That’s how long it had been since a team other than the University of Mount Union or the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater took home the NCAA Division III National Championship Trophy. It’s also how long Division III football has held a reputation for being the battle between those two programs.
It’s not unusual for a select few teams to dominate, commanding the respect of all would-be contenders, but this was a whole new level of untouchable. The Stagg Bowl had become a foregone conclusion. It seemed inevitable one of those two juggernauts would win it all – year, after year, after year.
But not this time.
The Cru from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (UMHB), a small Christian university from deep in the heart of Texas, rode into Salem, Va., on December 16, 2016, and defeated the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 10-7.
While it wasn’t exactly a shootout, their hard-fought victory sent a clear message to the rest of Division III football: There’s a new sheriff in town.
Building On Belief
Fredenburg has always been a Texas man. He lived and coached in Texas for most of his life, coaching several high school programs, and spending 13 seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Baylor Bears, before being o ered an opportunity to start the UMHB football program. It was no easy task, but what he has accomplished in his 18 years at UMHB provides a ful llment few will ever experience.
“It’s not an easy route. It’s hard work. It’s sacrifice. It’s dedication,” Fredenburg says. “It’s all of those clichés that coaches talk about, but it came to fruition when we finally won the national championship.”
It’s easy to look back now and see the value in what Fredenburg accomplished. But there were no guarantees he would ever make it to the top, especially not back in 1998, when he started the program from nothing. Fortunately for UMHB, Fredenburg is a patient man.
“We didn’t think that it would be a quick fix,” Fredenburg says. “The process of developing your program is what’s really important. It takes some time to grow, and I’m sure there were times where we wondered if we would ever accomplish this.”
Many coaches have achieved their goal of winning a championship. There’s also a long list of coaches who have had the honor of starting a program from scratch. But coaches who have done them both with the same program from start to finish – that’s a rarity in the coaching world.
As the program grew from year to year, Fredenburg continued to keep the faith, while season after season ended in bitter defeat. He remained steadfast, and his staff and players never stopped believing.
“Having players who believe in each other and believe in their coaches is what kept driving us,” Fredenburg says. “As devastating as some of the losses that we had were, people continued to believe in what we were doing as a coaching staff, and we continued to believe in each other.”
The Cru had a number of devastating losses on their journey to the top, but they grew with every disappointment.
They never wavered in their belief, and proved that sometimes all it takes to find success, is some good old- fashioned commitment.
Staying With It
Believing in who you are and what you are doing is much easier when you have a history of being a championship program. There’s no replacement for experience, and falling short of the ultimate goal is especially difficult when you are in uncharted territory.
UMHB has slowly built through their experiences over the years. Ironically, they lost the Stagg Bowl to Linfield College in 2004, the last year before Mount Union and Whitewater started their 11-year run of dominance. It’s fitting they would be the team to bookend that run down the line.
It’s also fitting that Linfield provided the spark the Cru needed to finally get over the hump.
“I don’t know that we have ever had a more devastating loss than the year before this when we played Linfield,” Fredenburg says. “We were leading going into the last part of that game. We intercepted a pass and then had a bad snap that went over the quarterback’s head, and they took it down and kicked a field goal to win.
“When we came back in January and started our off-season program, the leadership of the guys who had been through that devastating loss — and didn’t want to go through it again — was what made this team different.”
Fredenburg says it was crucial for his team to remain true to its identity. Panicking and looking for answers outside of what had propelled them to the precipice of greatness would have been a grave error.
“Some teams are notorious for seeing a new offense, or a new defense, or a new way of doing things, and thinking that it’s the secret to success,” Fredenburg says. “It’s doing the things you truly believe in and staying with them. You have to continue to examine those things, and then stay with it.”
UMHB exorcised its demons in 2016, defeating Linfield twice on its way to an undefeated season. Players’ beliefs were tested once again in the Stagg Bowl, when turnovers threatened to ruin another promising season.
After a huge fourth-down stop on the opening drive of the second half put them in prime position to ride out their 10-7 lead, the offense turned the ball over on their first play from scrimmage. It felt like déjà vu for Fredenburg and his staff.
Just like they had done in the off-season, the Cru stayed true to their identity. The tough, physical defense they had believed in all year long came through for them one more time, holding Oshkosh scoreless for the entire second half.
“Winning it in that way obviously isn’t something that I would plan to do, but we certainly play great defense, and it was kind of an old slugfest,” says Fredenburg.
The road was rough and rocky right up to the end for UMHB, but it made their arrival at the summit even sweeter.
The View From The Top
In his tireless preparation for the Stagg Bowl, Fredenburg invested everything he had in achieving what had eluded him for so many years. But with his focus solely on the task of winning the game, he forgot to prepare for one crucial element – becoming a champion.
“Looking back on the experience of that Friday night, and that victory, I was not prepared for the sheer exhilaration,” Fredenburg says. “Just the fact of accomplishing something that you have devoted your entire life to.”
Fredenburg says the outpouring of love and congratulations he’s received has been truly remarkable. One of the most amazing parts about having been there from the beginning is being able to share this achievement with all of the players who paved the way.
“I had a tremendous amount of support,” Fredenburg says. “So many of our former players consider it their success as well, and they should because they are the ones who established the legacy. There’s no question that there is an overwhelming joy and support for this football program.
“The thing that made it the most rewarding was the quality of the people I was working with. The most rewarding aspect of my career, looking back, is the relationships that I have developed, not only with fellow coaches, but also with the players I have coached.”
Now that Fredenburg has finally broken through, the Cru are in unfamiliar territory once again.They have been respected as contenders for over a decade now, but 2017 is their first year experiencing the pressure of defending the crown.
With their new role comes greater confidence. For the first time in a long time, the road to the Stagg Bowl goes through Texas.
“We have never beaten Whitewater, but we have had several opportunities,” Fredenburg says. “I think the guys now have the confidence that they can compete with anybody, including Whitewater or Mount Union. It’s just a matter of taking the confidence that they have, and developing the chemistry necessary to carry it all the way through.”
For more information on Pete Fredenburg, check out these articles.