A Vision Realized Pt. 3: Troy’s success in Division I

Published 8:59 am Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

Troy University’s move to Division I has been one of the more successful moves in college athletics and while it was a long road for a very proud athletic program, it’s been a journey that has paid off.

Troy University – then Troy State University – was officially approved to move into Division I competition by the NCAA in June of 1993, effective during the upcoming fall sports season. All of Troy’s athletic programs would play alongside the bigger schools across the country right off the bat, except for the football team. The NCAA breaks up its Division I football programs into two divisions, Division I-A (FBS) and Division I-AA (FCS). Troy would initially play in Division I-AA, but by 1996 plans had already begun to make the move to Division I-A.

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Following Troy’s decision to move to Division I, the Trojan football team departed the Gulf South Conference and became independent as a part of the program’s transition into Division I-AA, which also meant Troy was ineligible for postseason play during those seasons.

Under first year head coach Larry Blakeney – who came over after a long career as an assistant coach at Auburn – the Trojans went 5-6 in 1991, after two losing seasons in 1988 and 1989 and a 5-5 record in 1990. In Troy’s final season in Division II, the Trojans went 10-1 with a schedule primarily against Division I-AA opponents.

In Troy’s very first season in Division I-AA, the Trojans capped off an undefeated 10-0-1 regular season and earned a No. 1-ranking in the country. Aside from a 21-21 tie against Central State, the Trojans dominated their way through the regular season, earning wins over three Top 25 opponents.

“I think that everybody out there accepted it and the players and prospects accepted it and understood that we wouldn’t be an immediate powerhouse that Troy had been used to being,” Blakeney said. “It’s a competitive disadvantage to make that move but also, from an image and respect standpoint, it’s a big positive. It took us awhile but I think we got to the point where we gained respect and got some recruits and transfers and junior college guys that really helped us in the end.”

Troy quarterback Kelvin Simmons helped guide Troy to unprecedented success during the school’s first years in Division I Football.

In 1993, the Trojan offense was led by dual-threat quarterback Kelvin Simmons, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns along with rushing for more than 300 yards and six scores. The Trojan offense also featured the receiving talents of Daleville native Robert Kilow and Orlando Parker. Kilow finished the season with 934 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Parker hauled in 46 catches for 979 yards and nine scores. Parker would go on to become Troy’s very first player to be selected in the NFL Draft since the move to Division I when the New York Jets selected him in the fourth round of the 1994 NFL Draft.

“You could feel the difference,” Kilow said of playing against Division I athletes. “As we started playing those larger schools you could tell the difference. They had a little better stuff than we did. We didn’t have anything as nice as Troy has now. Everything was sort of a gradual build up. It’s been a radical change at Troy over the years. Now that I’m gone, I can look back and really see all those changes when I come back.”

In the postseason, Troy demolished No. 14 Stephen F. Austin at home and earned a 35-28 win over No. 5-ranked McNeese State in the NCAA Quarterfinals. The Trojans then lost a heartbreaker 24-21 to No. 9 Marshall in the National Semifinals. Despite the frustrating loss, Troy had made a statement with their move to Division I-AA.

“I remember those tough games the most,” Kilow said. “As a player, you’re in the middle of it and just taking it all in. Your mindset is just focusing on the now. I started working out even harder and trying to be the best receiver I could be.

“Coach Blakeney came from Auburn and I don’t think (the move) phased him at all. He grasped it and knew what to expect and let the changes come to him. He got us ready for it and I think that really helped us with that move.”

The success on the gridiron wasn’t a fluke in 1993 either. Blakeney led his Trojans to seven NCAA Playoff appearances during Troy’s eight years in Division I-AA, with two Final Four appearances. Troy finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country three separate times during that span.

In 2001, Troy made the move to Division I-A (FBS) and finished 7-4 in that first year. Troy moved into the Sun Belt Conference in 2004 and won five straight conference titles under Blakeney between 2006 and 2010, along with five bowl game appearances. Troy won its first bowl game in 2006, in the New Orleans Bowl.

Following Blakeney’s successful career, Neal Brown – a Blakeney assistant – took over in 2015 and led Troy to a Sun Belt Championship in 2017 and three straight bowl wins between 2016 and 2018. After a tough three-year stretch under Chip Lindsey, former Brown assistant Jon Sumrall took over and led Troy to another conference championship and bowl game in 2022 along with finishing the season in the Top 25 in the FBS for the first time in school history.

“We’ve been blessed with good coaches,” Troy University alumnus Benny Beard said. “From Larry Blakeney to Neal Brown and now Jon Sumrall, we’ve really had some excellent coaches that really helped with the Division I move.

“Plus, we’re down in a part of the country that has (good) athletes. We could get in the car and go and drive and recruit more people than people in New Jersey or Delaware could do flying. When you have Alabama, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle to recruit in it’s a treasure trove of talent.”

The other sports at Troy have also found plenty of success since the move to Division I. Longtime coach Don Maestri had turned the Troy men’s basketball team into a Division II powerhouse during his tenure, including a national runner-up finish in Troy’s final season before the move to Division I.

Troy Athletic Director, left, welcomes legendary Troy coach Don Maestri, right, onto the court during a celebration of the 258-point game from 1992. (Photo by Josh Boutwell)

One of the frustrating parts of the move to Division I was a stipulation that stated that basketball programs would not be eligible for postseason play for eight seasons.

“Back then you had to commit to an 8-year hiatus in the postseason to make that move, what does that do to your recruiting,” Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins said. “We had a strong program and a strong coaching staff, though.”

