Sports

Weathering The Crimson Storm: How One Football Team Ended A 32-Game Losing Streak

BETHANY, Oklahoma — The first indication Saturday could be the day the streak ended came early in the first quarter.

The Southern Nazarene Crimson Storm, a small Christian school with a Division II football program that owned the NCAA’s second-longest active losing streak, had just seen a five-yard punt give its opponent, Oklahoma Baptist, the ball at the SNU 21-yard line.

Instead of giving up a quick score that would begin the downhill journey to their 33rd-consecutive loss, the Crimson Storm defense held. A fourth-down stop gave SNU the ball again, and the Storm offense thanked its defense with a touchdown drive.

A safety in the second quarter gave SNU its largest lead of the season. Another touchdown drive put the Storm up 16-0 and left them one half away from their first victory in three years.

As the players filed into the locker room, they reminded each other there was still work to be done: “Don’t get complacent.” “There’s still a half to go.”

The Program: Southern Nazarene

The team took a knee around interim head coach Craig Hubbard, who asked, “Who wants to pray?”

Located in the Oklahoma City suburb of Bethany, SNU is about 30 minutes from Norman and an hour from Stillwater, but light years away from those two cities in the college football galaxy. With a total enrollment of just over 2,000, SNU is in its second season as a “full, active” NCAA D2 program after making the leap from the NAIA.

The program got its start in 2000, a year after the school changed the nickname for its teams from “Redskins” to “Crimson Storm.” The team found success in the NAIA and made the playoffs in 2011 before moving to the NCAA’s Great American Conference.

Spend any time around SNU, and it doesn’t take long to realize you’ve wandered off college football’s beaten path. The Crimson Storm spent Wednesday practicing in the stadium they share with Bethany High School preparing for Saturday’s season finale against OBU.

Immediately after practice, offensive coordinator Josh Norman sprinted toward the locker room. As tends to happen in November in central Oklahoma, a day made for short sleeves had given way to a brisk night augmented by a stiff wind.

“Getting cold, are you, Josh?” Director of Athletics Communications David Noblett called out.

Norman, a wide receiver on Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship squad, smiled from ear to ear.

“No, I’ve got class,” he answered without breaking stride.

The next indication this is a different kind of college football program came moments later. The team took a knee around interim head coach Craig Hubbard, who asked, “Who wants to pray?”

One player spoke up and began, “Dear Heavenly Father…”

This being a private, Christian school, Hubbard had no reason to fear the same complaints Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney faced last year for promoting such an act.

Swinney himself started as an interim head coach and now has Clemson on the precipice of a playoff berth at college football’s highest level. If Hubbard wanted to add that to the list of things he has in common with Swinney, he’d have to start by finishing off OBU and earning his first career win.

***

Nothing is going to come easy for a team on a 32-game losing streak. SNU learned that in the third quarter against OBU.

The Storm watched their lead evaporate thanks to three quick OBU touchdowns. After spending the first half building a 16-0 lead, SNU found itself down 20-16 entering the fourth quarter.

Fifteen minutes from going 0-11 for a third-consecutive season, you could have forgiven the Storm for letting doubt creep in. But Hubbard and his team wouldn’t have forgiven themselves.

“I kept bringing them in as a tight-knit group, saying we’re going to win this as a family, not divided,” he said. “I kept reiterating that with them.”

Hubbard had no idea just how much his tight-knit group was going to be tested.

The Coach: Craig Hubbard

“This is my shot, and these are my guys.”

SNU won its final game of 2012 to finish with a 2-9 record. In 2013, the Storm played their first full GAC schedule in an NCAA transitional year and opened the season at Henderson State. Henderson’s “Scorched Earth” offense left exactly that in an 82-10 victory to put SNU’s losing streak at one.

The streak reached eight when SNU had two chances to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter at Arkansas-Monticello and couldn’t drive beyond the opponent’s 49-yard line. Three weeks later, the Crimson Storm finished the season 0-11 after a loss to McMurry.

It was a season full of near-misses for SNU in 2014. Its D1-transfer quarterback was injured in the fourth quarter of a five-point loss to East Central, pushing the streak to 16. The Storm were tied in the fourth against Monticello, but saw the streak reach 18. It went to 19 with an overtime loss to Southwestern Oklahoma State a week later. The season ended with a six-point loss to Southwest Baptist and another 0-11 mark.

