It was 95 degrees and rising in Conway and the crowd was out early. Meat was smoking, speakers were blasting (Toby Keith, Kendrick Lamar). Faulkner County is dry, but Solo cups were filling up, with beer procured from surrounding counties.
For the first time in 53 years, it was football season at Hendrix College.
The last time Hendrix played a game, the Warriors topped the Ouachita Baptist Tigers 7-6 in November 1960. As described in the Ouachita yearbook: "A large crowd, enjoying shirtsleeve weather, saw the two teams battle evenly through most of the game even though Ouachita passed up several golden opportunities to win the tilt." Later that year, then Hendrix President Marshall T. Steel ended the football program.
Ever since, Hendrix has been a bit of an island in a pigskin-obsessed state, just as it's been a liberal enclave in deeply conservative Arkansas. The campus takes tongue-in-cheek pride in its funky identity. T-shirts reading "Hendrix football, Undefeated Since 1960" have long been popular among students and alumni.
When the students returned to campus this fall, it took just a few days for the campus bookstore to sell out of those shirts, which were about to become a relic. Football was back, and on Sept. 7, the Warriors took on Westminster College of Missouri in the newly built Young-Wise Memorial Stadium, putting their undefeated "streak" on the line.
The Student Senate purchased multiple orange-and-black Hendrix tents for the student tailgating area, in a parking lot across the street from the Wellness and Athletic Center. It was a carnival atmosphere in the hours before the noon kickoff, with hundreds of students hooting and hollering, the smell of overcooked burgers heavy in the sweltering heat. Someone strummed on a guitar. The Hendrix culinary club offered up sweet treats. Everywhere you looked, students played Baggo (still, with apologies to football, probably the official sport of Hendrix).
"This is the first year that I ever made a concerted effort to go out and buy a ton of black and orange stuff," said Neelam Vyas, president of the Student Senate, and she wasn't alone — nearly everyone was decked out in school colors. Kind of like ... well, a college football crowd! But with a few Hendrix twists. One student had a black "Mad Max" vest, a purple wig and a giant sword. A Warrior, presumably. Seeing him, another student commented, "I'm so glad we have a sword club."
It wasn't just students — the alumni were out in full force. One group of alums, unable to get ESPN Gameday on the portable television under their tent, opted instead for a pre-game screening of the film "Roadhouse."
"Swayze, bar fights, I'm in!" one shouted.
As the Solo cups emptied, they grew nostalgic.
"Things I never thought would happen in my life are happening," one said.
"This is good for us guys," a buddy said. "I never even went to school here but I kicked it here a few times. This is good."
Said another, "We had athletes in our day at Hendrix; they just smoked themselves retarded."
If you've ever tailgated at a Southeastern Conference football game, that morning at Hendrix was a familiar scene but from an alternate universe. There was the loony fun without the mania, the big spirit without the pitched anxiety. SEC tailgating always seems poised to explode into violence; Hendrix tailgating seems poised to explode into giggles.
The new Hendrix football team competes in Division III, which is a long way from Woo Pig Sooie. There are no athletic scholarships, and while the players are recruited athletes, they must meet the academic qualifications to get in to the school.
Big-time football is a zero sum game for fans — the day is going to end with joy or misery depending on the breaks of the game. Not so at Hendrix. Some thought the team might have a rough go of it — as a brand new team, 49 out of the 53 players are freshmen. But the most common thing to hear that morning, whether from rowdy undergrads or reminiscent alums or world-weary faculty: "Today's going to be a good day."
Homecoming queens from decades past were on hand, wearing their old crowns. In a pre-game ceremony, members of the 1960 football team handed off the game ball from the 1960 Ouachita game to the captains of this year's Hendrix team. The cheerleaders followed suit, with members of the old squads handing off pompoms.
"It was hotter than hell, but it was a special moment," said Judge Billy Roy Wilson, a member of the 1960 team. Another, Vance Strange, said that the new team had "soothed over a lot of bad feelings" about football suddenly being dropped when they were players. The old players still get together once a month for an Old Warriors Luncheon at the Town Pump in Little Rock, and the new Warriors have been an uplifting topic of conversation. "We've become very attached to them," Strange said. "It does us old guys good."
With all the pomp and circumstance honoring the historic day, it was easy to forget that there was an actual game to be played. At noon, with the temperature now nearing 100 degrees, the announcer bellowed, "After a 53-year timeout, it's time to start the clock on Hendrix football!"
The Warriors got off to shaky start, as quarterback Seth Peters of Greenbrier was sacked on the first play, then threw an interception on the next possession; the Hendrix defense then promptly gave up a touchdown. But the Warriors eventually settled in, with Peters, who threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns, leading a high-powered offense in a rollicking back-and-forth game that went down to the wire.
