CINCINNATI — It was June 1, 2015, a crystal-clear day at Eagle Stadium. It was a perfect day for Cincinnati Christian University, a small former Bible college on the city’s west side, to sell a vision of a football program.
Even in mock-up photos of CCU’s proposed football stadium, no one bothered to put fans in the stands or players on the field.
It was a sign of things to come.
David Fulcher, the former Cincinnati Bengals all-pro safety, was announced as the head coach. Pro Football Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz was there to support his former teammate.
A purple matte helmet with a white face mask sat on the edge of table.
CCU was selling its vision of a football program. It was all a mirage.
DAVID FULCHER (from an interview on Aug. 21, 2016): There’s, I won’t say a new sheriff in town, but a new university in town with football. So, all the other schools around appreciate what they’ve done, but it’s our turn to get in the spotlight and see it shine.
TREVOR ZEIDERS, CCU defensive coordinator 2016-17; head coach 2018-19: We looked the part. The uniforms looked good. That’s the one thing. They looked good. One of the few times where that saying “you look good, you play good” didn’t matter there.
MATT STIER, linebackers coach, 2015-19: I’ve never been a part of starting a program from the ground up. I know you can write a book on what happened with us is not the way it needs to go. We wrote the manual on what not to do.
CRAIG WILLS, wide receiver, 2018-19: From the jump, you could tell it wasn’t what they said it was going to be, but it was a trap. You’re already there. Make the best of it.
KENDALL ROBERTS, assistant wide receivers coach, 2017-18, wide receivers coach, 2019: The facilities they tried to sell, even a year or two after that picture, they had the purple turf facility. How the stadium was going to look. You can tell your recruits this is coming. We’re gonna have this purple turf by 2019. And never came close to being a thing.
The turf they had was bad and in some places nonexistent. The practice field wasn’t a full 100 yards. And the yards it did have were dangerous, according to the players who practiced on it.
JORDAN MEEKINS, defensive lineman, 2016-19: My first year, I broke my foot on the practice field. I have a screw in my foot right now. My foot got stuck in a hole and it popped and it was over.
ZEIDERS: I found glass, I found bricks, I found old screws.
TYLER SHOBE, CCU linebacker, 2016-19: Honestly, convincingly, the worst facilities in college athletics in America. Every high school stadium I’ve ever been to has had better athletic facilities. It was top soil on top of a landfill that they put cement on so the field retained no water. It was always dried out.
ZEIDERS: We could have found better fields down Glenway somewhere. Just going down the street to the park would have been better than where we were actually practicing.
WILLS: It was a lot of potholes. I sprained my ankle my freshman year going up for a ball and landed in a pothole.
ROBERTS: We had to go out there and paint the field before practice. We had to lose time preparing because we were out there finding old stakes in the ground. That type of stuff will stick with me forever.
GREG FOREST, associate head coach/offensive coordinator, 2019: I hate losing and I was going to do whatever I could to help our kids have the opportunity to win. If that meant I had to cut the grass, line the grass, go out and water the grass, whatever it was, I was gonna do it. I knew if you didn’t have those lines on the field, it’s hard to get guys lined up.
SHOBE: It was a Band-Aid on cancer, constantly.
The poor field quality had the Eagles scrambling for better fields regularly. At times they practiced at Spinney Field or at Western Hills High School.
There were struggles also off the field. The new recruits, especially the Black students, had trouble adjusting to life on campus. The campus had trouble adjusting as well.
MEEKINS: You could tell, when I went on a visit, they had never really had Black people on campus. It was a shock to them. It was weird. They didn’t really welcome us, so we just stayed to ourselves.
ROBERTS: It didn’t blend well at all. They (the administration) mistreated a lot of kids.
SCOTTIE GORSLENE, long snapper/offensive lineman 2016-19: The demographic that a lot of our football team was they did not like. When you first go there, it’s predominately white. At least 70% of our team was African American.
COLTON “THAD” CHAPMAN, offensive/defensive lineman, 2018-19: They didn’t care about the football team. They counted us as thugs. That was a term that was always brought up. I’m a country boy. It diminished some people -- we’re just here to play football.
ZEIDERS: They’d never seen anyone that big before. They were used to all these kids who went to church camp. They wanted (the players) to be these perfect little Christian boys that followed all the school rules from jump. Sorry, we’re a little rough around the edges.
MEEKINS: Wasn’t much for us to do that first year at camp, so we’re just playing and running around. You didn’t want to wear a shirt around the dorms because it’s like being in your own house. Walked around with no shirts on and got fined $50.
GORSLENE: They brought in 150 kids (for the first season in 2016). The school only had room for 100. We had kids tripling up in rooms the size of a small public bathroom.
Why bring football players to a campus that wasn’t equipped or welcoming to the new faces? Always follow the money, say the former Eagles.
SHOBE: They knew enrollment from their ministry programs wasn’t fulfilling the numbers it needed to so they brought in sports programs.
ROBERTS: They knew they were in a dire situation and what’s the quickest way to make money? Introduce football. They didn’t have a choice. It was either football or they were going to fold sooner than they did. Football kept the school alive for four or five more years.
ZEIDERS: Everything was monetary driven. I’ll tell anyone, it was a ploy to get butts in beds so they had the enrollment they wanted to keep the doors open.
There always seemed to be an issue with the buses … when they were lucky to have buses.
ROBERTS: When I first got there in 2017, we had two buses to go to home games. 2018 season, it’s one bus. First we’ll take the offense and then the defense. 2019 season it dropped down to no bus and just shuttling vans.
