George Fox football: Raising awareness
Three months before the school’s first football game in 46 years, George Fox University broadcast its message to the sky.
Okay, more like 200 feet in the air. The nascent Bruins football program gained a measure of visibility when the school purchased space on billboards around the state of Oregon. “George Fox Football,” the billboards read. “It begins…”
Football-mad residents of Eugene and Corvallis noticed the billboards. Travelers up and down Interstate 5, Highway 26, Highway 58 and other major thoroughfares in the state caught a glimpse of the text and the Bruins’ new helmets. The George Fox athletic department expected to generate 15 million impressions, or long looks, from the displays.
“It’s a marketing campaign that has football on it, but we see it as a George Fox campaign,” says Sarah Reid, George Fox’s director of sports marketing and a GFU alumna. “Football is such a big part of the college atmosphere and we want people to know that, yes, it’s something George Fox has to offer and we hope they’ll look closer at our university. Football is a very timely way to get people’s attention. We want everybody to know what’s going on so that they can come back and be part of it.”
The Christian school based in Newberg had played football from 1894 to 1968, when the program was disbanded. At 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 6, the Bruins will kick off their first game since 1968 against Arizona Christian University – an NAIA school with a first-year football program of its own – at Stoffer Family Field, George Fox’s new football home.
How did the Bruins arrive at this point? It took eight years of dreaming and discussion with alumni, donors and other interested parties. Stoffer Family Stadium and the Duke Athletic Center – which houses the football offices and locker room and the Bruins’ track and field offices – were built through private donations. The tiniest of details were scrutinized as the program began to take shape.
“I feel like football at a small private institution in the Northwest is a cool thing. It’s a campus culture-shaper,” says George Fox Athletic Director Craig Taylor, an alumnus who has headed the Bruins’ athletic department since 1988. “The other thing, because I’ve been here for so long, I knew that the community connection created by a sport like football was really exciting. There was a lot of community excitement for football, even back then. It’s become an avalanche now.”
The right fit
George Fox football is being created in the midst of a boom time for the sport at the collegiate level.
Forty-five colleges and universities began new football programs or resurrected old ones during the past six years, according to the National Football Foundation. Eleven more, including the Bruins, will play their first games within the next three seasons. The class of 2014 includes the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho (NAIA); Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina (NCAA Division II); Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis (NAIA); Paine College in Augusta, Georgia (NCAA Division II); Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida (NAIA); and Arizona Christian, located in Phoenix.
Dr. Robin Baker served as George Fox University’s provost from 1999 to 2007 before being promoted to president of the institution. He says George Fox’s administrators had considered reviving football “for about 10 years.” Football was incorporated into the university’s strategic plan around 2007 and put before the board of trustees in 2009.
“Sports at a place like this is co-curricular,” Baker says. “It goes along with what you do in the educational institution. And it can provide financing for the school, meaning students pay to play, essentially. They come, they get an education. We were interested because we were looking at ways where we could be distinct from other colleges.”
Taylor, a former basketball and baseball player for the Bruins, began his career with George Fox in 1971, three years after the school dropped football. When the board of trustees approved football as the Bruins’ 15th sport, he felt that “something missing” from the school had been restored.
“We needed to bring it back,” he said. “President Baker kind of had that same thought. It’s a part of who we could be.
“The other part that I felt like we were missing is, we’re going to have a chance this fall to have 130 young men that play football at George Fox that are going to have the George Fox experience academically and in all the other ways that we didn’t have without football. That’s a big piece of it.”
The Northwest Conference’s football roster will have expanded for the second time in five seasons, after Pacific University resurrected its football program in 2010. George Fox studied the Boxers’ approach and asked questions of Pacific’s leadership; Baker says Pacific shared a copy of its football budget with George Fox.
“Everyone has questions about football. They want to say football’s too expensive and all sorts of things,” Baker says. “There’s images of football as being non-academic. Within a traditional liberal arts community, it’s hard to add sports at times.
“So when Pacific added theirs, it provided us a model to say, ‘Okay, they’re doing it and they’re smaller, so why are they doing it?’ One, they’re interested in football. Two, they are like us; they’re looking for ways to be their own. Three, the conference is a strong conference and wanted more football teams.
“I thought they just did a very fine job with being up-front with how much it was costing. They created a budget and they stuck with it. They were great about creating energy. They hired an effective coach and brought him in. I liked what they did. They tied it to their mission well.”
The point of no return in the process came on Feb. 28, 2012, when the university announced the hiring of Chris Casey as head football coach. Casey grew up one block away from George Fox’s Newberg campus and performed ballboy duties at Bruins football games. He played and coached at Linfield and served stints at Whitworth University and The Dalles High School; George Fox hired him away from Aloha High School, where Casey won a Class 6A state championship in 2010.
The Bruins were supposed to have started football in 2013, but George Fox administrators say that facility construction and discussions about recruitment led to the decision to delay football’s rebirth.
“You don’t want to start one of these poorly,” Taylor said. “You don’t want to accelerate a process and then find out, oh, we would’ve been better served by more thoroughly vetting and thinking through some things.”
So a class of 60 student-athletes gathered five days a week to practice under Casey, offensive coordinator Ken Ingram, defensive coordinator John Bates and a growing coaching staff. Instead of a football game on fall Saturdays, the Bruins participated in organized team activities like movies and bowling.