There were around 3,000 on hand. Alumni, faculty, and other members of the community packed the bleachers. The makeshift student section was on the track just behind one of the end zones. The proximity to the field, and the zany spirit of the students, gave it the feel of a college basketball crowd. The students, most of them standing all game, peppered the game with creative chants (when the Warriors made a big play: "They're all freshmen! They're all freshmen!").
With one second left on the clock, Steve Crenshaw lined up for a 25-yard field goal with Hendrix down by one. Students linked arms or made spirit fingers. "Everyone was so nervous," student Senate president Vyas said. "It seemed like something out of a movie. We felt like, if we lose, we put in a great game, but if we won, that would just be an incredible story."
Crenshaw, from Texarkana, booted the ball through the uprights.
Hendrix 44, Westminster 42. Still undefeated since 1960. The students had been told not to rush the field, so the players rushed the student section instead. It seemed fitting: a little off-kilter, a tradition all their own.
In 2007, then-Hendrix president Tim Cloyd began to explore the possibility of adding football. The Hendrix Board of Trustees' response was mixed — some were enthusiastic about the idea, but some were initially skeptical of the financial costs and how it would be received on campus.
"During the course of those deliberations, it was really an educational process because most people on the board, when you think of football, you think of the Razorbacks and Division I football," said David Knight, now chair of the board, and chair of the board finance committee at the time they were beginning to look into football. "We weren't that familiar with Division III football and what that would involve."
For Cloyd and the board, in addition to wanting to add an activity to campus, the key driver was numbers. Like many small liberal arts schools, Hendrix had been striving to increase enrollment, which drives increased revenue. There were lots of academically talented high school football players out there that would make good Hendrix students, the thinking went. But if those boys wanted to keep playing football, they would end up at another similar college that had a team, such as Sewanee or Rhodes. In that way, Hendrix was missing out on a subset of potential students, and adding a football team would immediately add 50 students, up to more than 100 as the team grew. Division III athletes get grants and aid based on academics and need, just like any other student, but because they don't get athletic scholarships, the players themselves represent a revenue source for schools. (Tickets to Hendrix football games are free.)
"It's working," Knight said. "We have the largest freshman class enrolled in the history of the college, 455 new students, which has increased our total enrollment to 1,432, just short of our largest enrollment ever. But what we're anticipating as we continue to grow the program and get up to that 100-120 figure, we'll keep adding students."
Just as important as increasing the total enrollment was addressing the gender balance, a challenge that small liberal arts colleges across the country have faced. According to Cloyd, colleges that lean too heavily female end up hitting a tipping point that makes it harder to attract both male and female students, both of whom tend to prefer a relative balance.
"The year before last, our enrollment was around 60 percent female," Knight said. "This is getting it closer to more like 55/45. We thought generally having better gender balance was a positive."
The upfront cost of building new facilities (many of which are used by other teams and the general student population in addition to football players) was around $6 million, funded by municipal bond money. "All of that has not been a financial burden on the school and hasn't adversely impacted other programs," Knight said.
The Hendrix athletic department declined to disclose the coaches' salaries or the annual budget for the football team. Division III coaches' salaries cannot exceed the salary of the highest paid faculty member.
Knight said that the program is projected to be self-funding in three to five years, but said it could happen more quickly than that because of early success in raising money for the program from donors.
"Those projections were very conservative because they did not include outside money," he said. "Already we've raised roughly a third of the cost of the program. Initially it appears that everything is working the way it's supposed to be working and we're looking for the program to be financially positive for the college and to generate revenue that we can apply to other programs."
The board became convinced that the football team would be a financial winner and a positive for the college experience, but many students, faculty, and alums were doubtful. Cloyd described the debate over football as a "four-year all-out war" in a recent column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Some were skeptical that the financial case was as airtight as football proponents claimed, and many thought there were other more efficient means to attract more students or tackle the gender imbalance. But the biggest concern was more abstract: What kind of impact would adding a football team have on the Hendrix culture?
"Hendrix has such a distinct cultural identity on its own that we all take a lot of pride in, and football kind of has its own culture," Vyas said. "I think initially some students were skeptical about how the two would merge."
"Hendrix has a reputation that we actually work at," said Leslie Templeton, a professor of psychology at the college who served on a task force to study the football question and get feedback from the Hendrix community during the 2007-2008 academic year. "We support lots of unconventional kinds of student interests. The majority of our students participate in sports in some way, shape or form, but it's not the defining element of the campus and of the student's college experience. Hendrix is a unique place and the fact that we did not have such a wildly popular Southern sport like football was almost symbolic of the different emphasis we placed on the academic experience."
Templeton pointed to the Hendrix ultimate Frisbee team, the Flying Squirrels, as emblematic of Hendrix culture. "It's a grassroots-level athletic activity," she said. "It's kind of anti-mainstream, and students like the idea of being at a place that's a little less mainstream, and that we're doing something other than a cookie-cutter college experience."