Still, Maestri kept the Troy Basketball team competitive and in 2002 led the Trojans to their first NCAA Tournament appearance after winning more than 20 games for the first time since that 1993 season.

Troy has earned six postseason appearances since then, two regular season Sun Belt Championships and a Sun Belt Tournament Championship along with three seasons with 20 or more wins, including the last two seasons.

Troy women’s basketball found success early on in the move to Division I, winning the East Coast Conference regular season crown in 1994 and winning the tournament championship and making the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 1997. After some tough years, Troy hired a successful junior college coach in Chanda Rigby, who has turned the Trojan women into one of the top “mid-major” teams in the country.

Rigby’s Trojans have made seven postseason appearances, earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament on four occasions, won the Sun Belt regular season championship twice and won the Sun Belt tournament crown on three different occasions.

Troy Baseball was also Division II powerhouse, winning national championships in 1986 and 1987. In Troy’s first year in Division I, the Trojans won the East Coast Conference and went on to make the NCAA Regionals for the first time in 1995. In 2003, Troy hired Bobby Pierce, who led the Trojans to 450 wins during his career and four NCAA Regional appearances along with four conference championships. In total, Troy Baseball has earned eight NCAA Regional appearances with seven conference championships since the move to Division I.

Bobby Pierce led Troy Baseball to the most wins in school history.

With the move to Division I, Troy also added softball to the athletics program. Despite Troy having never fielded a softball program – and jumping straight into Division I – Troy Hall of Famer Melanie Davis guided Troy Softball to 40 wins in its first season of play.

Her Trojan squads made the NCAA Regional for the first time in just its third year of existence. Troy made its second NCAA Regional appearance in 2021, under Beth Mullins, and the Trojans have won two conference crowns, both under Davis’ leadership.

The Troy volleyball team has found its most success in recent years, earning postseason appearances in three of the last four seasons. The Trojans have also won 18 or more games in three of the last four seasons, including a 23 wins in 2019, the most wins in a season since 1995.

The men’s golf team was one of the top programs in Division II, wining three national championships in 1976-1977 and 1984, along with three more national runner-up finishes. It didn’t take long for Trojan Golf to find success in Division I, either. Troy won a conference championship in its first year in Division I. The Trojans have since won four more conference crowns and made four NCAA Tournament appearances.

The women’s golf team also won Division II National Championships in 1984, 1986 and 1989. Since the move to Division I, the Trojans have won three Sun Belt Conference Championships.

The Troy men’s tennis team won its first ever conference championship after the move to Division I, capturing the Mid-Continent League Championship. Since that time, the golf team has totaled three more conference championships and made it to the NCAA Tournament on two separate occasions.

The women’s tennis team has won two conference championships and made one NCAA Tournament appearance since the Division I move.

While the success on the fields and courts are important, a lot of that success stems from the continued improvements across the athletics facilities on campus. Some of the biggest Division I schools have all or some of their facilities scattered across town but Troy’s is central on the campus.

Veterans Memorial Stadium has seen improvement after improvement over the years. After the initial upgrades with the move to Division I, the stadium eventually underwent a total of $18 million in renovations through 2003, which saw stadium capacity increase once again along with new artificial turf, large screens throughout the stadium, a renovated press box and more. Eventually, Troy Football added the massive north End Zone Facility, which added even more seating along with a 35-by-90-foot video board. The $24 million addition also provided new locker rooms, a strength and conditioning center, athletic training facility and football staff offices.

In 2012, Troy Basketball and Volleyball moved from the old Sartain Hall into the $40 million Trojan Arena, one of the nicest college basketball arenas in the state. The 5,200-seat arena features LED ribbons video ribbons around the arena along with two 767-square-foot LED boards, a large food court, practice courts and staff offices and meeting rooms for Troy Basketball, Volleyball and Track.

Chanda Rigby has enjoyed more success in Division I than any Troy Women’s Basketball coach.

Riddle-Pace Field saw the addition of the Lott Baseball Complex in 2008, which provided new locker rooms, offices, meeting rooms and an indoor hitting facility. An outfield wall and new scoreboard were also added in 2008. This year, the university began a $12 million renovation at Riddle-Pace, which when completed will see the stadium have a completely updated façade along with additional chair-back seating, a brand-new press box, a video room, the RBI Club down the third-base line, a new concourse area for concessions and new coaches offices.

The Troy Softball Complex was originally opened in 2002 and underwent a $3 million renovation in 2014, adding a new locker room, player lounge, athletic training room and hitting facility along with artificial turf on the field and additions to the press box and coaches offices.

The Troy Golf Practice Facility was built in 2013 and features a 35-acre multi-use practice course and clubhouse for the Troy Golf Team. The 4,400-square foot clubhouse features men’s and women’s locker rooms, coaches’ offices, a team lounge and indoor hitting bays.

The Troy Soccer and Jesse H. Colley Track Complex was opened in 2003. The track, which had surrounded the playing field at Veterans Memorial Stadium for years, was relocated to the soccer complex. The complex also features long and triple jump pits, pole vault facilities, high jump pits and more track and field events. It also houses the soccer locker room and coaches offices. More additions to the soccer complex are expected in the coming years.

Troy opened the $700,000 Lunsford Tennis Complex in 2001 with 12-lighted courts, a clubhouse and pro shop. A new scoreboard was also added this year, as well.

“This place is ferociously competitive,” Hawkins said. “This university loves to compete and loves to win and hates to lose. What we want here is an institution that can be the very best that it can be. I think football drives the south and I think it drives this athletic department, but we’ve been successful across the board. We’re not a one sport university.”