A Vision Realized: Troy University’s move to Division I

Published 8:20 am Wednesday, June 14, 2023

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Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series on the 30th anniversary of Troy University Athletics’ move to Division I and the efforts to accomplish the move.

In 1993, 30 years ago, Troy State University Athletics officially made the move from Division II to Division I, the vision of a select group of school officials, alumni and supporters.

Making the move up from Division II to Division I is not an easy – or cheap – move, especially in a program like Troy that had won eight national championships across all sports in the 1980s alone and a total of 11 team national championships and two other individual national championships (in golf).

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The move, though, was a long process and one that very few were supportive of initially. The driving force for this move was Troy State University alumnus Benny Beard. Beard, a 1962 Troy graduate, said he initially had the vision for Troy moving up to Division I after seeing the school’s award-winning “Sound of the South” band performing at an Atlanta Falcons game.

“Of course, being a Troy graduate ‘The Sound of the South’ was a great source of pride for all of us even back in that era,” Beard said. “It sparked a thought that if we could make our football team as well known as our band, we might get even more attention for our school.”

Beard moved back to Troy in the 1970s – starting Beard Oil Company – and became extremely active with the university and Troy Athletics. He formed the Troy State Action Club in 1970, made up of local businessmen and women and Troy alumni as an effort to bridge the school’s athletic department and the city.

Beard began presenting the idea of moving to Division I to the Troy State University Board of Trustees as far back as 1984 but there was little to no interest in the idea.

“I thought it would be good, I thought it would be a good move for the university to grow,” Beard said. “I thought by growing the university it would be good for the businesses in the City of Troy, as well.

“I thought we had a great asset here that we could do like other schools that had moved up to Division I, capitalize on football and get on ESPN and get better known, so we could have more students.”

The evolution of Veterans Memorial Stadium from the 1990s, top, and now, bottom, is a stark reminder of the changes that have come at Troy University since the move to Division I. (Drone photo by Parker Trawick)

Outside of the cost of moving to Division I, much of the apathy towards making the move was due to the success Troy’s athletic programs had become accustom to in Division II.

“We had been dominant in Division II,” Beard said. “But, I could see down the line that you needed that television exposure that you just couldn’t get in Division II. You needed to have your school on ESPN calling out your scores and Division II wasn’t going to get that.”

While the vast majority did not want to even think about making the move, a small group of supporters began to rally around the idea. Those supporters included Troy graduate Nick Cervera. Cervera had seen Troy go from the cellar in NAIA in the early 1960s to a NAIA powerhouse and then eventual powerhouse in Division II despite a “shoestring budget” in the athletic department. Cervera saw the potential move to Division I as a chance for the Trojans to earn money from games against bigger schools.

“A Division I-A team could play one or two Division I-AA teams and count those towards bowl eligibility,” Cervera said. “So, if they played Troy and won it would count as a win towards that bowl eligibility. By going I-AA we had an opportunity to play these big schools for a paycheck, which would help the program.”

Beard and Cervera were joined in the group of supporters of the move by alumni and supporters like Walter Hennigan, Wiley Locklar, Troy Hall of Famer Mike Amos, Richard Dowling, Johnny Williams, Alvin Dees, Earl Johnson and Dr. Doug Hawkins.

“There was a lot of apathy over it and most people didn’t understand wanting to make the move,” Beard said. “So, not only did we have to suggest making the move but we had to try and educate people on the benefits of making it. They didn’t understand the vision like we did and that’s what it was, a vision.”

To get the traction that the group needed, there needed to be strong support from someone in Troy’s administration. That’s where new Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins comes into the story.

Hawkins, a Mobile native, served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, winning the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Following his military service, he worked for the University of Alabama at Birmingham as the assistant dean in the 1970s and was the president of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in the 1980s.

Hawkins had become known as an innovative and successful leader in education in the state and in 1989 was named Chancellor of Troy University. Beard and Cervera quickly moved to gain his support.

“Dr. Hawkins was newly appointed and I wanted him to see where we’d been and where we might grow,” Beard recalled. “He was the one in charge and he would be the one that could and would make it happen.”

Cervera remembered his first meeting with Hawkins.

“When Dr. Hawkins first came on campus Ben took him to my house on a Sunday and he and I badgered him the whole time,” Cervera said with a laugh. “We were hitting him with all these changes we wanted – primarily the move to Division I – and he was getting it from both sides.”

Hall of Fame Coach Larry Blakeney was a key reason for Troy’s success in football after the move to Division I.

Hawkins recalled another story of Beard’s persistence to gain his support.

“I hadn’t been in Troy very long when (Beard) called me on a Saturday morning and invited me to accompany him to a football game at an in-state institution,” Hawkins recalled. “When we got to the stadium it was full at about 4,000 people, and we watched the game from a president’s box that wasn’t anything to write home about. On the way back, as we sat in the airport, he looked at me and said, ‘Now, is that what you want for Troy? Is that good enough for Troy?’ What you hear is only surface level, but what you see becomes conviction, and what I saw really elevated my level of conviction.”

In 1990, Hawkins appointed Beard to establish a fund raising drive, the TSU Athletic Challenge Fund, to raise $1 million to help fund and support the effort to move to Division I. Hawkins also appointed a study committee to study the viability of the move and on April 9, 1990, the committee voted to recommend that the Troy State Board of Trustees seek membership in Division I.

“It takes a lot of money to make that move,” Chancellor Hawkins said. “In life, you generally get what you pay for, so we had to be creative to generate the funding to support all of this. You have to have the right attitude and that was initially a barrier.

“Our facilities were not Division I facilities, so that’s why we’ve methodically done everything we can to get to a level where we can be competitive.”

Dr. Doug Hawkins – a beloved Troy veterinarian and member of the study committee and Board of Trustees – said at the time, “We just feel like this is the time for us to make this move. It will be the best thing for the athletic programs, our athletes and our university. We’ve been successful in just about every area of sports, and we feel like it will benefit us financially and in terms of exposure for us to go Division I.”

The Board of Trustees eventually passed the recommendation to move to Division I. Beard called Dr. Doug Hawkins a big ally in the quest to get to Division I and Chancellor Hawkins agreed but made sure to emphasize that it was a team effort.

Veterans Memorial Stadium is now one of the top Group of Five football stadiums in the country. (Photo courtesy of Troy University Athletics)

“Benny Beard and Doug Hawkins were very instrumental to this thing,” Chancellor Hawkins said. “Dr. Doug was an influence in us coming here to Troy in 1989. I met him in the 1980s and he was going to have us in Troy one way or another. It was a collective effort, though.

“You can’t just have an epiphany and it happens, you have to have a vision. There needs to be a framework for it and there needs to be a collective vision. That decision to move to Division I is not owned by one person. I was sitting in this position and it was up to me to provide leadership for it but it was inspired by so many others – like Benny Beard and Dr. Doug – that had a much broader vision of what Troy could be.”

Part two of this series will be released on Saturday, June 17.