Upon hiring Pat Nugent to coach the football team at Pima College, the school’s former athletic director was reasonable and realistic.
“He told me he expected us to be successful but not to worry about beating Snow College,’’ Nugent says now, chuckling at the memory.
It was like the football coach at Vanderbilt being assured that beating Alabama wasn’t part of the job description. Nugent’s immediate predecessors lost to Snow College 71-0, 58-21 and 61-0.
Pima doesn’t even have a football field. It pays a $3,000 rental fee to stage home games at Kino Stadium. Its practice facility is a plot of grass about 70 yards long, if that.
Beat Snow College? C’mon, man.
The Badgers play on artificial turf at Robert L. Stoddard Stadium, which has held 4,500 for a big game. Last December, after the Badgers won the Carrier Bowl in Syracuse, N.Y., finishing 11-1 and No. 3 in the nation, the proud citizens of Ephraim, Utah, held a parade down Main Street.
Beat the Badgers? Really? Pima had gone 9-74 dating to 2005, including 1-10 last season.
So when the Aztecs quickly fell behind Snow College 14-0 on Saturday night, it looked like another snowball.
“One of the crazy things is, the kids really seem to believe what I tell them,”Nugent says. “Snow has put a lot of hurt on people over the years, but I told them they could play with anybody; I reminded them that last year we were only behind Snow by four points at half.”
He didn’t remind them that Snow pulled away and won 45-14.
But by the fourth quarter on Saturday, behind the passing of Tyler D’Amore, the running of Seth Ellis and the blocking of Austin Andrade, C. J. Healey and Louis Aldridge, the Aztecs had, as unlikely as it might’ve seemed, tied the Badgers at 14.
“I was jumping up and down on the sidelines, yelling, keeping the faith,” says Pima athletic director Edgar Soto. “It had been so tough watching a coach do all the right things, working so hard, and not getting rewarded.”
Saturday night was Reward Night for Nugent and the Aztecs.
They beat Snow College 21-14, a landmark victory for sure, the most laudable achievement by a Pima football team since the good, old days, 2004, when Jeff Scurran coached the Aztecs to a nationally-televised bowl game and won it.
Since then, after Scurran left, football at Pima has been h-e-double toothpicks.
Snow College opened the year No. 2 in the NJCAA Top 25, a juggernaut of a program that had gone 73-12 from 2006-12, dominating the Western States Football League with authority.
Ever-humble, Nugent does not claim to be a Giant Killer or anything like that. He’s been around the WSFL long enough to know this isn’t a vintage Snow College team. “They’ve slipped a little bit,” he says, “but it’s still Snow College, and they’ve got big kids, good kids, and they expect to win.”
Those who pay attention to Pima College athletics know that Nugent has been up against it and then some.
The WSFL is uncommonly difficult; Arizona Western, Scottsdale College, Mesa College, Glendale College and even little old Eastern Arizona, a remote school near the Arizona-New Mexico border, recruit and play on the national stage.
Pima’s roster has 35 players from Southern Arizona. Its reach is limited, and yet Nugent, who left a state championship contender at Canyon del Oro High School in an attempt to reconstruct the WSFL’s worst program, has stuck it out.
He didn’t have to; almost any Tucson prep football team would’ve hired him immediately had he made himself available.
The faith in Nugent is easily seen; four of his assistant coaches, Shawn Wasson, Mark Teixiera, Pat Ryden and Jim Paul have been with him on the entire journey, four years and counting.
You don’t get that kind of support unless people believe in you.
“In size and appearance, our guys finally look more similar to opponents,” says Nugent. “I’m not saying we’ll win the league championship or get to a bowl game. It’s not going to get any easier, but we’re making progress.”
During the football crisis at Pima, when the school won a single game against WSFL teams in five years, Soto was confronted with a realistic question: Should PCC discontinue football?
Who could possibly change the direction of a team with few competitive resources, dated facilities and no dormitory to house out-of-area players?
“Honestly, when I became the athletic director, I wasn’t sure,” says Soto. “We needed a full-time coach and a commitment to make this a better experience for everyone involved.”
At the conclusion of last season, Soto was in the locker room when all-WSFL defensive back Darius Kelly, a Sierra Vista product who now plays at Syracuse, stood and shared his feelings about being an Aztec.
“These have been the two best years of my life,” Kelly said, emotionally, tears in his eyes. “I’m glad I was able to be part of football at Pima College.”
“That told me we were doing things the right way,” Soto says. “I thought we were getting close.”
On Saturday night the gap finally closed.