Some students said that they had chosen Hendrix in part because it didn't have football. Many alums were attached to the Hendrix that they knew ("Hendrix football, Undefeated Since 1960"). Meanwhile, some faculty members who had done their graduate work at big-time football schools had bad memories. "Many faculty had been at places where the football experience overwhelmed the academic experience and overwhelmed the extracurricular experience," Templeton said. "And many of us had pretty negative experiences with football players."
The faculty voted against adding a team and the response was negative in student surveys. At one forum for students, the then-president of the Student Senate read a prepared statement from the Senate in strong opposition.
"It came from alums, it came from faculty, it came from students," Cloyd said. "The resistance was vocal, visceral, and fierce. [They] said that it would ruin the Hendrix ethos. That it was going to bring an element to the campus that was antithetical to who and what Hendrix stood for."
These were fair opinions to be explored, he said. "I did not want to ruin the Hendrix magic," Cloyd said. "Because Hendrix has something special, something eclectic, something funky about it."
Cloyd pointed out that other small liberal arts schools with strong academic reputations and progressive student bodies have Division III football teams — places like Oberlin College in Ohio, Grinnell College in Iowa (which has a kazoo marching band) and the University of Chicago (where Greek tragedies are performed at halftime). Meanwhile, a survey of prospective students seemed to suggest that football wasn't particularly on their radar one way or the other — it was the lack of a Greek system that was a big draw.
In the spring of 2008, the board made a nearly unanimous decision to go ahead with football. Many on campus felt that their wishes had been ignored and feelings ran hot.
Now that football is here, there are still some not thrilled with the idea, but for the most part, the campus has gotten used to the idea and the enmity has dissipated. It didn't hurt that Cloyd, a divisive figure on campus, stepped down from his role as president in last spring.
"Freshman year, when I first started hearing that football would be coming to Hendrix, me and a lot of my friends were hesitant about the idea," Vyas said. "Just because we had no idea what that would look like on Hendrix campus and within Hendrix culture. But every year we have more and more students coming in prepared and knowing that football is coming and excited about it. By this point, almost the entire campus is extremely excited about football."
Vyas said that Hendrix culture was going strong, but that the football team had added an element of school spirit. A pep rally a week before the opening game, the first in memory at Hendrix, drew around 900 students.
"Hendrix is an environment where your quirks are embraced, and we are free to challenge ideas and pursue new interests," Vyas said. "It's a really great environment to find yourself. When I think of all those things, those things still have remained the same."
"I really think [the football team] has enriched our culture and added a fun new element," she said. "It gives us another social outlet, an opportunity to see each other and come together as a community. Those are times and events that we really treasure. It's refreshing to see this display of school pride, that wasn't as obvious before. Hendrix students and alumni and parents, we really love our school. We have so much pride for it. Football is an outlet for that."
Vyas told the story of an ice-breaking event at freshman orientation. One of the football players raised his fist and shouted "Go Warriors!" All of the students ran into a circle around him, shouting it with him.
"I always just said I was a student at Hendrix," Vyas said. "That was the first moment that I had actually called myself a Warrior. That was really cool."
"The big time is where you're at," Hendrix coach Justin "Buck" Buchanan likes to say. Coach Buck, as everyone calls him, has spent his entire adult life in Division III football, first as a student athlete at Austin College and then as a coach at Louisiana College, most recently as associate head coach and defensive coordinator.
Buchanan is a passionate ambassador of the Division III experience. It's a chance for young men who love the game to continue to compete on the college level, he said, even if they weren't quite big enough or fast enough to make Division I. And the focus for the student athletes ultimately remains on academics.
"At the end of the day, I never have to go to a kid and say well you only had two catches, therefore we have to take your scholarship away," he said. "We'll never take a guy's ability to get a diploma away from him. They're in control of that."
At a recent practice, he looked out at his players taking reps. "They're sharp guys," he said. "You've got future lawyers, future doctors out there."
Buchanan was selected after a national search in 2012. "We knew how important it was that we found someone that embraced Division III and would be a great fit for Hendrix," Hendrix Athletic Director Amy Weaver said. "When we got him on campus, he's got this infectious personality, he gets people excited."
Buchanan also had experience building a program from scratch, having been on the staff at Louisiana College in 1999 when it revived its dormant football program.
In the team's recruiting process, Buchanan said he focused on finding students who would be a good fit for Hendrix and were comfortable with the challenge of starting something new. Cloyd recounted that when he would ask Buchanan about recruits, the coach would tell him about ACT scores and career plans. "He'd say, 'that's all you need to know,' " Cloyd said. "He wouldn't tell me how fast he ran a 40 or how much he bench pressed."
