At college football's lowest rung, games are matter of faith and creative financing

Anthony Givins is also president at online-only University of Faith.
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Earlier this fall, someone posted a question on reddit.com: Are there two fake schools operating on the periphery of college football? One was called the College of Faith, in Charlotte, N.C., and the other was called the University of Faith, here in St. Petersburg.

The websites looked hastily made. The teams were losing lopsided games. How could just-opened, online-only institutions be participating in intercollegiate athletics?

Sometimes it's hard to discern what's real when tethered to a computer.

Not quite a month later, though, on an evening in Lakeland, in front of a few thousand ticket buyers at Southeastern University's Victory Field, the host team called the Fire received the opening kickoff from its opponents from the University of Faith.

Up in the press box, rosters listed the names of 56 Faith players, and corresponding positions, heights, weights and hometowns, all but four in Florida, most of them around Tampa Bay. There were no class years.

Down on the new AstroTurf field, the Faith players wore gray uniforms with green helmets that said UFaith on the back and jerseys with "GLORY EAGLES" on the front.

The score quickly was 14-0, Faith losing, and then 24-6, and then 38-9, and it got worse from there. At some point the slender kicker looked up into the stands at his family and made his right hand into the shape of a pistol and pointed it at his temple and pantomimed pulling the trigger.

"Nobody listening to the coaches!" shrieked one of the assistants. "Everybody doing they own thing!"

The head coach, meanwhile, stood still on the sideline, arms crossed, lips pursed. He had on a white Faith polo shirt and a black Faith visor. On the right side of the visor, in silver script, it said "GIVINS."

• • •

One afternoon the following week, back in St. Petersburg, Anthony Givins leaned on the back of his pickup truck parked at the public Lakewood Soccer Complex next to a sign that said "DEAD END." He wore dark sunglasses.

"This is our little hideout," he said.

As his assistants coordinated his team's practice on a field outfitted with soccer goals, not football uprights, he discussed the University of Faith.

He's not just the school's football coach — he's also its president.

A little over a year ago, Givins said, he was on the phone with a self-identified street preacher from Memphis, and "he said, 'Coach, get to a fax machine! The University of Faith has arrived!' And I said, 'Wow, I got my own college!'

"I wasn't no A student. I made C's and D's. But you're standing next to a man who has a university!"

He wanted to be called the University of Faith because he's a fan of the football team at the University of Miami. "The U," he said, making the shape of a U with his hands.

And he wanted to be the Glory Eagles because he's a fan of the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles. "We can't just be no Eagles," he said. "We gonna be the Glory Eagles."

Classes? "All our classes is just like all the other colleges," he said. "Only thing different, they logging in on the computer.

"It's an email thing."

Anthony Givins, 46, is best known in St. Petersburg as the little brother of Ernest Givins, who played wide receiver in the NFL for 10 years, mostly for the Houston Oilers, and is one of the finest athletes ever to come from the city. The younger Givins wanted to be a professional athlete, too, but he was a reserve running back at a junior college in Oklahoma before graduating with a bachelor's in physical education from Midland Lutheran College in Nebraska. Then he wanted to be a head coach for a high school football team so he eventually could become a head coach in college. As an assistant coach at Gibbs High School, he applied to be the head coach at Pinellas Park in 2006, at Gibbs in 2007, at Lakewood in 2008, and at Gibbs again in 2009 and 2011. "No respect," he said.

He is a longtime local gym teacher and an occasional driver's ed instructor who is an incorrigible speeder. He has filed for bankruptcy. Last fall, while working at Gibbs, he rented a car for Homecoming weekend for two students — he says it was for one of their parents — but the students got pulled over and arrested for having marijuana and no driver's licenses. School officials said Givins gave them "multiple versions" of the incident and suspended him for three days without pay. Now he teaches gym and driver's ed at a school in Pinellas Park that specializes in students with behavioral challenges. But in the afternoons and evenings, and on Saturdays, he is the head football coach for the University of Faith Glory Eagles. And his NFL older brother is one of his assistants.

Givins took off his shades.

"I haven't been happy in my life," he said. "And I'm extremely happy. Happier than I've ever been."

• • •

"To be honest, anyone could start a college," Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said on the phone from Tallahassee.

The University of Faith is a branch campus of the College of Faith, which is based in West Memphis, Ark. There's also the branch in Charlotte.