STIER: It seemed like every time we got on a bus, it was like, what’s gonna happen now?
SHOBE: We got a flat tire and crammed both offense and defense onto one bus. We had three in two seats and people sat all the way down the aisles. I had someone on my lap for two and a half hours.
GORSLENE: One time our buses got red-flagged. They weren’t sanctioned to go across state lines.
STIER: Our very first game on the road against Reinhardt, we left the field and got on the bus. Our doors wouldn’t stay closed. We had to stop at a Dollar General and get a bungie cord and we bungie-corded the doors shut all the way back from Atlanta.
ZEIDERS: Think we were headed to Pikeville and guys got on the bus. They’re like, “Coach, there’s some extreme stuff on the bus.” I’m thinking, OK, probably just got cleaned. We walked on and it smelled like ammonia or whatever it was. It was bad. Thought it would go away. Don’t think we got across the bridge, and guys’ eyes started watering, noses started running. Turns out, worker at Queen City had dumped chlorine into the toilet to try and clean it. It created a chlorine gas cloud. The gas started permeating the bus. The bus driver couldn’t even stand it. We pulled off in Northern Kentucky and we had to get off. Coach Stier was in the military and had gas training. He tried to water it down; he couldn’t do it. Eventually they dumped it, I think, in a storm drain in Northern Kentucky. We got beat bad that day. On the way back, we blew a tire.
The Eagles lost a lot of games, 33 to start. They went winless in their first three seasons. A lot of the scores weren’t close: CCU was shut out in five games in 2016 and lost by margins of 84 and 73 points that season.
ROBERTS: Think of the worst possible situation you could deal with and that was CCU.
GORSLENE: We broke the record for punts in a single season. I had 95 long snaps in a single season. 95! You can’t do anything but laugh. We played 11 games. We were punting at least nine times per game.
STIER: We didn’t bring the kids in in the spring and have spring ball and try to play JV ball. We jumped right into it. Kids showed up on campus in August. Four weeks later we played an 11-game varsity schedule in the Mid-South, one of the better NAIA conferences in the country. We shouldn’t have even been on the field most of the time.
By the time the 2019 season began, the coaches and players knew better days were ahead, at least on the field. The coaches had to shuttle back and forth from campus to UC’s Sheakley Field on passenger vans. Their first game was against Warner. Against all odds, the Eagles won the first game in program history, 20-17, on Aug. 31, 2019.
STIER: I was in the press box and I think I missed half the steps on the way down. Wasn’t something we experienced before.
FORREST: I played in two national championships and was at UC when they beat Pittsburgh (in 2009 to go to the Sugar Bowl). The sense of accomplishment and what we had to go through was huge. It’s amazing with all the adversity they went through.
GORSLENE: I lost my love of football my freshman year. Tried to quit, but my dad talked me out of it. Forever grateful he did … I don’t think the administration expected us to win at all.
CHAPMAN: No one believed we could do it. My little brother jokes, “You’re a hall of fame player at CCU. You’re in the books for winning the first game at CCU.” I’m a hall of famer in his eyes. That’s pretty cool.
WILLS: (I won three state titles at La Salle.) I don’t want to call the win better, but the feeling I felt after that first win -- it was almost equivalent to winning a state championship. All that hard work you put in, all the hours, the effort. It pays off. Honestly, it was similar.
It wasn’t CCU’s last win. On Oct. 19, 2019, the team won again, this time 24-16 over Union. No one knew it at the time, but it would be their final game. In an email to CCU students on Oct. 28, 2019, the university announced it would suspend accredited courses after the fall semester.
The team decided it wouldn’t play the final two games on its schedule. The program’s final record: 2-39.
ZEIDERS: I’m surprised the whole campus didn’t get burned down that night the way the kids were reacting.
SHOBE: Going out on a winning note as a program, that hit the right note. It felt right.
ROBERTS: All the adversity, all the things we went through, you just sit back and think: We did it anyway.
ZEIDERS: They’ll forever remember their last football game was a win. Can’t take that away from them. That’s the best part. Those guys are close, and they’ll forever remember it.
The Eagles coaches and players coined a phrase while at CCU – “AAO.” It means “Adjust, adapt, overcome.”
GORSLENE: I’ll never step foot on that campus again. Ever.
CHAPMAN: Nothing came back with me besides clothing and my helmet. That hurt. Football kept me going. I was depressed. Have to start over. Nothing transferred over; none of my credits came with me. But I need to finish college. It’s going to be tough. I’m going to be 20 and $40,000 in debt. … But I want to be a teacher and coach. I want to be a light for somebody.
SHOBE: Things could have went better near the end of CCU and during my time there. Could have been handled in a more professional way. But I’d say I’m pretty proud of what I was able to accomplish during my time there. I developed a lot as a person, but I can’t say I’d ever want to go through any of that again.
MEEKINS: Miss it every day, not gonna lie to you. If you go through hardships, it makes you better as a man.
JOEY GROEBER, offensive lineman, 2018-19: Wish I could still be there hanging with them. Miss a lot of the guys there. Man, we had some of the best people on the planet. Guys I’ll be friends with the rest of my life. We were all in it together.
ROBERTS: Wouldn’t trade it for anything because of the people I met, and the start I got to my coaching career at a young age was unbelievable. AAO will always stick with me.
ZEIDERS: No hard feelings. They gave me my first opportunity. I thought it was a dumpster fire and it came to fruition that it was. But developed such great relationships with the guys. My frustration is we didn’t get to see it through. Unfinished business.