You know the drill by now. If you want a Texas college football team that doesn’t break your heart, and actually plays for national championships, you’ve got to look past FBS to lower levels of the sport.
Last spring, it was Sam Houston, though the Bearkats’ quest to repeat as FCS champions ended in the quarterfinals Saturday. Just a few hours before that, however, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor punched its ticket to the Division III title game for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Crusaders, who won a since-vacated national championship in 2016 and a still-recognized title in 2018, are the best team in Texas you don’t follow, and perhaps the best program in Texas, period. They’ve won seventeen American Southwest Conference titles since 2002, and Texas Sports Hall of Famer Pete Fredenburg’s 229 career wins (although if we’re counting the additional 27 victories that the NCAA has wiped off the books, it’s 256) are the fourth most among active college football coaches at all levels. Some guy named Mack Brown is number one.
So before you get to Saturday’s slate of third-string FBS bowls (sorry, UTEP), tune in to ESPNU on Friday night, when UMHB faces defending champion North Central College, from Naperville, Illinois, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Here’s what you need to know to join the Crusades (yeah, we’ll get to that team name).
The Baylor name is no coincidence.
From 1845 to 1866, the school that is now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor actually was the same as Baylor, which was located in Independence, Texas. It became “Baylor Female College” in 1866, moved to Belton in 1886 (the same year the men’s school moved to Waco), and was renamed for Mary Hardin (a prolific Christian higher education donor) in 1934.
Male students did not arrive until 1971, which is also why . . .
The program is barely older than its players.
UMHB began fielding a football team in 1998, and Fredenburg, 72, is the only coach in school history. A former high school coach in New Braunfels and top Baylor assistant under Bears legend Grant Teaff, Fredenburg had also done stints at LSU and Louisiana Tech before starting up the fledgling program.
Whether it’s the many quarterbacks who leave the state to play at other schools, or the myriad football players who end up in FCS, Division II, and Division III, Texas will always have more players than college teams to take them. The idea at UMHB was to take full advantage of its Central Texas location, recruiting and cultivating high school players (and, more important, high school football coaches) within a 75-mile radius.
Of those first years, Fredenburg says he mostly remembers “how hard it was. But those young teams early were just so devoted to each other, and wanted to accomplish something special. I mean, in the first year we won three ball games. And the second— four. And then finally we won nine.” In 2001, UMHB’s fourth season, the team made the D-III playoffs for the first time. The following season the team won the conference for the first time, and in 2004 it reached its first national championship game.
Fredenburg is a real-life Eric Taylor.
Remember when the Friday Night Lights coach moved to Philadelphia for Tami’s teaching job? Having bounced from Waco to Baton Rouge to Ruston, Louisiana, Fredenburg took the Mary Hardin-Baylor job with the idea that his youngest son, Cody, would be able to get through high school without moving. He also took it because his wife, Karen, had just gotten her doctorate, and she took a job at Baylor University (Belton is a forty-minute drive from Waco).
At the time, Fredenburg figured he’d eventually go back to climbing the Division I coaching ladder. Instead, he never left, and Cody wound up playing for—and eventually coaching with—his dad.
“I absolutely fell in love with the Division III philosophy: the kind of players that you deal with, the unselfishness,” Fredenburg says. “I was gonna spend two or three years here and it’s been about twenty-four.”
“Student athlete” is not a term of art for these guys.
It may be oversimplifying things to say that Division I FBS football is all about money—be it TV money, donor money, or the brave new world of name, image, and likeness deals—and the lower levels are where college football is still about college and football. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to it.
There are no athletic scholarships at the Division III level, just financial aid and academic scholarships (though D-III players can also participate in NIL). “It’s just people that really love to play the game, and want to continue while they’re pursuing their education,” Fredenburg says of his players. “They just want to play football. We have had some that have gone on to the NFL, but it’s certainly not the end-all.”
Even a little Division III school can get tripped up by the NCAA.
Officially, UMHB has won only a single national championship, in 2018, and Fredenburg has 229 career wins, not 256. That’s because in 2019, the NCAA stripped the school of all its wins and records from 2016 and 2017, because of a self-reported violation involving Fredenburg. His “major infraction”? Lending his 2006 Subaru to a player.
