A Vision Realized Pt. 2: Troy’s struggle to reach Division I

Published 8:33 am Friday, June 16, 2023

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Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

After Troy University – then Troy State University – officially made the decision to move to Division I in 1990, the real work had to begin.

Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins had placed Troy alumnus – and longtime supporter – Ben Beard as the leader of the TSU Athletic Challenge Fund, with the goal of reaching $1 million towards the effort of moving to Division I. The Challenge group raised more than $200,000 in pledges in their very first meeting and Beard himself pledged $100,000 to the effort.

Troy basketball coach Don Maestri’s success at Troy didn’t stop after the move to Division I despite not being able to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for eight years, due to NCAA rules.

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“I wanted to help the university and I thought that it was important enough for me to lead and contribute by starting it off like that,” Beard said. “I felt it was an important issue and important enough for the university, which in turn benefited the city.”

There was still much work to be done, however. Many of Troy’s Athletic facilities – including Sartain Hall and Veterans Memorial Stadium – were not up to Division I standards. The university received a $400,000 gift from the City of Troy and Mayor Jimmy Lunsford to help with the expansion of the football stadium. Beard noted that current Troy Mayor Jason Reeves was a big proponent of the Division I move and continues to be a big supporter of the university to this day.

“The trustees voted to make the move but we didn’t meet the criteria for Division I still,” Beard said. “We only had 10,000 seats (at the football stadium) and we had to have 17,000 seats or something like that. You couldn’t just snap your fingers and get something like that. So, the City of Troy felt it was important enough to participate to help make that move.

“That support has carried over to the current administration and city council who have been very supportive (of the university) over the years. Mayor Jason Reeves has been a firm supporter, even dating back to when he was a student on campus.”

Reeves, who was Troy SGA President and a non-voting member of the Board of Trustees at the time of the Division I move, said he was a supporter of the idea but didn’t start out that way.

“Like a lot of people I was probably a little skeptical very early on when I was in high school,” Reeves recalled. “We had so much success and so many incredible memories of baseball, basketball and football and how well we had done, as far as playing for national championships and things of that nature.

“The more I got involved in college – and especially becoming SGA President – and hearing the research that had been done and the opportunities that were there, I became a big supporter of the idea. Spending time with Benny Beard and Dr. Doug (Hawkins) also really helped with that.”

Lunsford and the Troy City Council at the time would continue that support for the move by entering into a joint-use agreement with the university and providing a total of $4.5 million over the years for further improvements at Veteran Memorial Stadium and Sartain Hall. By that point, Reeves – a 24-year old recent Troy graduate – was on the city council.

“Johnny Witherington, Charles Meeks, myself, Jose Henderson and Wanda Moultry were on the council, and of course, Mayor Lunsford,” Reeves said. “There was some debate and study over that decision back then but I think in hindsight it looks like a very wise move. It was a big leap but I have to give a lot of credit to Mayor Lunsford and the city council.

“It’s really amazing. I’ve reflected on it and I think it’s all more than we could have ever hoped for. It’s hard to quantify what it’s meant financially, also emotionally, to the school, the community and to the region as a whole.”

Beard also noted that new athletic director Johnny Williams was also extremely important to the move to Division I.

“By that time Johnny Williams had become the athletic director, and was very instrumental in making these changes,” Bear emphasized. “He was an ardent supporter of the move to Division I and was very instrumental in making this move happen. He played a very big role as a leader in leading us to Division I.”

Larry Blakeney was a key figure in the success of Troy’s football program in Division I.

Chancellor Hawkins emphasizes that while the move involved the athletic programs, it was never about sports.

“Too often you’re defined on the basis of your athletic programs,” said Chancellor Hawkins. “You can see it by how some institutions are regarded; they may be a good, solid academic institution but they’re not given the same credit that Division I institutions are given. We knew we had a solid academic program and we had a great platform and foundation for moving up because the best barometer for what you can do is what you’ve done and we had done very well at Division II. There was no more successful program in Division II than Troy.”

The financial obstacles were only one aspect of the issues the university had to overcome to make the move.

“We knew it would be a challenge,” Hawkins said. “There were a lot of naysayers, far more naysayers than people supporting it.”

The naysayers included those in the media that ridiculed the thought. Phillip Marshall – a longtime sports writer in the state – used his column in the June 5, 1990, Montgomery Advertiser to proclaim that “the days of glory will soon end for Troy State.”

“The unanimous vote by the school’s Board of Trustees was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm and if that’s what the trustees want, so be it,” Marshall wrote. “But I’ll be darned if I can understand it. Troy State’s image for the past decade has been one of a winner. It has been built by the sweat and blood of athletes who have won eight national championships, including two in football and two in baseball.

“Those days are over. Troy State has turned its athletic program down a dangerous road. It is a road that likely will lead from happy days of championships to long days of mediocrity.”

