Harding University wins national championship
For the first time in its history, Harding University is…
Coach Paul Simmons worried that he had created “too much chaos” for his players.
His undefeated Harding University Bisons were in the NCAA Division II national championship, which coincided with Harding’s fall semester graduation. The senior football players would have to miss the pomp and circumstance at the Searcy, Ark., university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, as they faced the Colorado School of Mines at McKinney ISD Stadium in North Texas.
“It was kinda my idea to have a reunion-slash-pep rally that turned into a graduation at our hotel last night,” Simmons told reporters in his postgame conference Dec. 16. “And I went to bed really regretting it because we ended up having over a thousand people, and it was absolutely jam-packed.
“The love in the room was unbelievable. We had graduation. We sang the alma mater. There was not a dry eye in the house. You could just feel the spirit in the room was so powerful.”
The emotional crescendo would have marked a fitting end to the Bisons’ record-breaking football season.
But the season wasn’t over.
“I went to bed scared to death that I had created too much chaos for our young men and that it would impact today’s game,” Simmons said. “But I think it was the opposite. I think the guys just felt the power, the spirit of the brotherhood extended behind them today.”
The 14-0 School of Mines, favored to win the game, jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. But the Orediggers wouldn’t score again. With its run-intensive “flexbone” offense, the Bisons dominated time of possession and scored 38 unanswered points, winning Harding’s first-ever Division II national title in front of more than 12,000 fans.
Simmons borrowed imagery from Hebrews 12:1 in his pregame speech.
“Guys, you have to understand this great cloud of witnesses that is with you, that is pulling for you, that believes in you, that loves you,” the coach told his players. “The scoreboard doesn’t matter. They just want to see you be excellent and do things in a way that really does honor God.
“There were just so many old warriors that were here today … guys that never had a chance to play in a meaningful game, guys that never had any facilities but just poured their heart out and helped build a foundation so we could be here today.”
One of those “old warriors” was Kevin Redd, a 2004 Harding graduate who played wide receiver for the Bisons and has since served as a minister for Churches of Christ.
“It was one of the most surreal events I’ve ever experienced,” said Redd, who attended the championship game. “The current Bisons did what so many of us old Bisons and coaches dreamt season after season. I was so proud. So many of the players repeated, ‘You older guys laid the foundation because they have a leader who got them to buy in to playing for others.’
“The brotherhood taught me something this weekend. The brotherhood was and is in full effect. I cannot verbalize the love, the camaraderie, the hugs, the brotherhood that I experienced.”
Redd’s Harding teammate and roommate, Nick McNabb, said he “struggled mightily” to come up with words to describe the championship experience.
“Harding University is special,” said McNabb, a former offensive lineman. “This institution anchors the bonds that tie so many together. It’s not perfect, but neither are we!”
Harding’s national title nearly coincides with the university’s 100th birthday celebration, slated for September 2024. The school’s football program began at its founding, though it folded in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. Harding reinstated intercollegiate football in 1959.
Harding moved from the dwindling NAIA to NCAA Division II in 1997 — two years before McNabb’s freshman season. During his senior year, the Bisons went 9-2 and missed the playoffs by one spot, said McNabb, who now serves as administrator for the College Church of Christ. The Searcy congregation serves Harding students and the campus community.
“I’m so thankful I could attend Harding, play football for the Bisons, live in the dorms, earn a degree and make lifelong friendships,” McNabb said. “It’s fun to know you can honor God and win championships!”
After victories, athletes and coaches often invoke the divine. The phrase, “first of all, I give thanks to God” is a common refrain on postgame sidelines.
But Simmons, the son of missionaries to Africa, quoted two full verses of Ephesians 3 from memory when asked to describe his feelings.
“My faith is so little,” he told an ESPN reporter, “but ‘now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, now to him be glory in the church and Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever, Amen!’ Go Bisons! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
What Simmons did next was even more unsportsmanlike.
After celebrating with his players and fans on the field in McKinney, he and his wife, Kimberly, rounded up their three kids and piled into their minivan. They made the five-and-a-half-hour drive to Searcy so they could worship with their home congregation, the Downtown Church of Christ, on Sunday.
Simmons was born in Zambia. His parents, Don and Roberta, served at Namwianga Mission, a ministry supported by Churches of Christ that provides primary, secondary and college-level education as well as health care for people in southern Africa.
At age 4, Simmons and his family moved to the small town of Ashdown, Ark., where he grew up along with his brother, Shawn, and his sister, Jill. Paul Simmons played football and was offered scholarships from schools including the University of Arkansas, but he chose Harding.
He was an All-American defensive end and linebacker for the Bisons from 1992 to 1994 and was inducted into the Harding Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999. He signed on as an assistant coach with the team in 2007 and became defensive coordinator three seasons later.
At the end of the 2016 season, head coach Ronnie Huckeba retired after 31 years on Harding’s staff. That year the Bisons reached the Division II quarterfinals and graduated 24 seniors. The 2017 season would be a challenge for Simmons, the newly named head coach.
“I never worried about being in Coach Huck’s shadow,” Simmons said in a 2018 interview with Ann Robertson of Only in Arkansas. “He included all of us as coaches and players, so our season’s accomplishments were what we achieved together.”
But after the Bisons lost their first three games, Simmons questioned his ability to lead the program.
“Let’s just say I wasn’t getting much sleep,” he told Robertson, “and I was doing a lot of praying.”
In a team meeting after the third loss, Simmons went to Scripture, sharing the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from Daniel 3. The three Hebrews, living in captivity in Babylon, refused to bow down to a gold image of King Nebuchadnezzar and were thrown into a fiery furnace.
“How are we, as Christian men, supposed to respond in the face of adversity?” Simmons asked his players.
The team responded, posting 11 straight victories and reaching the semifinal game before losing to Texas A&M-Commerce.
Six seasons later, Simmons led his team to a perfect 15-0 season and a national championship.
But more important to him than the wins are his players — their souls, their character and their grades. Players are instructed to sit on the first two rows in all of their classes, and they do, said Monte Cox, dean of Harding’s College of Bible and Ministry.
As for Coach Simmons, “he is unpretentious,” said Cox, who also is an elder of the Downtown church. “I’ve been so proud of the team, the way they have conducted themselves on and off the field.
“That culture starts with the coaches, and as head coach Paul is the chief culture-maker.”
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