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Dixie State football program struggles to find place

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| Courtesy Tight end Joe Don Duncan of Dixie State University is one of the top players at his position in the country and is an NFL draft prospect. (Courtesy Dixie State University).

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 09 2013 10:04AM
Updated Sep 12, 2013 06:43PM

St. George • After years of being one of the nation’s dominant junior college football powers, Dixie State University’s move to a four-year school and into the NCAA’s Division II has proved to be a tough transition.

The Red Storm have compiled an overall football record of 18-59 since joining Division II in 2006 as they have struggled to overcome a number of difficult growing pains.

This isn’t to say Dixie State hasn’t had success in some sports. Its basketball team has competed in four straight NCAA tournaments, making it to the Sweet 16 once and ranking among the top three Division II schools in the country in attendance. Softball, baseball and golf have been strong.

"That one sport, the most visible, has not been as successful as we are used to," admits Jason Boothe, the young and dynamic Dixie athletic director who came here four years ago after serving as an assistant AD at Navy and working for the Colorado Rockies baseball team.

There are good reasons, though, for the football struggles and both Boothe and fourth-year football coach Scott Brumfield, a Dixie College and BYU graduate who played offensive line for the Cincinnati Bengals, are optimistic the program can be turned around.

Boothe doesn’t like to make excuses. But Dixie’s football program does have legitimate reasons for its growing pains.

First, since about 60 percent of the Red Storm’s players come from Utah, the team must compete with the state’s five NCAA Division I programs as well as junior college power Snow College, which can recruit some athletes who might not qualify academically to play NCAA football. Such junior college stars helped keep Dixie State a powerful JC school before it went to four-year status.

When the Red Storm went into Division II, the school had just five academic majors as a new university. That made transferring credits difficult if not impossible for players coming from four-year schools or junior colleges. The school now offers 23 main majors and around 60 major possibilities as part of integrated studies.

Alumni organizations such as BYU’s Cougar Club or Utah’s Crimson Club often play a big role in football success. Since Dixie has only been a four-year college a short time, it has fewer alumni and, of those, many are young and just getting established in careers, making fundraising difficult. Many of the junior college alumni went on to graduate from four-year schools and identify more with them.

"Funding Division II is so much different," said Boothe. "We have to do a lot with a little."

Then there is the problem of being a remote football school in a wildly spread-out conference. While all of Dixie’s other teams play in the PacWest Conference, that league does not include football. So the football team plays in the Pacific Northwest-oriented Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which does not have an automatic qualifier in the NCAA Division II football playoffs and has not qualified a team for the past four years.

The spread-out league means some brutal bus rides for football players, including a 27-hour one-way trip to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. The football team’s closest league game is Azuza Pacific in California, six hours away. Unlike the junior college years, when Dixie and Snow were natural rivals, there isn’t that one big game to get fans stirred up.

Boothe would like to play Southern Utah University, located less than an hour up the road in Cedar City, and Dixie has done so. But SUU is now in the Big Sky Conference, which limits the number of nonconference Division II football games it can play, and has trouble fitting Dixie State on its schedule.

Though Salt Lake City’s Westminster College does not play football, having the Griffins join NCAA Division II eventually could help other sports.

Despite these problems, Boothe and Brumfield are optimistic they can get the football program turned around. Though an opening-week 40-14 loss at Idaho State on Saturday had to be discouraging, the pair think they are getting close.

Brumfield said he thinks Dixie’s facilities, which include 5,000-seat Hansen Stadium, rank among the best in Division II. He has added three full-time assistant coaches, which has helped recruiting, and the school is close to being able to use the maximum of 36 equivalent football scholarships. He said some local recruits view Division II as a step down from the bigger schools, a perception that is beginning to change.

"They are finding it is OK to come to Dixie, make an impact, play right away, and be successful right away," said Brumfield, who has expanded his recruiting to Las Vegas and Southern California.

One big argument for that is Dixie’s star player, 6-foot-3, 270-pound California native Joe Don Duncan, who was a preseason Division II All-American tight end and is being scouted heavily by the National Football League.

"We’re expecting big things," said Duncan, who catches passes from former University of Utah recruit Griff Robles, the Red Storm’s senior quarterback. Duncan’s brother Jake plays linebacker for the Red Storm. "It’s not just me saying this. There is a team-wide feel. We have much better discipline. We’ve all been in the program for a year and we have a new defensive coach. Hopefully we can surprise some people."

Duncan attended a high school with 400 kids in Corona, Calif., and knew little about Dixie’s background when he first came to St. George. The human communications major said he has been surprised at the level of talent in Division II.

"We are at a tipping point for our football team," he said. "We have the personnel and the coaches to put together a winning season and help our football team grow. I will always be a Dixie State Red Stormer."

Brumfield is hoping that players such as Duncan help start a new tradition at Dixie State.

"It’s easy to go somewhere with the tradition set," he said. "You are a small part of a big piece that is already there. Here, you can be the start of something good."

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