This fall marks Cru football’s twentieth season, and the program’s wild ride from being a startup team in 1998 to becoming NCAA Division III National Champions in 2016 has been achieved through the leadership of just one head coach: Pete Fredenburg. With vision and tenacity, Fredenburg has been instrumental in changing the public image of Mary Hardin-Baylor from a small regional college to a nationally known football powerhouse. Athletic directors across the country speak with admiration about the Cru football program, citing its emphasis on integrity and academic success, as well as its winning ways.
Now that a big, purple check mark has been entered next to the goal of taking the national title, Cru Football begins a new era where every other D-III team in the nation will be gunning for UMHB as the Crusaders work to extend their winning tradition. To get an idea of what this new era will mean for the team, UMHB Life asked Coach Fredenburg to share what the journey to the top has been like and what the game plan will be from this point forward.
Growing up in Central Texas, you played football for Clifton High School and then went on to play defensive back at Southwest Texas State University. What led you to pursue a career in coaching?
Clifton had a great program, and my desire to coach really began there. Our head coach, Aubrey Roberts, was a big influence in my life. I can remember seeing the impact he made on his players, and I said, “You know, I really want to do that.”
So when I went to Southwest Texas, I went to get a degree in coaching and teaching. Southwest Texas was prolific in putting out teachers and coaches and great role models. I met Karen there, and we married my senior year; she had already finished her degree and was working as a graduate assistant. After graduation, we went to work at New Braunfels, and I had a tremendous experience there with great friends who are still great friends to this day.
How did you end up coming to UMHB?
After coaching in high schools for a few years, I met Corky Nelson, and he was instrumental in bringing me to Baylor University. Corky and Coach Teaff hired me to be a part-time defensive coach; it was full-time work but part-time pay. That year was 1980, and that was the year that we won the Southwest Conference, played Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, and both of the defensive ends I coached were All-Conference players. I said, “Gee, this is kind of fun!”
I spent 13 years at Baylor and went from part-time coach to full time, and from full-time coach to defensive coordinator. I ultimately was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. I left Baylor in 1993 and went to LSU. I was at LSU for the 1994-95 season. Unfortunately, the head coach was let go at the end of the season, which meant all the other coaches had to find new jobs, too.
Baylor called and wanted Karen to come back there and teach, so we started looking into moving back into Texas. UMHB was looking for a head coach to start their football program, so I came down to Belton and walked around campus with Ben Shipp, and I got excited about the opportunity. The only knowledge I had of Division III was that my oldest son, Denver, went to Austin College, and I knew he enjoyed playing Division III football there. So I thought I’d come to Mary Hardin-Baylor and start this program for a couple of years; that was 20 years ago!
You came to a school with no history of football, a school which had been a women’s college for more than 100 years before going coed in the early 1970s. What were your expectations for the program going in?
You know, there were many times in Division I that we had to tell youngsters that we weren’t going to be able to offer them a football scholarship for one reason or another. They would have a passion and desire to play, but we sometimes put parameters on guys—they had to be a certain height, they had to be a certain weight. So I had an enormous desire to meet a need for youngsters who wanted to continue to play football.
Coming to UMHB, I was really impressed with the people here. I knew there were a lot of doubters, but the school is in a great location, and I felt like we would have the opportunity to recruit from a lot of different areas. I felt like my role was to get into every head coach’s office within a 75-mile radius of the school, and tell our story. It was amazing. I think the goal was to have about a hundred guys for our first year; we had 217 show up.
The first person I hired was Karen Goff. She had been with me at Baylor, and she knows all the ins and outs of recruiting and the things that are important. She and I shared thoughts about what was important and had the same vision of what we could accomplish here.
Has the program’s growth been gradual over these twenty years, or was there a turning point somewhere along the way, when you knew things were really going to take off?
In 1999 we lost to Texas Lutheran University, and it was a devastating loss. What made it devastating was seven really good players came in after that game and quit. It broke my heart, and I thought, “I don’t know if we can ever get over the hump.”
But we came together as a staff: George Haffner, Corky Nelson, Joe George, and Marvin Agnew. These coaches had incredible wisdom. We came out of that meeting and said, “We are going to find core guys who share our vision, who care about each other and the team.”
And to this day, those guys who played in 1999 and 2000 have a strong bond. That group went on to formulate the football alumni association; they’re still very active, and they just love to get together.