“School and college had me so time-oriented. Football just gave me a break,” says Johnny Krahel, a redshirt freshman linebacker from Aloha. “I saw practice as an opportunity, like, I get a break from school and (a chance to) be with Coach (Casey).
“Being a defensive guy, we didn’t wear pads at all. We just wore helmets. That made it a little tough. I like to have a little pop in practice.”
George Fox hosts the University of La Verne on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. – the program’s first night game in 46 years – before two consecutive bye weeks. The Bruins will play a full Northwest Conference schedule for the remainder of the season.
“They treat us real kindly,” Casey says. “We’re at Linfield, at Willamette, at PLU and at Whitworth.
“It’s a great league. The challenge of the league, we’re excited about. We’re not afraid of what it’s going to take.”
Sweat the small stuff
In Casey’s first meeting with his football staff, the George Fox coaches spent half an hour going over an important topic.
“We want it to look a combination of attractive, eye-catching, but also had a football look to it,” Casey says. “It’s like tying your shoes, brushing your teeth; it can only be done one way: the right way.”
Ultimately, Casey delegated the task to his assistant coaches. Choosing the right stationery for George Fox football nevertheless served to remind coaches and administrators that, when creating a football program from scratch, no detail is too small or trivial.
The football program has been swept up in the maelstrom of a full rebranding effort for the athletic department, including the introduction of a new logo – the large G with an inlaid F. The rebranding extends throughout the institution, and Reid works with individuals in academic departments, as well as the athletic department, to prepare materials such as the billboard campaign. All the effort is channeled toward meshing the university’s aims with the goal of developing a strong and cohesive athletic department. “Being competitive and being Christ like,” the George Fox athletic website states, “are not incompatible goals.”
In that vein, Reid has pored over details concerning in-game promotional activities to displays on the Stoffer Family Field video board, tucked into the stadium’s southeast corner. Individuals in academic departments have pitched in when they can.
“We’ve been equipped to move really quickly, which, when you’re getting ready to launch a football team, you have to do,” Reid says.
The in-house marketing group also created the Bruins’ helmet design, a gold claw mark on a navy-blue base. Hydro Graphics, Inc., the Newberg-based company that conceptualizes helmet designs from the high school level to the NFL, worked with George Fox to create the finished product Bruins players will wear this fall.
The design was officially released during a postseason banquet. Players reacted by snapping photos and shooting videos with their phones, hooting and hollering in approval.
“Coach Casey’s focus is on what’s in the helmet, but it’s surprising how many 18- to 22-year-olds that are looking for a school, the level of excitement they have about what they wear,” Taylor says. “An HGI helmet, Nike (uniforms), they play into that decision.
“As much as you’d like to think that all of the decisions of where I’m going to go to school are driven by, do they have my molecular genetics major and all the other things, that helmet, and how it represents the program, is a huge deal. And I was surprised at how huge a deal it was. But it is.”
At the beginning of the 2013 school year, George Fox football players were tasked with helping their fellow students move into on-campus residence halls. Players made it a competition, seeing who could effectively transport the most mini-refrigerators into a dorm room; the winner carried around three.
Football players have a reputation as a “bunch of knuckleheads,” according to Baker, in the general conscience. That reputation, he claims, is unfounded, pointing to the integration of the George Fox players under Casey’s direction.
“The football program affects the entire campus,” Baker says. “In America it’s the No. 1 sport by far. When you don’t have football in the fall, your campus doesn’t quite have the energy and excitement of other campuses. And it brings alumni back in a way that none of the other sports do. It also engages the community in ways that none of the other sports do. It’s an American thing.”
The football population at George Fox will consist of approximately 130 student-athletes, most of whom will pay a good portion of the school’s $41,730 annual tuition. (An official player roster has yet to be released by the school.)
Around 450 students will participate in Bruins athletics for the 2014-15 school year, according to Taylor – approximately 20 percent of the George Fox undergraduate population.
“It’s a big, noticeable group,” he says.
Whatever expectations are foisted upon the Bruins as students, they are sure to receive questions based on athletics. Both Baker and Taylor have fielded questions about winning football – how long it will take, and when it will start.
“You look at Pacific -- I think they’re a great model, right? It took them two years to win a game,” Baker says. “Since then, they’ve done exceptionally well. Pacific proved most people wrong. They thought it’d take 10 years for Pacific to get above .500. It took them one generation of athletes. [Pacific finished 7-3 in 2013, going 3-3 in Northwest Conference play.] We’ll see (about George Fox). I don’t know. That’s always an unknown.”
For many who remember the halcyon days, simply seeing Bruins running around on the gridiron will suffice. A group of George Fox football alumni have banded into a “Bruin Brigade,” coordinating fundraising and awareness efforts. Their excitement, according to administrators, reverberates around the Duke Athletic Center.
“It’s been tremendous to reconnect, how good they feel about the relationship we’re building with them,” Casey says. “It’s really rejuvenated them, I think, big time. They have fond memories of George Fox.
“(The former Bruins) showed me the letter the second meeting I had with them that (was sent to them) when football got dropped here. They’ve kept the dang letter because it was important to them.”