Southwestern Pirates football, reintroduced to the university in 2013, rushed to a conference championship in only four seasons. Rising from its first-year, 0–3 conference record, the team racked up a 6–0 mark in league play in 2016 and handily secured its Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championship at the Homecoming game against Trinity University.

The Pirates also achieve results off the gridiron that help Southwestern fulfill the goals that inspired the team’s formation, such as boosting male enrollment, increasing applications and the size of the student body, and enhancing school spirit and campus-wide social opportunities.

“Southwestern values excellence, and I feel very good about what we’re doing with football,” said Dr. Glada Munt, associate vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics. “We’ve met all timetables, exceeded expectations, and came in under budget. We’ve produced a very good program in four years.”

Academically, the football players provide a textbook example of student-athletes who put academic priorities first. The team boasts a cumulative GPA comparable to the overall student body, Munt said. “We’ve gotten so many emails and comments from faculty who appreciate our student-athletes. There’s a reason why when you say ‘student-athlete’ that you say ‘student’ first.”

Southwestern, like many liberal-arts institutions, experiences a gender imbalance. “In 2011, the first-year class was 37 percent male and 63 percent female ratio, the most imbalanced in the school’s history,” said Christine Kettle Bowman ’93, dean of admission and enrollment services.

More men are enrolling at Southwestern partly because the 100-plus member team is all male, but also because a school with football attracts some non-athlete applicants who like the sport and the spirit it creates. “For the last two years, we have been at a 44 percent male and 56 percent female first-year class,” Bowman said. “When you add both football and women’s lacrosse to the recruitment mix, you will obviously grow the size of the student body, especially over four years. We have slowly grown the overall class size from the 350 range up to 380 students, with plans to continue to grow this year to 400 students. The growth is a combination of efforts between athletics, fine arts, and our general recruiting program.”

Southwestern plays in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), where the emphasis is on students’ academic experiences, with team sports coming second. Athletic scholarships are not allowed, unlike at Division I and II schools. When recruiting, “The first thing we look at are transcripts and test scores,” said Joe Austin, head coach. “We’re certainly the most selective academically of any of the schools we play.” 

“First and foremost is trying to find the student-athlete that has the academic fit for what Southwestern is looking for in a student,” Kenneth Eboh, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, added.

The team has melded with Southwestern culture in other ways, too. “As freshmen, we stood out and people looked at us differently,” said Bryan Hicks, a Class of 2017 kinesiology major and 2016 All-SCAC first team quarterback. “But after a couple of years, we were in all kinds of groups. We’re tightknit but we’re all over campus, too.”

Along the way, bemusement about football at Southwestern has shifted to a boost in school spirit and pride. Also in 2013, Southwestern launched a women’s intercollegiate lacrosse team, making it only the second university in Texas with a women’s varsity lacrosse program and bringing the number of intercollegiate sports at the University to 20.

“Five years ago, I could look across campus and not see one student in a Southwestern shirt,” Munt said. “Now I play a game with myself, counting how many students I see wearing a Southwestern or Pirates shirt. It’s one of those value-added things that happened with adding football and having success —the students are good with being Pirates. We’re building a positive student culture.”

Not all aspects of adding football were predicted. Coach Austin met with food service early on. “They had no idea what our guys were going to eat and how much they were going to eat, and how much chocolate milk they were going to drink,” Austin said. “They had one dispenser for chocolate milk and now have four or six. They were very receptive, but for our campus, it was a big shift.”

Games are played at Georgetown ISD’s stadium, which has brought Southwestern closer to the local community. “One of our unanticipated benefits has been the flourishing of the town-gown relationship,” Munt said. “The city has embraced us.” Attendance at home games averages 2,000, an upper-end number for an NCAA Division III team.

Austin started on campus in early 2012 and brought Eboh and associate head coach Tom Ross on board to help ramp up the program. “All fall, they recruited and helped me with the administrative stuff,” Austin said, noting that all three hit high schools in every corner of the state to get the word out about the new program and to recruit players who sought the academic rigor and reputation of Southwestern, while happening to also love playing football.

“It’s a lot of work to start a football program when you don’t even have a helmet or shoulder pads,” Munt said. “And we were building a culture here to make the football program the right fit for Southwestern University. Having been here 40-plus years, I know this school and just adding football was not an easy pill to swallow. I knew we had to get it right from the very start.”

The 2016 championship wasn’t the first for Southwestern, which started with a club football team in 1895. The school’s rich sports history includes a 1925 football championship in the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the precursor to the Southwest Conference, where Southwestern was a charter member; a championship in 1927 in the Texas Conference; and back-to-back Sun Bowl Championships in 1944 and ’45.

During World War II, Southwestern became a formidable football power because it sponsored a V-12 Navy College Training Program that brought in a pool of skilled players from schools including The University of Texas at Austin and Baylor University.

In 1950, Southwestern cut its football program while continuing to field successful teams in sports including baseball, volleyball, and tennis. The university eventually transitioned to the NCAA and the SCAC.

On a new street named Pirate Cove on the east side of Southwestern’s campus sits the new building that houses the Pirate football team. Overlooking two practice fields, a new track- and the arching Texas sky, the 15,000-square-foot Field House is the physical representation of the school’s commitment to Pirates football as well as other Southwestern sports. Doug Ross, head strength and conditioning coach, was hired explicitly to work with all Southwestern athletes, all of whom use the Field House weight room.

“Joe [Austin] likes to say, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’’’ Munt said. “I wasn’t going to let football take over the athletics department. I worked at finding ways for other sports to benefit from football coming to Southwestern.”

“Because we don’t have a stadium, two of the things we tried to make showpieces go back to the Field of Dreams movie—‘Build it and they will come,’” she added. “We strived to have a really first-class dressing and locker room, and a first-class weight room.”

In 2017, the Pirates will move to the American Southwest Conference (ASC), a fresh challenge for the young team that allows them to stay in Texas for most games while facing formidable opponents, including the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, winner of the 2016 Division III National Championship, and other teams historically ranked among the top 25. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to compete in this league, but I like challenges,” Austin said with a laugh.

“We feel we’ll be the strongest academic institution in the strongest football conference,” Munt said. “We’re looking forward to it and we’re excited about next year. We’re not going to go 10–0 through that conference, so it’ll be the next set of hurdles for us.”

In the meantime, this year’s team, including departing seniors, can bask in the glow of the SCAC championship.

“It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” said Zach Cole, linebacker and Class of 2017 kinesiology major. “I’m grateful to Southwestern for giving us the opportunity to play the game we love, and I can’t stress enough how thankful we are for everyone’s support, even when we weren’t doing well.”