The loss, the 22nd in a row, would be the last for the Storm under head coach Mike Cochran. Cochran resigned in June and told the Echo, SNU’s student newspaper, he was leaving to become an owner of a Christian Brothers Automotive franchise in Oklahoma City.

Hubbard, SNU’s defensive coordinator, was named the interim head coach.

“When I found out coach Cochran wasn’t coming back, it kind of shocked me,” he said. “He and I had worked together since 1998, so to say we know each other would be an understatement. I was like, ‘This is my shot, and these are my guys., I’m going to put my name in and hopefully they’ll let me at least be the interim.”

Hubbard, who said he still talks to Cochran about once a week, soon got a crash-course in being in charge of a college football program. He had never been a head coach before and said he learned there was more administrative work involved than he was used to.

“The timing of it got condensed,” Hubbard said. “I felt like I had to do nine months of work in two months.”

SNU’s losing streak reached 23 in Hubbard’s first game as a head coach, a 62-14 defeat at the hands of Arkansas Tech. Going into the OBU game, his team had given up at least 41 points and scored no more than 20. Their closest contest was a 49-20 loss against Northwestern Oklahoma State on Oct. 24 that put the streak at 30.

The Storm’s Director of Athletics, Bobby Martin, said Hubbard will get an interview for the full-time job, but that it’s still open. He also said there’s a lot more to Hubbard’s resume than this season’s record.

“I may be judged by wins and losses as an athletics director,” Martin said. “I don’t judge my coaches by wins and losses. I judge my coaches by, No. 1, what are they doing in kids’ lives?”

Somehow, Hubbard kept his squad from folding up shop, even as losses piled up with his own job status in limbo. Watching them prepare for OBU, it was easy to see his players work hard and still enjoy playing football.

“It would have been really easy to fracture,” he said. “After the couple of seasons we had before this, you get into that fourth or fifth game and we haven’t won, it would have been really easy for this group to start to point fingers. For the most part, that hasn’t happened this season.”

***

True to Hubbard’s words, SNU didn’t fracture Saturday. After its offense sputtered in the third quarter against OBU, SNU finally put together a drive early in the fourth and faced 3rd-and-8 at the Bison 29.

Junior quarterback James Mauro, the Western Kentucky transfer knocked out of the East Central game the year prior, evaded the rush, leaped in the air and lofted a pass to wide receiver Elden Campbell, who reached the end zone to give SNU the lead with 13:11 to go.

SNU’s 23-20 advantage survived an OBU field goal attempt and a near-blocked punt. After forcing a punt of their own, the Storm had the ball at their 36, needing to kill just 3:02 to put the streak out of its misery.

Running back Terence Olds, another D1 transfer who had been a workhorse for the Storm, picked up a quick first down. However, he managed just two yards over his next two carries, after which OBU burned its final timeouts.

On 3rd-and-8, Mauro’s pass to senior tight end Chris Hudson fell incomplete. The Storm punted and while they were just 1:57 from victory, their defense would have to come up with one last stop.

Over the course of three years, a losing streak can start to take on a life of its own. Once seemingly on its final breaths, SNU’s streak gained life as OBU marched down the field with seconds remaining.

Twice OBU faced a fourth down and twice it converted, first on a sprawling catch by wide receiver Cagney Roberson and again on a scramble by quarterback Dezmond Stegall.

One play later, Stegall found receiver Josh Pettijohn on the sideline, who broke SNU defensive back Derrick Carmouche’s tackle and raced to the end zone. Pettijohn and his teammates celebrated as SNU defenders fell to their knees in disbelief.

The Storm were given a glimmer of hope when the ensuing extra point hit the upright, making deficit 26-23 with 30 seconds to go. Even in the face of what would have been the streak’s cruelest chapter, SNU’s players continued to rally around each other and their coach.

“All I heard on the sideline was encouragement,” Hubbard said. “We still had 30 seconds to go and we could still make this happen. All I heard was positives.”

The Player: Chris Hudson

“They haven’t won a game in three years. Why would I pick SNU?’ But SNU has a lot to offer recruits.”

To get an idea of how SNU approaches football, and athletics in general, you just have to look at the job listing for its open head coaching position. The first sentence under Duties and Responsibilities states the head coach must “be a dynamic Christian who is interested in developing student-athletes in their spiritual and athletics lives.”

The SNU job is also probably the only one on FootballScoop.com that, in addition to a cover letter, resume and list of references, asks applicants for a statement of faith. Hubbard said he’s already turned his in.

The unique job description for the team’s head coach extends to the recruiting trail. Hubbard said they obviously want to get the best players they can find, but it takes a special kind of kid to choose SNU.