The whole affair seems especially silly and quaint given the new realities of college football, though Fredenburg himself is old-school enough to be perplexed by said realities, whether it’s FBS players opting out of bowl games or the fact that, in 2021, thanks to NIL, his players could theoretically just get a free car from a local dealer. “Everything that SMU got the death penalty for is now legal,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
Interestingly, the 2016 title is still acknowledged on the NCAA website, as is Fredenburg’s actual win total in the 2020 record book. Even the school itself plays good NCAA corporate citizen . . . though its fans are under no such mandate.
The Crusaders won their first game of the season 84–6.
Yup, even D-III schools get to host some cupcake games. The victim was Simpson College, of Iowa. UMHB’s 14–0 season this year also included blowouts over Southwestern (54–3), Austin College (56–0), Sul Ross State (72–14), and McMurry (77–3). Their only test came early: a 34–28 win over rival Hardin-Simmons on September 25. The Crusaders also handled Trinity, Birmingham Southern, and longtime national power Linfield early in the Division III playoffs.
They probably won’t change their mascot.
This year, Valparaiso, a Lutheran university in Indiana, changed its name from the Crusaders to the Beacons, in an effort to distance itself from the name’s association with the actual eleventh-century Crusades, along with more modern white supremacist associations. As a Baptist school in Texas, UMHB is probably in much less of a rush to make that move. But, you never know.
They thrive on the little guy, both figuratively and literally.
Fredenburg says his program recruits players who are just an inch or two short, or maybe ten pounds light, by Division I standards. “But there’s no difference in the desire and the passion, and just the sheer love of the game,” he says.
And this year’s team is not as small as you might think. Starting quarterback Kyle King, from Milano—there’s that 75-mile radius—is six foot three, 220 pounds, and plays with a bit of Dandy Don Meredith swagger. He also sports a splendid state trooper mustache. Wide receiver Brandon Jordan, from California, stands six foot six and is almost impossible to cover on high throws. And, well, let’s just say some of the UMHB linemen have FBS-caliber bellies.
The Crusaders are also led by defensive back Jefferson Fritz, from Kaufman. The five-foot-eleven, 205-pound senior has been an All-American all four years of his career, and the conference Defensive Player of the Year three times. He’s also the punter—and a punt returner.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” says Fredenburg. “He’s a great leader and a very dynamic player. He will have a chance, I think, to go into the next level. He works incredibly hard, but more importantly, he is such a team player and leader.”
They know how to dress warm.
Being a successful Division III football team means playing November and December playoff games at schools such as Saint John’s (Minnesota), Mount Union (Ohio), and Wisconsin-Whitewater. So Fredenburg already owns a heavy winter coat in UMHB gold and purple. “In those early years, we always talked about someday playing in snow, and someday being in the national playoffs,” he says.
Before last week’s semifinal tilt in Wisconsin, the field was blanketed in white, but between the snow plows and the warming afternoon temperatures, the game was played in normal, near-40-degree conditions.
Prior to its 2018 championship season, the Crusaders had been 0–5 against UW-Whitewater, a program that was built by current Kansas head coach Lance Leipold. The Warhawks also bounced UMHB from the 2019 playoffs, so last week was UMHB’s revenge game (because of the coronavirus pandemic, D-III teams did not have a postseason in 2020). The Crusaders survived a slow start to take a 17–7 halftime lead (with two Jordan touchdown receptions, plus a big catch leading to the field goal), then survived an almost goal-line fumble in the middle of third quarter to make it 24–7, which became the final score.
Fredenburg admits to having felt nervous throughout the game. “When we’ve lost as many times as we have to Whitewater, you don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence,” he says. “It was a major undertaking to beat them at their place.”
On the field after the win, he told the team how proud he was of their season—but also that it wasn’t finished. “It’s very important that you’re excited to go to the national championship, but the essence of being there is that you win. You go there not just to enjoy the atmosphere, but to go win the football game.”