Schollie-less South

Tiny Huntingdon's recruiting trials as first DIII school to start football in the Southeast

Oct. 2, 2007

By Pat Coleman

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Division III schools are primarily located in the northern and eastern half of the country, in a span from Maine to Missouri. There is a pocket of schools in Texas and 15 total Division III football programs in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones combined.


So when Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, Ala., became the first Division III school in the Southeast to start football in 2003, let's just say they had a bit of explaining to do. The most recent Division III football team in the area, Stillman College, had moved to Division II after the 2000 season, and there were no programs in Alabama, Georgia, Florida or South Carolina, areas where scholarship football is strong.




"For us, it's been difficult because we're such a new program, people didn't even know we had a team, to start with," says Huntingdon coach Mike Turk, who took over the program in its second season. "After that, we had to explain what Division III is. And after we got through explaining that, we had to explain again why we didn't give scholarships, because that's all people know down there.


"That's all they've ever known."


After Huntingdon's 0-7 season under coach Duane Trogdon in 2003, Turk's first team went 4-5. The 2005 team went 7-2 and was in NCAA playoff contention until a final-weekend loss. Last year, the first senior class faced a significantly tougher schedule and went 6-4. As an independent, and geographically isolated, the struggle is finding 10 games, let alone a schedule that gives his team a shot at the postseason. This season, the Hawks play teams from 10 states, including trips to Michigan, Delaware and Virginia. They're 1-4 through four weeks, having played Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Adrian (Mich.) and Wesley (Del.).


"We finished our schedule in mid-June, with Westminster (Mo.)," said Turk. "It has been a nightmare, and we didn't help ourselves by beating Sewanee and Millsaps and Rhodes - they told us, `we ain't playin' y'all anymore.'


"This year we aren't playing any of those guys. We had to go find, literally, seven games.  It worked out, fortunately, that we're five (home) and five (away)."


It's the last year of independent status for Huntingdon, which, along with LaGrange (Ga.) is joining the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2008, a collection of schools that could qualify for an automatic bid to the playoffs as soon as 2010.


Huntingdon has the strongest program of the group at the moment, but the Hawks still have some progress to make. The defensive line started just one player heavier than 235 pounds this past week in a game at Wesley, while the secondary started a 5-6 free safety and a 5-3 cornerback.


"We have to upgrade our size and our speed and everything," Turk admits. "We're not even near being on these guys' level. We matched up well with North Carolina Wesleyan well when we played them a few years ago, but we saw them on tape and they'd whip our butt right now.


"We're working hard recruiting, but we have a long way to go yet. There's so much competition. Kids up here are different too, they're more hard-nosed. The ones we have aren't soft, they'll fight you, but a lot of them that quit, quit because they're soft. They're talented kids, they could be players for us, but they'd rather go to Auburn and join Sigma Nu.


"I want to hire the guy who recruits for Sigma Nu at Auburn, because he's whipping our butt on the recruiting trail."


Turk, who was an assistant at Troy for 13 seasons, admits his first couple of training camps at Huntingdon may have turned off some of his best recruits. The Hawks' senior class has 20 players, about 10 of whom play on a regular basis, and the junior class is 16. "We learned better techniques for training camp - not making it easier, but tricking them. How are you going to get better if your best kids are walking out the door? So we're a fairly young football team right now. We've got a lot of sophomores playing for us and a few freshmen who are hopeful."


Just to make things more difficult, some non-scholarship competition has popped up in the region for Huntingdon. LaGrange sponsored its first team in 2006 and had 108 players report for camp this season, while Birmingham-Southern, in its first season since starting its move from Division I, brought in 126 recruits this fall. Neither program has yet to win a varsity game, though they've certainly taken some non-scholarship players out of the pool.


But despite the increased competition, Turk sees it all as positive. "The fact that Birmingham-Southern's playing D-III now, LaGrange is playing D-III, more people hear about it. It's getting better. The fact that there's more teams around and we're in the paper a little bit more. I don't give a dang if it's us or Birmingham-Southern or LaGrange in the paper - it's Division III football and that helps us."


The numbers don't always pan out; however, recruiting in Division III is sometimes as much about bringing in a specific number of students as it is pursuing quality recruits. Huntingdon, for example, has gone from 600 students to nearly 800 in the course of the football program's short history. "That philosophy has kind of hurt us a little bit," Turk says, "because we have started the last two years with about 140 kids and it is hard to do a good job with all of them. From a retention standpoint, we lose some guys because of that.


"We're going to try to emphasize quality a little bit on the front end at least, and then recruit the numbers on the back end, whereas we haven't really done that yet - anyone that would listen to us, we'd talk to and try to get them to come to school.


"And our school appreciates that, don't get me wrong."