvelous in bringing the athletes together. She was a catalyst in impacting their lives.”
The youthful-driven Hamlow, who 10 years earlier came to Azusa College with the dream of becoming a pastor, was an unlikely teammate with the veteran professor Magruder, a longtime teacher at Los Angeles Pacific who spent six additional years at Azusa Pacific before her retirement. Yet, together they weathered the early years of Azusa Pacific and forged the foundation of a Cougar intercollegiate athletics program that 40 years later earned the right to be called the best of the best in the NAIA.
Model of Quality
From the original small sampling of NAIA-affiliated sports in 1965-66 to today’s 14 intercollegiate sports, Azusa Pacific athletics has transformed into a model of quality that remains the standard-bearer for all Christian colleges and universities. This past June, Azusa Pacific clinched its first-ever Directors’ Cup trophy, signifying the Cougars as the best overall athletics program in the NAIA for the 2004-05 season.
Established by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), the Directors’ Cup program monitors the overall success of every collegiate athletics program in the nation. Points are disseminated based on each sport’s postseason advancement. During the 2004-05 season, 12 of Azusa Pacific’s 14 sports tallied Directors’ Cup points, with 9 sports advancing to at least the “Sweet 16” of their respective national championship. Men’s tennis captured its first-ever NAIA title, and the 25th in Azusa Pacific history, third-most titles for the NAIA. Men’s basketball advanced to the national championship game for the first time in program history, while men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s track and field, and football posted top-5 finishes on the national level.
Azusa Pacific has been a mainstay in the Directors’ Cup top 10 since the program’s inception in the mid-1990s, establishing itself as the only United States school to finish in the NAIA’s top 10 every year. However, the Cougars never reached the summit until this year, marking it as the first Christian college or university to win the prestigious honor. For so doing, Azusa Pacific received a Waterford crystal trophy emblematic of its championship season.
NACDA also coordinates a Directors’ Cup Award for the NCAA that Stanford University (Division I), Grand Valley State University (Division II), and Williams College (Division III) won in their respective divisions this past year.
A Transforming Program
Over the course of 40 years of Cougar athletics, much has changed within the program. Facilities, scholarships, and support staff improved in both quality and quantity. Yet the underlying culture of the program remains steadfast a culture first established by that unusual team of Hamlow and Magruder.
“We’ve always been about transforming lives,” said Hamlow, “even in the early years. Athletics is part of the educational process, a laboratory for life. Our coaches have always understood how important that is. You’re developing young lives.” Arguably, on the Azusa Pacific University campus, there is no closer “faculty-student” relationship than the coach-athlete one. Coaches spend anywhere from two to as much as six hours a day with their student-athletes, six days a week, for no less than five months out of the year. The coaches’ impact is powerful and most often quite lasting.
Such has been the case for NAIA track and field champion sprinter Niema Golphin ’04, who came to Azusa Pacific in the fall of 1999 with a large chip on her shoulder, and justifiably so. As a child, she witnessed her father murder her mother in their Philadelphia home. Raised the remainder of her childhood by her grandmother, Golphin arrived at Azusa Pacific site unseen and 3,000 miles from home. “I knew I needed one-on-one coaching to make me a better athlete,” said Golphin. “The Azusa Pacific coaches had coached great athletes, and I was sure they could get me there.”
There turned out, however, to be something much different from what Golphin first imagined. Along the way toward nine All-American honors and a key role in Azusa Pacific’s first-ever NAIA women’s track and field championships (the indoor and outdoor crowns of 2004 and 2005, making Azusa Pacific the first program ever to sweep back-to-back indoor and outdoor team championships), Golphin discarded the hard edge of her personality, and the suspicion and doubt of other people that permeated her daily life. She engaged in campus activities, developed a deep love for the chapel services, and began to give of herself to others.
“APU athletics are unique because the coaches I came in contact with thought of the person first before the performance,” said Golphin. “Coaches like (Mike) Barnett, (Phil) Wolf, and (Sean) Rochelle—you don’t get those kind of quality people in one place elsewhere.”
In the spring of 2005, Golphin captured her final two All-American awards in the 200- and 400-meter sprints of the NAIA Indoor Track and Field Championships. Her efforts helped the Cougars finish fourth in the championship meet, which allowed Azusa Pacific to garner 80 points toward the Directors’ Cup title. “The things I learned in track paralleled my spiritual growth,” said Golphin. “I realized that God was more concerned about my character than my performance. Once I understood that and lived by that, my athletic experience got better.”
Golphin, though, was not around for the NAIA Outdoor Championships in May. Despite her considerable personal growth and development, she still had life lessons to learn, and in April, women’s head coach Mike Barnett dismissed her from the team. He felt she had lost her focus and a desire to be team-first in her decisions on and off the track. “I know Coach Barnett’s heart,” said Golphin as she reflected on the surprise ending to her collegiate track and field career. “I respect him as a godly man. His decisions are based on what God would have him do.”
Meanwhile, senior footballer Ricky Burgan is a rare kind of student-athlete. At 6’5”, 255 pounds, he is a monster of a wide receiver by NAIA standards. He has played key roles on two nationally ranked Cougar football teams, including the 2004 squad that advanced to the NAIA semifinals. Burgan’s pedigree had him bound for APU from his diaper days. Both parents attended Azusa Pacific, and his father John, played football for the Cougars in the mid-1970s. Still, after a stellar career at Redlands High School, Burgan had many collegiate options, but above all of them, he chose Azusa Pacific.
“I wanted to go to a Christian school, but I was still nervous,” said Burgan. “I didn’t know how good I was going to be. I knew football was good here, and I could tell the coaches were quality people. There is an unspoken pressure here to do well because all the sports do well.”
Burgan has excelled on the field and enters the 2005 season as the Cougars’ top aerial threat. Off the field, he has shined as well. A leader within the team, Burgan has served in numerous volunteer activities, including feeding the homeless, clean-up projects around the city of Azusa, youth mentoring, youth coaching, Special Olympics, and Sunday school teaching.
“I’m so glad God brought me here,” said Burgan. “The whole Azusa Pacific experience has been everything I expected and more. Spiritually, the coaches have challenged me and made me grow. And I think we’re together as an athletic program. No sport dominates the others. They are all good and competitive, and I have a lot of friends who play on other teams at Azusa Pacific.”
Indeed, the Cougars have come together quite nicely over the past four decades, and it did not require a strategic plan, rather, the leadership of Cougar athletics living out the Gospel.
Posted: October 1, 2005