Season Preview: The Southwestern Man - Southwestern University

Season Preview: The Southwestern Man

Season Preview: The Southwestern Man

On Oct. 2, 1943, the Southwestern University Pirates football team defeated the University of Texas Longhorns 14-7 in Austin on its way to a 10-1-1 season, a Texas Conference championship, and a Sun Bowl victory over New Mexico.  

The victory came in the middle of a high point for a program that would disband just a few years later. 

Southwestern University's brief rise atop the NCAA football rankings—they climbed to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll in 1943—came via a lend-lease system setup during World War II in which the Pirates received an influx of talent from elite schools to participate in a Navy training program. 

Once the war ended, that level of talent dried up. Eventually, the program did too. 

Seventy years after its high-mark season, Southwestern resurrected its football program, tabbing Head Coach Joe Austin to build something more sustainable.

"To borrow a quote from [Associate Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics] Dr. [Glada] Munt, 'the only thing worse than not having a football team in Texas is being bad at football in Texas,'" Austin said. "It was important to me to find out whether [Southwestern] was content just fielding a football team or wanted to be good at football. We got on the same page quickly."  

The Pirates started with a class of 91 true first years, enduring three seasons of growing pains with a 3-26 record. By the program's fourth year, 36 remained as seniors, breaking through with the renewed program's first winning season at 7-3, becoming the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) champions.

"Eighteen-year olds don't beat up on 22-year olds," Austin said of the rough inaugural season. "There was one game where we were ahead at halftime and that was a moral victory. 

"It took time for the players to mature. They needed off-seasons in the weight room, running, working on their technique. Now, not one person on the football team has ever had a losing season here. There's an expectation of winning and that's a good culture." 

The class of 2019 seniors began their collegiate football careers with a SCAC championship and followed it up with consecutive 6-4 seasons despite moving to an American Southwest Conference (ASC) filled with nationally-ranked teams. 

Maintaining that trend will be difficult after graduating five starters with All-ASC honors on offense, including quarterback Frederick Hover, who ended his career as the all-time leader in most of Southwestern University's offensive statistical categories. 

"You're going to graduate players every year, it's the nature of college football," Austin said. "Last year, we had so many seniors who'd been all-conference, it was a semi-unique situation. But we play a lot of players on the offensive line, a lot of receivers and running backs, so it's not like the cupboard is empty. We're not going to be bad offensively, just different." 

The key to navigating the highs and lows of college football is to stop thinking of them in linear terms. Newton's First Law states an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line, unless acted upon by an external force. 

Our solar system has the gravity of the sun keeping everything from drifting off into the vast emptiness of space. The core the Southwestern University football program orbits is its culture—bending its high and lows into a self-sustaining cycle. 

In the program's second year, Austin had his players draft a list of virtues to live by. Loving. Mature. Committed. Sacrificing. Passionate. Courageous. Honorable. Relentless. These are the traits the team decided made up the Southwestern Man. 

"The mission of our program is when our players go out, they're good men. We want them to go out and be good husbands, good fathers, and be good in their vocations," Austin said. "We'd like them to have the skills to be responsible, prioritize, and treat people the right way. We want them to be good role models.

"And the better we train them to do the life things, the better they'll do at football." 

On the field, the focus of the program has never moved past day-to-day improvement. Early in Austin's tenure, the coaching staff would splice video of one play from the first game and play it alongside video of the same play run four games later. 

"Going back to when we started, we couldn't show them the end results, only the incremental steps," Austin said. "Now, we're in a different challenge where, including us, five of the 10 teams in our conference are nationally ranked. But it's still the same process.

"It's, 'here's where we are now, let's keep getting better, keep lifting, working, and improving as players.' We're in a cycle where things continue to replenish and regenerate and hopefully, as it does that, our baseline level continues to go higher." 

A young defense from a season ago has now become the team's old guard, returning all 11 starters, including All-ASC Defensive Second Team defensive back Aaron Robinson, All-ASC Honorable Mention linebackers Ben Brockman and Hayden Smith, and Team Defensive MVP Garrett Womack at defensive end. 

Last year, the defense ranked first in the ASC in red zone efficiency and third in rushing defense, holding opponents to just 92.6 rushing yards per game. With everyone returning, it looks to make a significant leap. 

"Spring football was really fun for me to watch [with the defense] because it was just roll out the ball and go," Austin said. "We weren't trying to teach schemes, how to stand, or what their techniques were. It was really refining and experimenting with things. 

"I think we're going to be really good in a lot of roles. We only had three all-conference players on defense and we felt we deserved more. Our guys want to be in the conversation. They're hungry." 

The defense should buy time for an offense integrating new pieces at key positions to gel, including at quarterback, where there is stiff competition to replace Hover, who finished his career as the program's all-time leader in several key statistical categories.

All-ASC wide receiver David Brandenburg gives a versatile, reliable target capable of making plays in a variety of ways and the offensive should be buoyed by the return of running backs Kalon Heim and Elijah Smith.

Heim earned All-ASC Second Team honors last season, averaging 91.3 rushing yards per game on 7.3 yards per carry, finishing with 593 yards before injury cut his season short. Smith was All-ASC Second Team in 2017, running for 594 yards and four touchdowns.

Senior running back Devin Shaw provides leadership in the backfield, rounding out a deep group.

The trio will be running behind T.J. Vela, an All-ASC Second Team offensive lineman in 2017 who missed last season with an injury.

On special teams, the kicking game should be a strength with strong competition between Wil Herbst and Luke Fierst, who was All-ASC in 2016 and 2017.

Whoever cycles through key roles in a Southwestern uniform, the one constant has been improvement. The team is always better at the end of a season than it was to start. 

"I know it sounds so boring but we just work on getting better every day. We begin the season wanting to win the first game and not worrying about the other nine," Austin said. "At the end of the last three years, we've been playing pretty well. I think doing that has allowed us to have the three consecutive winning seasons we've had." 

Southwestern University's first rise to power came from an influx of outside talent. The next one will flow from the very foundations it's laying now.