The renovations at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium continued even after the move to Division I, including a first-class North End Zone facility.

Hawkins said he was never deterred by the naysayers.

“I wasn’t looking for 100 people saying they can’t do something, I’m looking for one person to say why we should do it and that we can do it,” he said. “What excites me most about Troy is that same spirit is alive and well in parts of the university. Again, it’s not about athletics, it’s about the institution and being the best we can be. If you don’t think you can, you never will.”

While the Trojan athletic program has yet to win a Division I national championship, “long days of mediocrity” have certainly not been the case either. Since the move, Troy has won conference crowns in football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, tennis and golf. Virtually every Trojan athletic program has made postseason appearances and the amount of All-Americans that have represented the Cardinal and Black is eye-popping.

While everyone involved in the move reiterates that it was not solely an athletic one or a football move, football itself brings its own set of challenges. While all other sports just have Division I, football separates Division I into two classifications. At the time it was known as Division I-AA (FCS) and Division I-A (FBS).

“We were a bit naïve about everything, I will be quick to admit that,” Hawkins said. “Notre Dame can get by as an independent but Troy needs some company. The way we jumped into Division I without a conference affiliation was one of the biggest challenges we had and it was a difficult time.”

Both Hawkins and Beard point to needing the right football coach to lead the move in football as being key. In 1991, just two years before the move to Division I, longtime Auburn assistant coach Larry Blakeney was hired to lead the program.

“They key early on was hiring Larry Blakeney,” Hawkins said. “He had a Division I mentality, he knew the game, he could relate to people and he excited our fan base here. Attitude is always a deciding factor.”

Blakeney said that he was all for the move when he heard about it.

“When I got hired we were still Division II and then went to I-AA, which was a good move but nobody down there was sure about it,” Blakeney – who is on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame – recalled. “I was all in for whatever Dr. Hawkins and those guys on the board wanted to do. Mr. Ben Beard and Dr. Doug Hawkins, folks like that, were staunch Troy supporters and were very positive about the move. I don’t think I was ever a negative factor for it and maybe a cautious positive factor towards it. I think we did it the right way.”

Unfortunately, many of those individuals that were key to making the move have since passed away, but their efforts live on in all of the successes the university sees, on and on off the playing fields and courts. When Troy made the decision to move to Division I, the university had a total enrollment of just over 13,200 students and just 4,400 on the Troy campus, according to a 1990 Columbus Ledger-Enquirer article. Those numbers had ballooned to a total of 21,345 in 2020 with 7,595 on the main campus. While the COVID-19 pandemic affected those numbers some, Troy’s enrollment is still over 18,000 – with 6,300 on the main Troy campus – for this most recent term.

Troy Basketball also received a facelift with the gorgeous Trojan Arena, opened in 2012.

“I’m not a proud person, I like to consider myself to be rather humble,” Cervera said. “So, I don’t take it as a personal accomplishment, I look at as a team accomplishment. It took leadership from people like Dr. Jack Hawkins who had foresight and could see into the future.

“This was a concerted effort but of this effort, if you had to pick a spearhead it would have to be Ben Beard. We had to have that leadership and foresight (from Hawkins), though. We could politic and stomp and scream but without the cooperation from the chancellor you aren’t going to get anything done.”

Hawkins said that he is most proud of the advancements he continues to see across the university, which the move to Division I certainly helped facilitate.

“I’m proud that we’ve had so many people that have worked so hard to make it possible and I’m proud that they believe and continued to believe in Troy,” Hawkins emphasized. “Not only are we growing academically but the perception of Troy continues to grow. When we hosted Missouri and Oklahoma State and Army and beat them on our field, we had always looked up to these schools. We don’t look up at anyone anymore, we look them dead in their eyes and believe we can beat anyone.”

Beard echoed Hawkins’ sentiments.

“I’m extremely proud and gratified to have been a part of it,” Beard said. “I think it was the right move and I’m very gratified for what Troy has grown into. We needed that vehicle to have that growth and I’m extremely proud we were able to do that and it worked out.”

The move to Division I was a vision and that vision doesn’t stop there and it doesn’t stop at just simply being successful.

“It’s not a dream come true but it has been a vision realized,” Hawkins emphatically said. “Every day we realize it even more because I believe the best is yet to come. 30 years ago who would have thought our football team would be ranked No. 19 in the country (if FBS)? Now, the playoffs are expanding and it’s a level playing field now, so why not Troy?

“If Coastal Carolina can win a baseball (national championship) then why not Troy? If Florida Atlantic – who we hold a 21-12 advantage over – can make it to a Final Four then why not Troy? There is a winning attitude at Troy and there may be a little bit of a chip on our shoulder but that’s not a bad thing. When you come out of the woods of South Alabama anything is possible. That’s the way we view this university.”