CINCINNATI — Former Shroder High School quarterback Taylor Holston was in Alabama on a college campus visit in 2016 when he noticed an unfamiliar rival school logo on a season schedule.
"I saw this lion and I'm like, 'What is this lion?'" Holston said with a smile.
Holston didn't know it at the time, but irony would have it that a few years later he would join the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions, an NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program.
His arrival in Pine Bluff was cemented by the connection to now-head coach Doc Gamble, a former Withrow High School and Fairfield High School head coach.
Holston is one of five players from Greater Cincinnati in the program with additional players entering soon. Gamble, a 1990 Withrow High School graduate, is still very connected to Southwest Ohio through recruiting and those in his program.
"He's just so into detail about everything that goes on," Holston said.
"Just how he motivates us to face our next opponent and tells us what they've done to us in the past. Just having our mindset ready going into the games. It's been a real joy. We actually enjoy his company and how he's running the team and everything."
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has enjoyed a great deal of success during Gamble's first season as head coach and third year overall in the program.
The Golden Lions (4-0) play Alabama A&M (4-0) in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game May 1 in Jackson, Mississippi. The game is scheduled to be televised by ESPN2.
The Golden Lions captured the SWAC West division title on April 17, the program's first division title since 2012.
"We had the pieces to the puzzle here," Gamble said. "We just had to put them all together."
Gamble, a former University of Cincinnati assistant coach, saw the potential for the Lions a few years ago when he arrived at the program in spring 2018 after being the wide receivers coach for five seasons at Kent State.
Gamble was named the Lions' interim head coach in February 2020 after being the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.
"We've got an unwavering attitude with our kids, and it's showing," Gamble said. "It's showing up and they come to work every day no matter who is really leading them, so it's just a matter of who has the loudest voice. For me, I don't think they thought I could talk because I just coached quarterbacks. I played my role. I was assistant head coach."
Gamble has thrived in his first season as head coach. He was nominated this week as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as FCS National Coach of the Year. Gamble is one of 16 finalists for the award, which will be announced on May 4.
"It means a lot for our program," Gamble said. "I always say it's little me, big we. Me being nominated means we are doing things the right way within our organization. The university has given us great support. The athletic administration has given us great support. So it's recognition for all of us not just me. It's recognition for our players and the tremendous job they're doing and the tremendous job from our coaching staff."
Gamble has made it a point to continue to recruit the Greater Cincinnati area and often has Cincinnati high school head coaches call him with a prospective student-athlete.
"Of course it starts here locally here in the state of Arkansas, but I always try to make it a point to grab one or two of the best ones from the hometown and get them on down there and then just provide opportunities for guys to go to school," Gamble said.
"You may not know where Arkansas is, but I'm a Cincinnati guy. I'm from Ohio. If I made my way down here, you can come on down and join us as well. Come down and check us out. That's what I always say to those guys. At the end of the day, you're getting an opportunity to play Division I football."
Holston said he's learned plenty from his time on campus. He said the team has bought into the team-first mentality that Gamble has instilled.
"I just like our brotherhood," Holston said. "We just play collectively as a team and we hold each other accountable. We just knew from what we've been through in the past and what we continue to conqeuor through adversity - we just knew we had something special."