KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Pete Shinnick sold the first recruits to West Florida on a picturesque campus situated a short swim from Pensacola Bay, an ambitious vision and the opportunity to build something memorable.
He surely didn’t sell them on the single-wide trailers for locker rooms.
“I had a desk and a phone and that was about it,” Shinnick recalled this week. “No players, no coaches. And I just started selling it. Our guys will get a new locker room and weight room in January, but back then there really wasn’t much. We sold the university and we sold the experience.”
That was a mere four years ago.
On Saturday, the program that began play just last season and upset top-seeded Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the Division II semifinals will play Texas A&M-Commerce for the national championship.
Hard to imagine for a school founded in the 1960s, plays its home games in a minor league baseball stadium and is better known for men’s tennis and women’s soccer.
“We went one complete year without coaching or playing football. That was one of the longest professional years of my life,” said Shinnick, who also built the North Carolina-Pembroke program when it returned from a five-decade hiatus. “As a football coach you don’t have much time in the fall, but that fall I did. But when we started, we felt we had a great university, a great town, and we were looking for the right mix of young men. We set high expectations for them, talked about how good we could be.”
The Argnoauts spent the 2015 season practicing and playing against each other, then played their inaugural game last year. They wound up winning five games, beating No. 16 Florida Tech along the way.
They were 7-3 this season to qualify for the playoffs, but even then were considered a longshot to advance. But they upset No. 16 Wingate in the opening round, beat West Georgia and West Alabama the next two weeks, then toppled the heavily favored Crimson Hawks on the road.
That earned them a trip to Sporting Park in Kansas City for the national title game.
“People want to know what the formula is and all that,” said Shinnick, who spent time earlier in his career on staffs at Arkansas, Clemson and Oregon State. “I just have great coaches and great players. We have developed a culture that we want and guys are buying in and trusting each other.”
The Argonauts are only half of what makes this year’s title game so improbable.
Texas A&M-Commerce has a proud tradition but had fallen on hard times by 2013, when Colby Carthel took over on the heels of back-to-back 1-9 seasons. The former West Texas A&M defensive coordinator quickly built a winning culture at the school situated northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Texas A&M-Commerce returned to the playoffs two years ago, reached the second round last year and survived a double-overtime quarterfinal against Central Washington to reach this year’s title game.
“We kind of started off asking everybody to believe in the vision,” Carthel said. “This senior class is leaving here as the all-time winningest class — there’s been seven or eight of them that signed on when we were maybe the worst team in the country. They believe in the vision.
“We talked about taking over the Lone Star Conference. We did that. The past year or so, we talked about taking this program to the national level,” Carthel said. “We never said we’d win a national title but we said we’d be competing for one year-in and year-out, and that’s where we are today.”
Even though the programs are relative newcomers to the national stage, they feature All-American talent on opposite sides of the ball. West Florida has second-team defensive lineman John Williamson and second-team defensive back Marvin Conley, while Texas A&M-Commerce boasts first-team quarterback Luis Perez and second-team offensive lineman Jared Machorro.
Perez led the nation with 4,390 yards passing this season, and his 42 touchdown tosses won him the Harlon Hill Trophy, given to Division II’s top player.
“Dream big. That was my vision when I first got here, to take this team and lead this team to a national championship,” Perez said. “It’s amazing everything that’s gone in along the way, the summer workouts, when you’re squatting on that rack and you have to get that last rep up — it’s for this.”
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