“You want to get somebody who isn’t afraid of going to chapel and isn’t uncomfortable in that situation,” he said. “I think any kid can choose SNU as long as they’re willing to realize we are a faith-based institution and there are going to be some rules and regulations that they’re going to have to live by.”

Hudson fits that mold. The tight end from Allen, Texas, said he hadn’t heard of SNU before the recruiting process began. He found it tough to land scholarship offers until his position coach at Allen High School contacted Cochran and sent him Hudson’s film.

Hudson made his official visit to SNU and said the school felt like family. It was exactly what he was looking for — a small school that would help strengthen his faith. It’s something he said going to a bigger state school wouldn’t have allowed.

“For me, personally, I think I would have let my walk with Christ slip,” he said. “There’s a lot more room at a state school for error in your life and I knew I needed structure. I knew SNU would have structure, rules and stuff to keep me in line. I honestly believe if I went to any other school, I wouldn’t have had a chance at a degree.”

That structure obviously isn’t for everybody. And while, even at SNU, college kids will always be college kids, the things that make the school attractive to prospects have nothing to do with the big-time football and party atmosphere at some larger schools.

Hudson pointed specifically the SNU’s 15-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio as a reason he chose to come to the school.

“People coming in say, ‘They haven’t won a game in three years. Why would I pick SNU?’ But SNU has a lot to offer recruits,” he said.

***

With 29 seconds left in the SNU careers of Hudson and possibly Hubbard, the streak was not only breathing, but was reinvigorated by OBU’s last-minute drive. But the Storm, who had preached togetherness and unity in the face of setback after setback, somehow again fought back against the streak.

On the first play of their last-ditch drive, they turned to the same play many college teams have in such a dire situation: They ran the hook-and-ladder. Mauro found receiver Jacoby Hicks, who pitched to Johnathan Martin. Martin sprinted down the sideline and was pushed out of bounds at the 21.

Two plays later, kicker Carlos Anguiano made a 35-yard field goal to force overtime. The streak may have still been alive, but so was SNU.

On the second play of SNU’s OT possession, Olds had arguably his strongest run of the game. He rumbled 25 yards for a touchdown to give the Storm the lead and force OBU’s hand. For the streak to continue, the Bison were going to have to find the end zone.

They did just that. On its possession, OBU saw Roberson make another diving catch on fourth down to continue the drive. Two plays later, Stegall faked a handoff, booted to his right and waltzed into the end zone to make the score SNU 33, OBU 32.

OBU’s kicker, who had missed his previous extra point attempt, stayed put on the sideline. The Bison were going for two, and the streak’s fate would come down to the next few seconds.

Carmouche, who to this point had never experienced a victory in his college career, initially followed Roberson over the middle as the play started and then noticed OBU tight end Connor Kinsey release from his block and leak toward the corner of the end zone.

With Carmouche in tight coverage, Stegall’s pass attempt was high and just over Kinsey’s outstretched arms. The ball fell to the turf. The streak had been slayed.

***

“They need to leave the scoreboard up all week. Don’t take it down.”

Fans, friends and family streamed onto the field. Carmouche fell to his hands and knees. On the SNU sideline, senior linebacker Larry Butler accidentally knocked over Hubbard in an attempt to join the celebration.

Hubbard, smiling and eyes filled with relief, laid on his back with his arms outstretched and gazed into the silvery late afternoon sky before Butler helped him to his feet.

As badly as Hubbard wanted this moment for his players, they wanted it for him, too. Together, they had delivered.

They hugged, screamed and cried. Senior safety Konner Bent, who played like a madman the entire game, gathered teammates and peers around him and freestyled. They punctuated each of his lines with, “Oh yeah!”

“It’s unbelievable,” sophomore linebacker Preston Odette said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We’ve been put down so many times. We’re going to take this and expect more.”

Mauro, eyes welling, hugged whoever he could find. Steps away, Hudson did the same with his family while wearing a necklace made of candy he had been handed.

Eventually, they all gravitated to Hubbard at midfield. He told them how proud he was of them, told them they deserved this victory and then led them in prayer. The celebration resumed.

“They need to leave the scoreboard up all week,” freshman offensive lineman Jacob Aguilar said to whoever would listen. “Don’t take it down.”

Fittingly, the scoreboard read “STORM 33, BISON 32.” SNU had held OBU at 32 to put an end to three years of frustration and its 32-game losing streak.

Its new streak now stands at one.

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