Back in the day, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the University of California at Davis flew the flag for college football in California at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II level. Cal Poly did win a national championship at that level, back in 1980, so they have reached the pinnacle before. UC Davis came close, finishing runners-up with Ken O'Brien leading the way and in their last few years under Bob Biggs, they made the semifinals only to lose to Bloomsburg.
Nowadays, there are just two teams representing the great football-rich state of California at the Division II level. There's the old standby, the Lumberjacks of Humboldt State, the pride of Northern California. And then...there's Azusa Pacific University, the Cougars, under the tutelage of a former Hawaii Rainbow Warrior in Victor Santa Cruz, soon to be the winningest head coach at the school and the longest-tenured coach at the school, an inter-denominational Christian institution.
Before APU went D2, they were dominating the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the NAIA. They, along with now fellow-D2 side Simon Fraser, were the most complete athletics program at that level and they currently have the most Director's Cup at eight. That is a mark that will not be eclipsed for quite some time. The success of Azusa Pacific at the NAIA level meant that they needed to move up to be competitive and bring in better quality recruits. It was Santa Cruz that led the Cougar football program to Division II. Prior to Santa Cruz's arrival, Azusa Pacific won a national championship in 1998.
In the NAIA, due to their location, the Cougars punched above their weight for years, facing teams from the NCAA and NAIA and inflicting some impressive victories over powerhouse teams. Recently, they have stabilized in form as an affiliate emmber of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, or GNAC, winning conference titles in 2013 and 2014.
Azusa Pacific also won the NCCAA National Championship in 2013, called the Victory Bowl. The NCCAA stands for National Christian College Athletic Association. During that time, APU was ineligible to qualify for the postseason in spite of winning their conference due to their transition process. 2013 was the last year of APU's three-year transition period and they were completely out of place in that game because they were too good for the Panthers. It was men against boys. (As of this writing, Greenville are 2-6 this season.)
That goes back to my addressing of the talent level of this Azusa Pacific team. It's comparable to any solid junior college side. Think Mount San Antonio, but at a four-year level. Indeed, some transfer on this team are from nearby Mt. SAC, who slammed my Long Beach City College Vikings a few days ago, so there are some good programs in the Foothill Valley. Most players are from California, with a few good ones coming out of state.
And one reason why Azusa Pacific is great at football is their home stadium. Citrus College is next door, in the city of Glendora. Citrus Stadium is a 10,000 seat venue used by the Citrus Owls, who are a junior college side, and Azusa Pacific jointly. So scheduling games has to be agreed on by both institutions. Thus, if Citrus is playing at the stadium, Azusa in on the road, and vice versa. But there are some cases where both teams play at the same stadium on the same day. For example, on the weekend of Oct. 15, Citrus played during the day and Azusa Pacific played during the night. The Owls lost to Antelope Valley, the Cougars thrashed Humboldt State. It's, literally, a match made in heaven...relatively speaking.
And they have a solid assistant coach in Jackie Slater. A Hall of Famer, Matthew's dad, the father of a New England Patriot who's been a Pro Bowler like his Dad, an LA Ram to the core...his presence is worth the price of admission...which is $12. Combined with a Metro Day Pass and municipal bus fare, that's about $21 for transportation and admission and with pregame meal...$30. So it's a good deal.
And another thing: Azusa Pacific's record, currently 7-1 with a 6-0 conference record, is miles better than USC, or UCLA, or a whole lot of other local colleges in the area. Compare that to the big schools. USC, 4-3, cheapest tickets at $45. UCLA, 3-5, cheapest tickets, $33. Why should anyone pay more to see a below-average major college football team that won't play in the Rose Bowl and might not even go bowling, when they can instead that the Gold Line to APU/Citrus College Station, walk through APU's East Campus, the expansive Citrus College parking lot, and watch decent quality football from a side that know how to maintain good form and could be making the playoffs?
Remember, this is essentially Mt. SAC as a Division II team, based on the quality of players, based on the makeup, the coaching staff, and the desire to embrace the overall experience that one can get at Azusa Pacific. That is a good deal. A bargain. The best deal in town. Their logo might look similar to Air Force's block logo, but block logo identities these days seem to hold their own. Just ask Notre Dame.
One day, APU will get so good, and earn so much in the payout and donations and money flowing in from their support networks, that they will be competing with an old football rival in the University of San Diego in sports other than football in the West Coast Conference. I mean, that's the logical choice, because most of the member schools are from California and are Christian schools. Plus, there is the romantic oppotunity to face BYU on a constant basis. How about that.
Of course, this might mean that Citrus Stadium will have to be renovated and revamped to be up to NCAA Division I FCS standards, and it might be a cost-prohibitive move. But with all of their athletic successes and their brand being promoted on the up and up, I can't see why APU can't get big enough to play football in the Pioneer Football League with San Diego while play in the West Coast Conference in other sports. That rivalry is going to become an annual game and it should be a highly touted match with a lot of postseason implications, local pride and so on.
For the time being, Azusa Pacific University should enjoy settling down in NCAA Division II and shouldn't rush moving up to Division I. Stability and consistency in terms of winning form must take priority first. I am confident that when I head to the campus on Nov. 5 (contingent on tickets being available on Nov. 4, the day my card recharges), I will be enlightened by the quality of football from Azusa Pacific. By this point, unless the Wildcats of Central Washington (who also won a national title as an NAIA school back in 1995) have something to say about is this weekend, the Cougars are preparing for the playoffs as conference champions and I will enjoy the Wolves of Western Oregon receiving a heartfellt lesson in how to play proper football by the book.
I was in Azusa months ago, riding the Metro Gold Line to the city via the then-new Foothill Extension for the very first time, filming the entire ride from Downtown Los Angeles to APU/Citrus College both ways, uploaded it to YouTube, following it up with a first-time ride to Santa Monica on the Expo Line, soon to be the western portion of the revamped Gold Line. Now, I get to ride this same Gold Line, soon to be the north extension of the Blue Line to Long Beach for real, this time with a purpose. It may be one bus and three trains now, but in a few years, it will only be one bus and one train to get to an Azusa Pacific Cougars football game. (They're better than the other similarly-colored Cougar football team too, as of this writing. Slightly.)
But, yep, as much as I like to tout junior college football in the Golden State...this is NOT Azusa Community College.