Mary Hardin-Baylor used to be a football school.
Under the tutelage of football coach Pete Fredenburg, the Crusaders won 10 conference championships; they played for the national championship in 2006.
They made the final four five times.
Only the women’s golf team has been nearly as successful. Baseball has not won a conference title since 1983. The basketball team only had two conference championships (2008, 2010).
In fact, the Cru hoopsters did not even win the American Southwest Conference title this season.
But, today in Atlanta at 11:30 a.m. they play for much more. At 11:30 a.m. today at Philips Arena in Atlanta, the Cru basketball team plays for UMHB’s first NCAA title in any sport.
UMHB has had chances, but never one this good.
The football team has not gotten it done.
It has been to the Stagg Bowl once and the semifinals four others times. Each time, it came up empty, unable to win the big game.
Now, it is basketball’s turn. But, it won’t be easy.
The Cru (27-5) are the underdog. But, that is what basketball is all about — Cinderella shocking the world. Wichita State did it by making the Division I Final Four, Butler and VCU did it before them.
Now it is UMHB’s turn.
The Crusaders were not even ranked at the end of the season. However, they have made comeback after comeback during their underdog run through the NCAA tournament. They rallied to knock off No. 6 Whitworth (Wash.) in the Sweet 16, No. 11 St. Mary’s in the national quarterfinals and No. 1 St. Thomas (Minn.) in the semifinals.
Now, they have one more chance to get it done, to prove the haters wrong and to shock the world.
But, for UMHB, this is more than the chance to dance like Cinderella all the way to the national title.
It is a chance to prove it is a national power. Not just in football or basketball or even women’s golf.
No, this signifies a turning point for the athletic program as a whole.
The football team came four minutes away from playing for the Division III championship. The Crusaders (13-1) didn’t trail for a stretch of more than 33 minutes midway through the physical contest, but it was the Mount Union (Ohio) Purple Raiders (14-0) who survived to capture their eighth straight Stagg Bowl berth since a 2004 semifinal loss to UMHB.
UMHB, which was ranked No. 2 in the country, had a 35-28 fourth-quarter lead slip away late, as top-ranked Mount Union scored 20 points in the final 3:42 to rescue a 48-35 victory in a national semifinal Dec. 8 .
Now, basketball is having the same success as the football team. To have both teams even on the precipice of winning national titles is impressive. To have one win it and another make the Final Four, would be nearly unprecedented.
The Crusaders made the final four in both sports. That speaks volumes about the university’s commitment to athletics, as does the construction of the football stadium on campus. Few other Division III universities — or any university in any division from D-II to the Football Bowl Subdivision — can claim the same level of success as UMHB.
The No. 2 Amherst (Mass.) Lord Jeffs carry a tradition that includes the 2007 national title and three championship game appearances in the last seven seasons.
But, they went 6-2 in football and don’t have the same panache as UMHB on the gridiron.
The Lord Jeffs are not a football school.
But, then again, UMHB isn’t anymore either.