LAURINBURG — Floor-to-ceiling windows and a balance bar make up one wall of St. Andrews football coach David Harper’s office. The other wall is lined with well-aged trophies and plaques, all won by other sports.
The dance studio that currently doubles as Harper’s office isn’t distracting him from his goal — to make history.
After spending 26 years as a football coach at Ferrum College in Virginia, Harper was excited about building the St. Andrews football program from the ground up. Harper was the head coach for five years at Ferrum and finished with an overall record of 19-31.
“A friend of mine at Weber International, which is our sister school in Florida, called and said St. Andrews is starting football,” Harper said. “So I sent my stuff in, came down and interviewed and was offered the job. I’ve been here since March. When I first got here all I had was a computer and a phone — I still don’t have an office, but that’s fine.”
The university announced in February it would be adding football to its extensive athletic line-up starting in 2017. St. Andrews’ predecessor, Presbyterian Junior College, had very successful football teams from the 1930’s through the 1950’s and according to Athletic Director Glenn Batten it was time to bring football back to campus.
“We had added virtually every sport you could add in the past 10 years, except for football,” Batten said. “Of all the sports there has been more excitement about football. I think part of that is because this is such a football community. We long expected we would have a positive reaction, but it’s been a little overwhelming. We’re a year away and I’ve already having people calling about season tickets.”
The Knights won’t take the field until 2017, but the 58 players who have already committed to play football will begin their college education this fall, reporting for orientation with the rest of the freshman on Aug. 17. In order to make sure the recruits get to play four years of college football, they will be red-shirted for this season.
Harper started recruiting players right after he got to campus in March, one of his big selling features was players will get the chance to help him make history.
“My little slogan is we’re trying to make history together,” Harper said. “They have the opportunity to be the first person to score a touchdown, first sack.”
But it’s not just the players that Harper wants to help him make history.
“Faculty, administration, students, coaching staff — the whole city of Laurinburg and St. Andrews have a chance to make history in a very positive way,” he said.
While recruiting, Harper and Batten focused their attention on trying to find players within a 100-mile radius of campus so family and friends could come see games. What they didn’t expect was the number of students from farther away that took interest in the program.
“We’ve also recruited kids from all over —Texas, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia — which was a little bit surprising to us, the number of kids that have come from farther away,” Batten said.
Finding the players was the easy part, now Batten and Harper have to purchase everything that goes into successfully getting a football program up and running. Crews broke ground on the stadium and the practice field at the end of July.
“What people don’t understand is it takes a lot to start a program from scratch,” said Harper. “The concern is, can we do this thing the right way? I felt very comfortable with the administration that they were going to do it the right way.”
Another concern is the financial aspect of building a football stadium, equipment, coaches salaries, scholarships for players, offices, video equipment, internet cords, workout and practice gear, shoots, dummies, additional locker rooms and weight rooms.
“It was not an easy decision to make economically,” said Batten. “I have to have a competition field, practice field, locker rooms. It’s about $1,000 to outfit each player, and an additional weight room. We have a great weight room, but I’m up to 425 student athletes. We’re outgrowing our current facility. We have teams start lifting weights at 5:30 a.m. and we’ll have that weight room full until 11 p.m. It was a major decision, the board was very supportive and encouraging.”
St. Andrews athletic programs are all self-funded through grants, donations and contributions from businesses, alumni and the public.
“The initial start up is always more because of one time expenses like goal posts, scoreboards,” said Batten. “Things that we won’t have to purchase again, but will affect this year’s budget.”
A large chunk of the money the university receives this year will go toward building the football stadium that according to Batten will cost anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000 depending on the materials and size of the facility.
“It’s small college football, it’s not what you’re going to see at the Division I level,” said Batten. “We’re going to build a 1,500- to 2,000-seat stadium where we can host lacrosse, soccer and football — just depending on schedules and what’s going on. Our game field, the way we are going to design it, I think it’s going to be a very intimate experience. It will be an experience that people who love football will really enjoy. We will play our first game next August and all of our games will be played at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.”
The Knights will be playing in the Mid-South Conference, the country’s largest football conference, which they are already a part of for wrestling and swimming. The remaining sports at St. Andrews participate in the Appalachian Athletic Conference (ACC).
Playing in such a large conference helped ease Batten’s worries about being able to fill a schedule with quality games.
“I think that was the tipping point that helped us make the decision,” said Batten. “The reason football at small colleges is often unsuccessful from a financial perspective is it’s very hard to schedule enough games to have a viable playing experience. It’s a 20-team conference, we already have our schedule set up for three years in advance. So I know exactly when we’re going to playing in 2019 and I don’t have to pay anybody to come play us.”
Harper is grateful to have an entire year with his first batch of recruits and plans on making the most of it.
“This first year I’m going to be very hard to deal with,” he said. “I’m going to be very discipline oriented and I’m not going to take a whole bunch of junk. The ones who make it through will be the leaders of our football program for four years. We’ll start weight lifting, training and testing their first week. Then we’ll measure them for equipment and about a month later we’ll actually get the equipment and start practices in mid-September then go through the first part of November.”
Both Harper and Batten stressed that players need to make sure their main focus is getting their degree — not playing football.
“Our guys are not going to the NFL, they aren’t going to be making money playing football,” Harper said. “They will be making their money with their college degree. They have to pick this school because they like the atmosphere, we have their major and then football is a plus.”
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170.