Success in any endeavor is based on a stable foundation–which is illustrated in Azusa Pacific’s Athletic Department where leaders spend decades working on their mission and purpose.
In 60 years of athletic history, current APU Director of Athletics Gary Pine is only the fourth person to hold the position.
All of Pine’s predecessors are members of the NAIA Hall of Fame for their part in turning APU into one of the finest athletic programs in the NAIA. Before transitioning to NCAA Division II, APU won eight straight Directors’ Cups, the annual award given to the NAIA’s best all-around athletic program.
Pine’s job is to turn that NAIA dominance into NCAA excellence.
The athletic tradition mandates success, while the university mission requires Christian development. Seeking to do both makes coaching at APU a unique job.
Just as the position of Director of Athletics has been stable, so have the coaching ranks. According to Pine, the average tenure for an Azusa Pacific head coach is almost 11 years. That is uncommon at the Division II level, where coaches often seek to make jumps to Division I.
“We’ve had bigger schools come knocking on the doors of our coaches, and our coaches have stayed,” Pine said.
Each coach has their own reasons for staying, but all recognize a culture that allows them to succeed.
“I think our coaches feel well-compensated…They feel that they can pursue their goals and dreams because they’re given the resources to do that,” Pine said. “Most important is that they believe in our mission and that our mission fits who they are.”
This intersection of a competitive desire for success and a faith-driven desire for mentorship strikes a rare balance in college athletics.
“Our primary responsibility and desire is to see people change for Christ and understand who they are and what God has for their lives,” softball said head coach Carrie Webber.
Webber became Head Coach in 2008, and her eight years of service is among the shorter tenures in the department.
“A school like APU gives us a sense of being home,” Webber said. “[It’s] a sense of security in sharing our faith that we can’t necessarily do at a public school.”
Men’s basketball Head Coach Justin Leslie shares the perception that his job is about more than wins and losses.
“Guys that I had in my first couple years are now moving on to [having] families and careers, and I’m seeing success in their lives,” Leslie said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of, but being at a place where that’s valued and recognized… It makes you sleep well at night.”
Among the most prestigious—and longest tenured—Azusa Pacific coaches are those in the track and field program.
Kevin Reid has been heading the men’s teams since 1996, and over that time has won 12 national titles.
Director of Track and Field Mike Barnett has won seven national titles as head coach of the women’s team from 2000-2012, and was also one of Olympic champion Bryan Clay’s coaches during the 2008 Olympics.
For the pair, opportunities have existed beyond APU, but they have chosen to stay.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was something I thought about early on,” Barnett said. “Thank God I didn’t follow that… I want to be here to give the knowledge that I have to these students. At a Division I school, I couldn’t do what I want to do. I’d have to watch what I say.”
The concept of pouring back into students in meaningful ways is not new to the Azusa Pacific’s athletic department’s culture.
“I want to be the person that others were to me, the mentor, the role model,” Barnett said.
Barnett was a five-time national champion at APU during the early 1980s, before competing internationally in the javelin throw.
Leslie attributes success among the department to the culture.
“There’s a perception from the outside that our coaches are paid more, we have bigger staffs, we have bigger budgets, we have more scholarships [than other schools]—[and] that’s just not true,” Leslie explained. “We’re the only school where coaches teach, our assistants aren’t full-time and we’re not fully funded. It’s a place where there’s an internal drive to represent APU, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That culminates in success.”
The success that APU coaches inspire is clear. The Cougars finished 17th in its first year of eligibility for the NCAA Division II Directors Cup. Last year, Leslie led the Cougars men’s basketball team reached the Elite Eight.
Finding coaches who satisfy this level of competition, as well as the level of faith maturity required, leaves APU with few options when searching for new coaches.
“As I look back on our hiring over the last 20 years, our pool of candidates has not been very deep,” Pine said. “I think part of that is what we ask of them.”
Still, the Cougars continue to pursue the across-the-board success that the program experienced in the NAIA. More important, the Cougars seek to maintain the culture and identity that fostered that success.
“At other places, it might just be about that win,” Leslie said. “There’s a bigger perspective here about what we get to do.”