How small Christian college in OKC has become a David in NAIA men's basketball
Right by Marcus Moeller’s office hangs a huge picture of Mid-America Christian’s men’s basketball team from 2016.
That was the year the small school on Oklahoma City’s southwest side won the NAIA title, besting a mighty team from Georgetown College. The Kentucky program is a powerhouse, but that season, it had four Division-I transfers, including two who’d started the previous season at Louisville.
“It’s kind of a picture of, to use a Biblical reference, David vs. Goliath,” said Moeller, the athletic director at Mid-America Christian. “But you know, I do think more and more, we are feeling less and less like that.
“And to be honest with you, that’s the goal.”
But even as Mid-America Christian makes another push for a national title, that David analogy isn’t completely gone. The college has grown in recent years, moving from strictly a Bible school educating ministers to more of a liberal arts college, but with an enrollment of 1,938 students, it still ranks 42nd out of 92 schools in NAIA Division I.
In the latest national men’s basketball poll, however, it ranks No. 2.
How has it punched so well above its weight?
Those close to the program say there’s no one reason why Mid-America Christian will likely make its fourth national-tournament appearance in six seasons.
But it starts with sports being important.
That starts at the top with Mid-America Christian president John Fozard.
“If you heard him kind of give his testimony of when he walked into the situation at Mid-America, the financial situation we were in 20, 21 years ago … he cast the vision for our university,” Moeller said of the move to being a more broader-based, liberal-arts school. “Nothing is too small to take to his plate.
“He is in it with us every day.”
That doesn’t mean Fozard supplies athletics with unlimited funds. Frankly, budgets are small. The basketball team, for example, takes vans to away games.
But the school has updated existing facilities and built new ones for its eight athletic programs. Fundraising is ongoing, too, for a $6 million athletic performance facility that would, among other things, provide locker rooms for all outdoor sports, none of which currently have one.
Spending millions might raise eyebrows. In an era when educational funding is a struggle, how can a small school spend such big bucks?
"A lot of people feel like athletics doesn't have anything to do with Christian faith or churches or anything like that," Fozard said. "I just disagree with them."
He believes athletes will take their faith out into the world, including some who are from other states and even foreign countries. Fozard sees sports as a way to develop leaders who will then shepherd others to the Christian faith. The school's mission is better fulfilled in that way.
But sports has also expanded the reach of Mid-America Christian.
“Before we won our first NAIA basketball championship, people were like, ‘MACU? What’s MACU?’” said Vicki Splawn, an assistant professor of business administration who’s been at the school more than a decade and who’s a regular at sporting events. “Even in Oklahoma City, people had never heard of it.”
Splawn doesn’t run into as many people like that now. Part of that is because of a marketing campaign that includes radio ads and giant billboards, but the success of the sports teams has helped, too.
That has fed the overall growth of the school.
“We’ve attracted better students,” Splawn said. “That’s always a positive.”
The athletic programs have helped diversify and strengthen the school, too. Steve Clouse, co-chair of the school of business leadership and another regular at basketball games, remembers a class he taught a couple years ago where nearly half the students were from outside the United States. Many were there to play sports, but all told, 14 countries were represented.
“Here in Oklahoma City,” Clouse said. “I mean, it’s just amazing.”
While all the sports at Mid-America Christian have impacted the school in different ways, no program has had more success than men’s basketball.
Many credit Josh Gamblin, the fifth-year coach – “He’s an outstanding coach,” Clouse said. “What he really gives is a legacy of character and integrity. I mean, he does this with class” — but Gamblin is quick to deflect such praise. He credits his predecessor, Willie Holley, who coached the program for more than four decades. Credits university leaders. Credits his assistant, Anthony Nero.
But Gamblin gives his biggest praise to his players, veterans Calon Woodson and Dom Ford who’ve led the way and a bevy of newcomers who’ve raised the level of competition.
“We signed some players who can really play,” Gamblin said. “They’re a highly competitive group, and they bought into everything.”
That has been evident in recent weeks.
A month ago, team leader Cedric Wright was injured in a game. Mid-America Christian not only won that night but also has won eight of the nine games since.
The only loss was by seven points on the road against a top-10 team.
Mid-America’s record: 25-1.
"Winning is important," Gamblin said. "Everybody wants to win. I run up and down the sidelines of games because I want to win, looking like an idiot half the time."
"But if our kids leave here and we didn't share the gospel with them ... what did we do for them? We understand this life is about relationships, first a relationship with Jesus Christ and then to help lead others to a relationship with Jesus Christ. The sports we have here are a tool to do that."
Fozard calls it building people over programs, shaping them into champions regardless of what happens on the court or the field.
"As their character is developed as a champion, then they overachieve beyond a lot of expectations or the size and resources of other programs," Fozard said. "They really become like a David."
And we know how that went.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
Check it out
Mid-America Christian’s men’s basketball team has four regular-season games remaining – and all will be played within an hour’s drive of Oklahoma City. Here’s a look at those games:
Thursday: vs. Oklahoma City University, 7:45 p.m.
Saturday: at Southwest Christian, Bethany, 3:45 p.m.
Feb. 27: vs. Central Christian (Kan.), 7:45 p.m.
Feb. 29: at Langston, 3:45 p.m.