In my opinion, that was the turning point philosophically for how we wanted to develop a football program. It was based on caring about each other and the trust that has to be between players and players, coaches and players, and coaches and coaches. And it just took off. I think a bunch of the guys we recruited in 1999 and 2000 just decided they wanted to make it special, and they did.
What do you look for when you are hiring your coaches, and what kind of role do you expect them to play with the players?
This program has been blessed with amazing coaches. Athletes come to Mary Hardin-Baylor to be really good football players and to pursue their college education. We believe they should develop mentally, physically, and spiritually. If players are to meet all of these goals, the men who deal with them have to have engrained in their own psyche the responsibility of helping these young men be the best they can be. You know, you can ask almost anything of an individual and, if he trusts you, he will comply. If he doesn’t trust you, he won’t. So it is important to develop relationships based on trust. The guys that I ask to join our staff are not just football coaches; they’re also really good men.
What do you expect the young men in your program to learn while they are at UMHB?
The thing that is most important is that each one of us learns to be a servant leader. Being a servant leader means you take away your own ego and do what’s best for the program, best for your team, and best for the university. When a guy is a servant leader, he will really and truly take responsibility for helping the team to be better and helping individuals be better. We work very hard to make sure that guys develop that kind of leadership, and that makes our program kind of special.
You have had a number of really strong teams throughout the years, including the 2004 team that went to the Stagg Bowl and knocked on the door of that national championship for the first time. What do you think made your 2016 team different, that enabled them to win it all last year?
In 2015 we lost to Linfield College in the quarterfinals. I was disappointed because I felt like we did some things that were uncharacteristic of what we stress in the program—trust, caring about each other, being a good role model and a good servant leader. I think that we imploded. Consequently, we addressed those issues with great effort. We got the members of the team’s Unity Council much more involved, not just in giving their thoughts but actually taking responsibility for building trust in the team. As a result, in 2016 we had really good players who genuinely cared for each other and for their team, and they capitalized on the opportunities to be successful.
What did it feel like to win that national championship?
I wasn’t prepared for the sheer exhilaration! I’ve analyzed why I was so happy. It was years and years and years of doing what we do: we try to win the state championship or the national championship. To finally achieve that was just incredible. And to be able to share it with people whom you genuinely love, that made it even more special.
Some folks speculated that you might decide to retire from coaching once your team had won the national trophy. Why did you decide to return for another run at the championship this year?
The bottom line is that even though there have been frustrations along the way, watching players grow and develop and having a meaningful relationship with those guys is why I do this. That hasn’t changed. Winning the national championship is a huge accomplishment; we’re very excited. But the reality is that coaching football has been a lot of fun for me and my family. I love doing what I’m doing.
What are the major challenges that you foresee for the coming season?
They are the same challenges that you always foresee: filling the shoes of guys who were so meaningful and beneficial to our program. It’s not just athletic abilities; it’s more about the roles that people have to play. Teidrich was the leader of our defensive line. Who’s going to be that guy now? Blake was the leader of our offense; who is going to take that responsibility? Those are things that are fun to watch and develop, but those are also the big challenges at hand. We know there’s a big target on our back, and we know we’re going to get our opponents’ best efforts. That’s what is fun about being a good program.
Did being the reigning champions make a difference when you were recruiting for this year?
On the first recruiting weekend last spring, we had 27 guys here with their families. Each one of those 27 guys had some scholarship offers from other schools. We went out on the balconies of Bawcom Student Union at about 8:30 in the evening, when it got dark. On the big scoreboard, we played the video that showed our team traveling to the stadium in Salem, seeing the crowds there, embracing our fans, and then playing the game and winning it. It made me want to cry, and I’m sure that everyone who experienced it did as well. Out of those 27 guys, 20 of them decided to come to UMHB. It was a moving experience, and they wanted to be a part of it.
This fall we had 225 athletes report for workouts–the most we’ve ever had. It’s exciting, but it brings with it a responsibility. We have to do a good job of making sure we give all of them opportunities to reach their goals, to be the best football players that they can be, to learn and grow in the Christian environment we offer them at UMHB. This is our vision.
I recently heard a quote by Morten Andersen at his acceptance into the NFL Hall of Fame: “When the reward is sublime, the risks are higher, and you must embrace the uncomfortable to reach the rarified air of excellence.” That says it all!