Anderson University athletics: the recent past, the current state, and the future promise of Trojan sports
It’s funny, but if you want to know where Anderson University athletics is headed, just ask the new kid on the block.
Albert Mitchell, the Trojan men’s lacrosse coach, is uniquely qualified to cast the vision of where it’s headed. Having been on the job for a little over a year, starting a program from scratch—a program, mind you, that has little relevance in the football-first culture of the south—Mitchell is certainly qualified to share the dream. That’s really all he had when pitching the first men’s lacrosse recruits.
He couldn’t show off a glass case full of trophies. He couldn’t read off a list of Trojan All-Americans. He didn’t have YouTube clips of viral moments in AU lacrosse, let alone a SportsCenter Top 10 video to share. “We didn’t even have a field. We had a gravel lot. Our weight room was a classroom,” he says. Instead, “we really sold the idea of what we are trying to build.”
And the foundation is really quite simple, Mitchell says.
“We’re an athletic program that cares about our students more than anything else. We told our recruits, ‘You’re going to come to a (university) that is prepared to help you not only as a student-athlete, but as a son, as a student, as a person.’ We have a lot of enthusiasm for that kind of player development.”
The Trojan Tradition
“We’ve always had a great foundation of athletics here at Anderson University,” says Anderson University Vice President for Athletics Dr. Bert Epting. “We’re known for our culture of excellence, but more importantly we’re known as a University that produces student-athletes who make a difference and excel at life.”
The Historical Record Bears Witness.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Trojan women’s basketball team was nothing short of a dynasty, winning four consecutive AIAW national championships under head coaches Annie Tribble and Frankie Porter.
During that same era, Anderson was the winningest NJCAA men’s basketball team in the country. Under head coach Jim Wiles, the Trojans went 248-65 (including three undefeated seasons), won eight consecutive conference titles and played in the national postseason tournament five times, reaching the Final Four in 1978.
In 1994, led by two-way standout Rob Stanifer (who boasted a lifetime .367 batting average combined with 160 career strikeouts and an impressive 2.60 ERA on the mound), the Trojan baseball team won the National Christian College Athletic Association National Championship. As a rookie pitcher, Stanifer later helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series in 1997.
That’s just part of the legacy entrusted to Dr. Epting, who was named vice president for athletics in 2018. While humbled at the opportunity, he’s not overwhelmed by it either. As he sees it, the formula for success is part of the University’s DNA. Like Mitchell, Dr. Epting understands that Trojan Athletics begins—and ends—with the men and women who wear the black and gold.
“It starts with people. We’re not just wins and losses. We’re not just successes and failures. We’ve always done a great job of investing in people. If you take care of people, they'll take care of you. That’s what separates us,” Dr. Epting says.
Where We Are... and Where We’re Going
On a cold, brisk January afternoon in 2021, hundreds of Anderson University faculty, staff and students stood outside, sipping warm cider to ward off the winter chill. They gathered as President Evans Whitaker, Athletic Department leaders and friends of the University unveiled the latest symbol of Anderson University Athletics’ limitless potential.
Remember that gravel lot coach Mitchell saw when he first arrived? It was gone. In its place lay a state-of-the-art playing surface, adorned with the ubiquitous Trojan head logo, ringed by newly erected lights: the new home for AU’s lacrosse and soccer teams.
Even better? Construction had begun on a new fieldhouse and will be completed this fall.
The 10,000-square foot, two-story fieldhouse features four locker rooms—two each for men’s and women’s soccer and men’s and women’s lacrosse athletes—and eight offices for coaches. Two meeting rooms, a common space for student-athletes and an exterior porch facing the field are also part of the facility design.
Echoing the sentiments of Mitchell and Dr. Epting, Annie Kate Hodge, a four-year member of the Trojan women’s soccer team who graduated last May, said it would be a mistake to look at the fieldhouse as just a collection of locker rooms and offices.
“(It’s) more than just a sports facility. It is more than just a beautiful building that will help us recruit more student and players,” she said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “Life will be found here.”
That has to be music to Mitchell’s ears; it’s the vision he’s been casting ever since he arrived on campus as a first-time head lacrosse coach. It’s a vision that’s being realized.
“Seeing the growth on campus made it so much easier (to recruit the first men’s lacrosse team.) What we say we're building, we’re building. What we say we’ll do, we’ll do,” Mitchell says.
But, again, it’s more than that. It’s the development of men and women beyond the field or classroom that really sets AU apart.
"It starts with people. We’re not just wins and losses. We’re not just successes and failures. We’ve always done a great job of investing in people. If you take care of people, they'll take care of you. That’s what separates us..."
— Bert Epting
Vice President for Athletics
“Our faith separates us from other schools,” Mitchell says. “It allows us to train the whole person, not just as a student and player. In a world that’s so chaotic, it's nice to know you have a staff here, and the school administration, who are all really working on making you a better person.”
Dr. Epting agrees. “Faith is the driving force here at Anderson University. That’s where we start and where we end. We love our student-athletes.”
In other words, winning—that most easily quantifiable measure of success—isn’t the most important thing. Oh, don’t get Dr. Epting wrong. He was a college athlete himself. He wants to win. Badly. It’s just that he has a broader definition of what that means.
“A culture of success starts with relationships. It’s a campus- wide thing,” he says. “The name on the front of our jerseys is more important than the one on the back of our jerseys. Student-athletes represent all of us.
“So when we win—on the court, on the course, on the field, in the classroom, in life—that means our entire campus wins.”
Are You Ready for Some Football?
Men’s Lacrosse last spring completed a successful inaugural season, winning four of its first five games. Women’s Lacrosse will play its first season in 2023, becoming the University's 20th athletic team. Renovations continue apace on AU’s athletic campus.
Then there’s the fall of 2024, when the decades-long dream of an Anderson University Trojan football program becomes a reality. AU is on track to raise the funds necessary to meet a challenge gift from University friend Dr. Melvin Younts, who is providing $3 million in support of the initiative.
It’s the next step in continuing AU’s evolution into a Division II athletics powerhouse.
“We’ve been strategic about our growth. And we’ve been blessed to have a campus community that partners so well with athletics,” Dr. Epting says. “Our donors and friends see the hopes we have and the goals we’re realizing. It’s fun to be in those discussions and to give people the opportunity to invest in us. It's just exciting to see the momentum.”
Dr. Epting has been on the job for just about three years now. Even an eternal optimist like him would have been hard-pressed to believe the enormous growth his department has enjoyed over that timespan. “If you asked me three years ago if we’d have accomplished this much, I’d have said, ‘no.’ But it’s so exciting to be a part of it.”
Which begs the question: What does the next three years hold for the Anderson University Trojans? Because of what he’s witnessed thus far, Dr. Epting is dreaming big.
He checks them off, one-by-one: More student-athletes than ever before. More influence in the community. A positive influence in collegiate athletics, and higher education
in general. Having a premier Division II athletic program. Competing for national championships. More facilities.
But the most important piece?
“We’ll continue being a faith-based program in such a way that no one will question what our values are,” Dr. Epting says.
And that’s what makes all the difference.