I admit it. I’m a sucker for a good story. And, there’s a pretty good one going down in Division II College Football, which is a level of football that goes unnoticed most of the year.
This year’s Division II National Championship Game is Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri. For a change one of the traditional powers – Northwest Missouri State – is not around having been knocked out in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Instead we get a match-up between Texas A&M-Commerce, the branch school of Texas A&M that didn’t pay Jimbo Fisher $75 million to coach their team, and the Argonauts of West Florida University. And, that’s the good story.
West Florida University is based in Florida’s westernmost City, Pensacola. Pensacola has about 60,000 residents, and is largely known for being the home of the Navy’s flight demonstration team the Blue Angels, and the National Naval Aviation Museum. The City – which sits smack dab on the Alabama boarder – produced NFL Hall of Fame Runningback and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith who played high school football at Escambia High School in Pensacola. There are no professional sports in Pensacola and the closest major universities are South Alabama to the West and Florida State to the East.
Since the school is in Florida perhaps it should be no surprise that West Florida is really good at Football. But, what is a surprise is that West Florida’s football history covers all of 25 games. The school put a football team on the field for the first time in 2016, and just over a year later has a chance to be the fastest start-up program to win a National Division II Title. They are already the fastest start-up program to make the National Championship game.
The Argonauts are 11-3 and won the NCAA’s Super Region Two (the Division II playoffs are divided into four geographic regions of 7 teams apiece) as the Number 6 seed in a 7-team regional. They’ve played all of their playoff games on the Road winning them all and advancing to the National Title game after beating the number one team in the nation last weekend, previously undefeated Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In doing so, West Florida stopped Indiana’s 18 game home winning streak which dated back to 2015, a full year before West Florida ever put a team on the field.
West Florida finished in a 5-way tie for second place in the Gulf South Conference. After going 5-6 a year ago, at one point this season West Florida was going nowhere with a 5-3 record. Since then they’ve won 6 in a row beating conference rivals North Alabama and West Georgia twice. The school plays it’s home games in a minor league baseball park, Blue Wahoos Stadium in Downtown Pensacola. The 5,100 seat facility is called a multi-use facility but is primarily the home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, of the Class AA Southern League. West Florida has designs on constructing its own on-campus facility and this year’s success should boost those efforts.
West Florida kick started its football program by hiring a coach who had previously built a football program from the ground up. Pete Shinnick comes from a football background you might say. His father Don played on two NFL Championship teams with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959. Yes, he played in the famed televised 1958 championship game against the Giants which is largely credited for putting NFL football on the map as a spectator passion just perfect for Sunday afternoon television.
Shinnick came to West Florida from UNC-Pembroke in North Carolina. All he did there was start UNC-P’s football program from the ground up in 2005, and by 2009 had UNC-P holding the distinction of the fastest football program to ever make the D-II playoffs. Before beginning his head coaching career at NAIA Azuza Pacific in California, Shinnick started his coaching career at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and his path includes stops as an assistant at FBS schools Arkansas, Clemson and Oregon State.
West Florida hired him in 2014 with the responsibility of putting a football team together that would play for the first time in the 2016 season. In his first 18 months on the job, Shinnick didn’t reinvent the wheel. Instead he mined the talent rich State of Florida for players. West Florida’s roster features 82 players from the Sunshine State.
And, those 82 players are not getting free rides to play. The NCAA’s Division II model is a little different. Whereas an FBS school has 85 free rides to hand to players, Division II uses a partial scholarship model. Each school is entitled to a number of scholarships equivalent to 36 full rides. Theoretically, you could have 36 full scholarship players on your roster, but that’s barely enough for two-deep on one side of the ball. Practically, it doesn’t work so that means every player in D-II is either on some partial scholarship or no scholarship. Some players get more, some get less, and some pay to play.
But, what West Florida gets this week is a chance at history. The Division II National Title game goes head-to-head on television this weekend with the Las Vegas Bowl matching Oregon and Boise State. If the Vegas Bowl holds form like other bowl games, one team will be interested in being there and one team won’t, but I can guarantee you that both Division II teams will be interested in being in Kansas City this Saturday for what will most likely forever be the biggest moment of their football lives. And, that’s where you might just find a really good story.