Houston Baptist’s two-point loss at Texas Tech shows how far Huskies football has progressed since coach Vic Shealy began the program from scratch in 2013. That year a developmental team was fielded for an abbreviated seven-game schedule in which records did not count.
Houston Baptist coach Vic Shealy looks at the clock from the sidelines during the second half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Texas Tech on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)
Last week’s game in Lubbock was televised on ESPN+. Earlier that day, the crawl on the bottom of the screen on ESPN programming read: HouBapt at Texas Tech. Eventually that got changed to Houston Baptist at Texas Tech. A win in itself, HBU athletic director Steve Moniaci said.
The Huskies didn’t win the game against the Red Raiders of the Big 12, coming up just short 35-33 when a two point-conversion fell incomplete with 3:23 remaining. The Huskies scored on their final possession, going 95 yards and ending on a 6-yard scoring pass, the final yards of the school single-game record 567 thrown by senior quarterback Bailey Zappe.
But the Huskies are earning respect and attention. Shealy’s program is on an upswing. In a 5-7 season a year ago, HBU won four of its first five games and received votes in the FCS top 25 for the first time.
“That was the starting spot of the respect,” Shealy said. “That’s how you are going to get considered for (playoff at-large invitations).”
The close finish at Texas Tech in year eight of the program has elevated HBU’s brand as well as its football program.
“That game does a lot to help solidify the place in our program starting where it is part of the national conversation within the FCS,” Shealy said.
HBU joined the Southland Conference in 2014. A prerequisite for becoming a member was fielding a football team. The Huskies opened their 2013 developmental season with a 74-0 loss at Sam Houston State and finished 2-9 in their first year playing a full schedule in 2014. Playing nearly all underclassmen, the Huskies went 4-18 over their first two seasons, 1-15 in the SLC.
“Subsequently those first two years between 2014 and 2015 in the Southland we struggled,” Shealy said. “You are looking at freshmen and freshmen and sophomore football team, very much like a junior varsity program playing a varsity program.”
Before being named Huskies’ head coach in April, 2012, Shealy was defensive coordinator at Kansas. Previous jobs as an assistant included Air Force, Richmond and UNLV. As a head coach Shealy led Azusa Pacific to a NAIA national championship.
“He was obviously a fantastic fit,” Moniaci said. “His values matched the school’s values. And it’s been borne out that we couldn’t have found a better individual than coach Shealy to lead the program.”
There were hundreds of applicants for the HBU position. Moniaci talked to about a dozen candidates, and only a handful were granted interviews.
“A job like this where you are starting a program, everybody who ever thought about coaching football thinks they’re qualified,” Moniaci said.
Starting a football program had the backing of school president Dr. Robert B. Sloan Jr. as well as school administrators. Moniaci said the school, which on Tuesday announced its highest total enrollment in history for the eighth straight year at around 4,000 students, conducted studies and determined that football, though costly, could be feasible. Playing a vital role in that was the school was going to play on the FCS level, where 63 athletic scholarships can be divided among 90 players, than on the FBS level, which can award as many as 85 scholarships.
“I can’t say it’s entirely due to football because it’s not, but our enrollment has gone up every year since we’ve started football,” Moniaci said. “Our alumni engagement has gone way up, our fundraising has gone up. You can’t contribute it all to football, but everything that we said would happen if we started football has happened.
“And finally it came down to this. If you’re not playing football, people want to know why not? If you’re in Texas and you’re a university, you’re not in the topic of conversation if you don’t play football.”
The Huskies in 2020 are playing an abbreviated four-game non-conference schedule, all on the road and three against FBS opponents. On Wednesday, HBU reached an agreement to play at Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 3. HBU travels to Louisiana Tech on Sept. 26.
Moniaci wanted to fulfill the contracted games after the Southland in August postponed its conference schedule to the spring of 2021 because of concerns with COVID-19. Texas Tech was also originally not on the 2020 schedule.
Moniaci feels playing football in the fall was the correct call for HBU, which has 114 students in the program counting walk-ons.
“So far it’s turned out to be the right decision to play these games,” Moniaci said. “We felt like we really wanted to play some football.”
HBU opened with a 57-31 loss at North Texas as Zappe, a four-year starter, threw for 470 yards. Against Texas Tech, Zappe threw four scoring passes, three of 65 yards or more. Freshman Josh Sterns totaled a school-record 209 receiving yards on five receptions, scoring on passes of 75 and 65 yards.
The Huskies’ fortunes began to turn around in 2018 when Shealy decided to run a spread offense and as his offensive coordinator hired Zach Kittley, who for three seasons at Texas Tech was a graduate assistant and assistant quarterbacks coach.
“The reason I chose to become more of an air raid team is simply because I thought this state does a phenomenal job of developing quarterbacks,” Shealy said. “The offenses and the high school programs are very progressive and capable of producing good receiving route runners, guys who got ball skills, and offensive linemen who understand pass protection. I felt the recruiting pool would be bigger if we went in that direction and the decision has helped us.”
Zappe, who endured 1-10 seasons his first two years, has benefitted the most from the spread over the past two-plus seasons. In 2019 as a junior Zappe, whose only college scholarship offer came from HBU, led FCS with 35 touchdown passes and was second in passing yards (3,811).
“As the seasons went on, I knew we were going to improve,” said the 6-2, 215-pound Zappe, a product of Victoria East. “Now we’re competing with FBS schools. More good players are interested in HBU.”
The players have matured and the recruiting pitch has changed at HBU.
“Now, it’s not just simply the opportunity to be at HBU, play in our conference, and look at the city of Houston as a destination for your professional life,” Shealy said. “Those three things still exist. But what we’re beginning to do is show that we are developing players.”
The Huskies play in 5,000-seat Husky Stadium, at the corner of Fondren and Beechnut, with bleachers only on the West home side. When funding is secured, plans are in place to build approximately 2,000 seats on the East side as well as an end zone facility and take over the CVS building and use it as part of the complex.
Saturday’s game at Texas Tech was the first time HBU played a football game against a Power Five school. The Huskies have played FBS schools, including last year’s 36-34 season-opening loss at UTEP. Moniaci is scheduling in a way that each year for non-conference, the Huskies play a FBS team, a FCS opponent — home and home series — and a non-NCAA Division I home game. In 2021, HBU is scheduled to play at New Mexico on Sept. 4. HBU visits SMU in 2024 and Rice in 2026.
“We’re proud of the progress our kids are showing on the field,” Moniaci said. “It was happenstance that we got the chance to play Texas Tech, it certainly turned out to be fortuitous for us. We appreciate Texas Tech giving us the opportunity.
“We’ve shown we can play with Power Five schools. So we’ll probably take a look at scheduling other Power Five schools that maybe we wouldn’t have taken a look at doing before.”