Buchanan worked with the admissions department to ensure the players he recruited could get in to Hendrix on academic merit. The average ACT for the freshmen on the football team is 27.5, compared to 29.0 for the freshman class as a whole; the average high school GPA is 3.69, compared to 3.94.
"You see the admissions counselors on Saturday, they're rooting for their kids that they worked with," Buchanan said. "So it's really a relationship-driven process which fits into the athletic part of it because we're really a relationship-driven athletic program. Division III has to be, because we don't have these guys on scholarship. They've got to really want to do this."
All of that said, Buchanan was quick to note that his team was made up of recruited athletes, most of whom had multiple offers to play college ball. They might be brainy, but they took their performance on the field seriously, and they were there to compete.
"We practice just like anybody else in the country, whether you're Division I or whatever," Buchanan said. "That's the biggest misunderstanding of Division III, people a lot of times have this idea that it's intramurals in pads and it's really not. These are real football players. We still practice just like anybody else, just our guys are on Stafford loans."
The Xs and Os are no different, Buchanan said. "It's just how big the Xs and Os are," he said. "The concepts are all the same. That same stuff we do, you can see Baylor do, or Oklahoma State do. What you do see at our level is a lot kids playing really, really hard. They're here because they love playing."
If not for the football team, Buchanan said, more of less all of his players would have ended up playing ball somewhere else. "Not having football before, we missed out on a lot of the guys like this over time," he said.
Buchanan is well aware that the decision to bring football to campus brought controversy and some concerns about how the team would be integrated into the student body. He's talked to his players about being good ambassadors for the program.
"I think our guys have been really well received," Buchanan said. "They've really worked to develop relationships outside this group on campus. We put it on our chest and say, hey, we're football players, don't judge us unfairly. We know we're living up to a higher standard because we know we're living in a fishbowl."
Ultimately, part of the concern about "culture" comes down to the stereotype of a big-time football player.
"Some people think, football — jock," said Steve Crenshaw, the kicker who kicked the game winner in the opener. "Now they say, 'we were hesitant, but now we've gotten to know y'all and see how polite y'all are.' We're just like any other student here."
"Nobody's come up to us saying we don't want you here," Crenshaw said. "Everybody's more like trying to prove that they do want us here. Everybody's been so supportive, it's been unreal."
Both of Crenshaw's parents went to Hendrix. He got offers to play ball at Ouachita Baptist and Arkansas Tech, but decided that Hendrix was "the best fit for me academically and athletically." He said that he would not have considered the school if not for the football team.
"Playing football is something I love," he said. "It's completely a dream come true. This was my goal since I started kicking as a freshman in high school. Some of the guys on my high school team didn't [get to play college ball] and they were really upset about it. When their last game was over they knew they'd never put on football pads and play at that level ever again. It was sad — it humbled me just how lucky I am to be able to do this."
Crenshaw said he was thrilled with his choice to come to Hendrix. "This is the best month of my life," he said. "I don't remember Texarkana. I'm going back Saturday and I might not even be able to get to my house. This feels like home."
In addition to the football team, Crenshaw has already bonded with other students in his dorm, he said, mentioning a long-time school tradition called "Shirttails," a dance competition between dorms.
"You're dancing in a buttoned-down white shirt and your underwear and you learn a five-minute choreographed dance," he said. "It's serious — you're twerking, doing all that mess. It was so fun. That's Hendrix."
Dean of Students Jim Wiltgen said that when the announcement that football would return to campus came in 2008, "one thing I was always doing is reassuring students that the Hendrix culture will shape football rather than the other way around." Wiltgen said that the students that were there at the time of the decision were the most resistant. "About a year ago, we started to see it tip toward excitement, a real sea change in the students saying, wow, this is really happening, there are some opportunities that would be really fun for us."
Templeton, the psychology professor who had served on the football taskforce, opposed adding the program at the time, but said there was no lasting bitterness and applauded the hire of Buchanan, a "liberal arts minded guy."
"We're all in wait-and-see-mode," she said. "I don't like how it happened. I don't like that we felt like faculty and student desires were being ignored. At the same time, I think it's turned out to not be as big of a deal as we thought it might be. Anything that gets the alumni engaged is positive. As long as these student athletes prioritize academics and do their work and take advantage of the opportunities we have, I think we're all going to be fine with it."
Meanwhile, on the field, the team has continued its surprising success. A week after their victory over Westminster, they hung tough with last year's conference champion, Birmingham-Southern, falling 35-32 in a nail biter. Last week, they picked up their second victory, thumping Southwestern 48-29, to start the season 2-1.
The early success comes despite the fact that, as a new program, Hendrix has one of the smallest and youngest rosters in Division III. Players and fans are optimistic about the team's prospects as the roster grows and gains experience.
"What people don't understand is we're not just 53 scrubs who showed up to play football," Crenshaw said. "We're 53 hand-picked individuals who came ready to win some ballgames."