B-SC ready to compete

More news about: Birmingham-Southern
Jimmy Stainback
Jimmy Stainback has taken over quarterbacking duties, meaning the Panthers will have an experienced quarterback returning in 2011.
Birmingham-Southern photo by Wynter Bird

It looked like the start of something big at Birmingham-Southern back in 2007. The school had resurrected its football program that last played in 1939 and hired a big name coach to guide it.

That big name was Joey Jones, former All-SEC wideout at Alabama in the early in 1980s. Jones had played for Paul “Bear” Bryant, and in Alabama that name is the biggest of them all. Jones had used that name to attract around 100 recruits and transfers to play for Panthers in the inaugural season.

But after a 1-7 inaugural season, Jones left to take the job at Southern Alabama, which was also resurrecting a football program with plans to go Division I. A lot of the players that Jones recruited left with him.

The new Panther program seemed to be back at square one.

“Not only did we have to start over, we started in a deep hole,” said Eddie Garfinkle, who was hired as the new head coach after spending 2007 as the defensive coordinator. “The attitude, the negativity and the immaturity of the program really snowballed.”

Retention became an issue too.

 “It was my first experience and Coach Jones’ first experience at a private liberal arts school,” Garfinkle said. “The academics were a lot harder than we had thought.

“A bunch of the guys, flunked out of school. They came to play football. They didn’t sign up to study for three-four hours a night.”

‘We went through a lot of low times, the coaching change and having to grow,” said senior Trae Strain. “We had to stick together.”

But now three seasons later, everything appears to have changed. Not only is the program doing better academically, they are starting to win some football games.

 The Panthers clinched the school’s first winning season since 1937 by defeating Rhodes 41-19 to improve to 6-3. And after a four-year eligibility waiting period, BSC looks like they may just be a contender for the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference title next season.

“Being a senior and talking to the rest of the guys,” Strain said. “We built this program and really wanted to leave a legacy and leave our mark here on this campus. Having a winning season, we felt we’ve done that. We have a big game this week and want to go out on a winning note.”

And Garfinkle now holds a special place in his heart for the 17 seniors who stuck it out as the Panthers head into their final game against Millsaps this Saturday, a team that has won or shared the SCAC title each of the past four seasons.

“These guys stuck with it,” Garfinkle said. “They made a commitment, the wanted to stick with it for four years. I appreciated the heck out of their attitude and willingness to endure what they knew what was going to be four tough years.”

And though just six of the 17 seniors are starters the coach credits his seniors with shaping the program.

“They created the culture and the work ethic,” Garfinkle said. “They bought into what we were trying to do and set the example for the young guys. I think because of what they’ve done, we’ll be ready to compete (for the title)

Strain, a senior pre-med major, has sat out this season with an injury after starting in the defensive backfield the last two seasons.

‘It’s been amazing how the attitude and culture of the team has changed from that first year,” Strain said. “It’s been a complete 180 since that time.

“As far as the accountability from the team, the overall academics of the team has increased, the weight program has gotten better. It’s so much more structured now than it was. This year we’ve been able to have some senior leadership. When we were younger guys we really had no one to look to. This year’s senior class has done a really good job trying to lead by example.”

Perhaps the program’s biggest win to date came against Alabama’s only other D-III school, Huntingdon, on Sept. 25. After losing the initial “Wesley Cup,” 59-28 in 2009, the Panthers beat the Hawks 35-20. Huntingdon entered the game 3-0 and coming off a playoff bid the previous season.

“Our guys played unbelievable” Garfinkle said, whose team started 3-0 for the first time. “It was a great win.”

“I remember how excited everybody was and how excited everybody was on campus and our fans were,” added Strain.

The Panthers came back down to earth the next two games losing to Trinity (38-28) and Centre (35-28). But they have rallied to win three of their last four, losing only at SCAC champ and unbeaten DePauw 30-23.

Which makes this week’s game against Millsaps all the more important. The Majors blasted BSC 58-7 back in 2007 and have won by a combined score of 127-41 in the last three years.

“This will be a big measuring stick to see how far we’ve come,” Garfinkle said. “That’s what these seniors are looking at. If we can somehow find a way to win and go out on a winning note and finish 7-3, it’s a great season. I’d say this is the biggest game we’ve played in so far, just to see how far we’ve come.”

But regardless of the outcome on Saturday the group of seniors expects even bigger things for the program in the future, an SCAC title and first playoff appearance to name a couple.

“We just feel like that laying the foundation that we have the first four years we’ve been here will enable the program to do that,” Strain said.

On Saturday, they will leave their final mark.

This Week’s Games
Austin (4-4, 2-3 SCAC) at Trinity (3-6, 1-4). The Roos are looking for the first winning season in 10 years under first year coach Loren Dawson. It would be all the sweeter against a Trinity team that is guaranteed its first losing season since the early '90s and routinely beaten them many of those years.

LaGrange (3-6) at Centre (5-4). The Colonels finish by hosting the nonconference Panthers. Centre was supposed to contend for the SCAC title this year but never really got it going this year. Both teams average over 350 yards a game so there could be some points put up in this one.

Millsaps (6-3) at Birmingham-Southern (6-3). Since starting the year 0-2, the Majors have won six of seven games, losing only to DePauw. They’ll face a motivated Panther team it what could be a matchup of the top two contenders for the SCAC title next year.

Rhodes (3-6, 2-3) at Sewanee (1-8, 0-5). The Tennessee Tigers have had two weeks to prepare for this game but will need a big effort to knock off a Lynx squad that has beaten Washington, Trinity and Centre this season.

DePauw (9-0) at Wabash (7-2). The only thing that could make this season more perfect for the Tigers is to knock off their archrival in the Monon Bell game. Check it out if you have HDNet at 1:07 on Saturday.

Texas Lutheran (4-5, 3-4 ASC) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (9-0, 7-0). The Bulldogs have had a nice turn around after going winless last year, but to beat a UMHB team looking to secure a top seed in the playoffs is a lot to ask.

McMurry (5-4, 3-4 ASC) at Mississippi College (4-5, 2-5 ASC). McMurry hopes to clinch it first winning season since 2005, while the defending ASC champ Choctaws need a win to avoid a losing season for the first time in over five years.

Hardin-Simmons (8-1, 6-1 ASC) at Louisiana College (6-3, 6-1). The Cowboys must win this game in order stay in the running for a Pool C playoff bid. The Wildcats are three possessions away from an undefeated season but will have to settle for a shot at knocking HSU out of the playoff picture.

Sul Ross State (1-7, 1-6 ASC) at East Texas Baptist (4-5, 3-4). The Tigers should finish at 5-5 for the third time in the last four years if they can top the Lobos.

Contact Info
Feel free to send me your comments at jason.bowen@d3sports.com. You can also find me on Facebook and twitter @d3jason. Hope you have a great weekend.

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Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

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