The last time Dewitt Jones (’65) boarded a plane for Fresno, Calif., before Wednesday, he was a member of the 1963 Abilene Christian University football team heading west for the second time in a week. The Wildcats were scheduled to play their season finale against Fresno State University on Saturday, Nov. 23. But when their plane landed in Phoenix the day before to refuel, they were greeted with the grim news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
Like virtually every event across America that weekend – sporting and otherwise – the game was postponed. ACU was given the option of returning to Fresno the following week or canceling it all together. The vote to return was unanimous. It was worth the trip.
Led by a career-high 17 tackles from Academic All-America Jack Griggs’ (’64), the Wildcats edged the Bulldogs, 32-29, on Nov. 30, in what would be the last meeting between the two teams until tonight. For anyone from that era, the Kennedy assassination remains one of the top two where-were-you-when moments in American history. The other is 9/11, which this year’s ACU team is barely old enough to remember.
A lot has changed since that fateful fortnight in 1963.
Fresno State rose in the ranks of college football, from what was known as the NCAA’s College Division (akin to the Football Championship Subdivision, of which ACU is a member) to become a perennial bowl contender with a legacy and litany of superstars who have gone on to NFL glory.
ACU, on the other hand – still Abilene Christian College at the time – opted to leave the NCAA and the Southland Conference in 1973 for the Lone Star Conference of the NAIA, an alliance of small schools of similar size and athletics budget. (When the Wildcats won the national championship in their first NAIA season, the decision certainly seemed to make sense.) ACU returned to the NCAA in 1982, along with the rest of its league as a member of Division II and remained there through the end of the 2012-13 season.
Though ACU has already competed against – and beaten – teams from college football’s highest level (the Football Bowl Subdivision or FBS) since its transition to Division I, Thursday night’s game in California in many ways kicks off a new era for the program. Fresno State may well be the best football team ACU has ever played; not necessarily right now, but historically.
ACU played Florida State University three times in the 1950s, but that was before FSU became the juggernaut that won three national titles behind Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks. Perhaps the best opponent ACU has ever faced at the time was the University of Arkansas in 1948 in what was the first game played at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark.
If Fresno State isn’t the most decorated team ACU has ever played, it’s on a very short list.
Consider that since 1982, the Bulldogs have been to 21 bowl games, including 14 in the last 16 years. Under former head coach Pat Hill, they routinely wrecked ranked teams’ seasons; in 2001 alone, Fresno State opened the season with successive wins over the University of Colorado, Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin. That team was led by quarterback David Carr, who would later be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft and win a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants as the backup to Eli Manning.
Carr’s younger brother, Derek, was even better in Fresno, throwing for more than 12,000 yards and 113 touchdowns. He is now the starting signal caller for the Oakland Raiders. Before the Carr brothers, Trent Dilfer led Fresno State to conference titles three straight years and was the starting quarterback for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens team that won a Super Bowl.
And the non-conference competition only gets stiffer from here. Next season, the Wildcats open at Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The 2017 campaign begins with games against the University of New Mexico and Colorado State University. In 2018, the Wildcats visit nascent national championship contender Baylor University in the jaw-dropping jewel on the Brazos River, McLane Stadium. And a game is in the works for 2020 that, were it to happen, would no doubt cause a bit of a, shall we say, hullabaloo?
The ACU volleyball team plays in a tournament at Texas A&M University this weekend and has already taken on the University of Arizona. The Wildcat soccer team has played Arizona, too, this season and has matches coming up in the next 10 days against both A&M and The University of Texas at Austin. In fact, every ACU head coach has met this transition to Division I head-on, scheduling some of the toughest, most celebrated teams in all of college athletics.
Our dear Christian college will likely never live at the level of these NCAA Goliaths. And given what we’ve seen befall some of them lately, I’m not sure we even want to be. But it sure is fun to share these big stages with them from time to time. And if we’ve come this far, why not go ahead and steal the show?