The College of Faith's course catalogue, available at collegeoffaith.org, is short and describes classes with titles like Preaching 101, Praying with Power and Church Planting in the 21st Century. It mentions nothing about professors. Academic advisers are available by email or phone. College of Faith charges $3,000 in yearly tuition and also accepts donations via PayPal. It is not accredited by the U.S. Department of Education.

The University of Faith has classes like College Exploration and Speed & Agility. In a class called The Christian Life, according to universityoffaithfl.org, "you will come face to face with your decisions, why you made them, and if you are confident that these decisions are most beneficial to you and your life's success."

State records say the University of Faith is a not-for-profit corporation, the purpose of which is to provide "a very unique online experience" for "less fortunate students" who can "fulfill athletic dreams." Its only physical address: Givins' house.

The paperwork filed with the state Department of Education consists of an application for a letter of exemption for a religious institution. If the institution has in its name a religious modifier, teaches religious subject matter and nothing more, and grants religious degrees and nothing else, then that institution is allowed to operate without state oversight. The University of Faith offers associate's and bachelor's degrees in ministry and sports ministry.

It submitted one application for a letter of exemption signed by Givins. It submitted another signed by Sherwyn Thomas. The street preacher from Memphis.

• • •

Thomas — his Twitter bio: "A Man Changed by the Power of God's Mighty Love!" — founded the College of Faith in the Memphis area in May 2012. He also coached the school's football team that fall — its only season. A new team started with the College of Faith in Charlotte last fall. The coach of that team recruited in Florida, including St. Petersburg, and Givins heard about this new option and was intrigued. It wasn't long before Thomas got a call.

"I'm trying to spread the word any way I can," Thomas said on the phone, "so when he called, it was just a matter of finding out what type of person he is."

Thomas talked to Givins on the phone. He also prayed.

"And I knew about his brother," Thomas said. "I used to watch him all the time."

Thomas gave Givins the green light for the University of Faith, took care of most of the brief paperwork and sent him that fax.

He told him two things.

"Tell the truth. And don't do nothing stupid."

• • •

Givins signed his first contract to play a game — with Warner University in Lakes Wales in Polk County — before he had a team. The contract outlined a financial penalty for a no-show. Givins responded by jump-starting his recruiting efforts. This was less than a year ago.

"ATTENTION," he wrote on Jan. 15 on a University of Faith Facebook page. "ALL FOOTBALL PLAYERS IN THE TAMPA BAY AREA THE UNIVERSITY OF FAITH GLORY EAGLES ARE INTERESTED IN YOU!!!!!!!!!"

"Do you have what it takes to be a Glory Eagle?" he wrote on Jan. 23.

"Come prove those big schools wrong," he wrote on Feb. 5.

He held tryouts Feb. 22 at Campbell Park.

"We are going to make history!" he wrote on Feb. 27.

He also used email and made phone calls.

"I just started calling people, like Nick Saban do," Givins said, referring to the University of Alabama's head football coach, who makes $6.9 million a year. "I told them, 'Google me.'

"It helps," he said, "if you got a brother who played in the NFL" — especially if he's the offensive coordinator.

But that took some convincing. When his brother told him about the University of Faith, Ernest Givins said, he was skeptical. He considers himself a disciplined perfectionist. His brother is different. But a call to the Charlotte team's coach eased some doubt. "He said, 'Your brother is doing a great job,' and I said, 'Really? Really?' "

This past summer, the Givins who was now a head coach sent the Givins with the NFL past to a sporting goods store in Sarasota. Ball & Shoe ended up giving the University of Faith uniforms and practice equipment, enough for 75 players, for what the business typically charges area high schools, said salesman Dave Ruth — a little more than $35,000.

And in late August, the Glory Eagles headed to Jacksonville to play Edward Waters College, the first of nine games Givins managed to schedule for this fall. Givins and the other coaches weren't being paid salaries. "We don't have a payroll," Thomas said.

The players were a ragtag group. None of them paid any tuition. Some were just out of high school, some were pushing 30, some were enrolled at community colleges as well. More than a few possessed records of addiction and violence, incivility and disobedience. For some, this was a second chance; for most, it was the only chance.

Givins said he had helped three of them get GEDs so they could go to college. Thomas in Memphis, not Givins in St. Petersburg, was overseeing the classes, which players described as not that difficult. Said wide receiver John Banks, 25, sporting some flecks of gray in his goatee: "Read the lesson, go through the work and that's pretty much it." Or not even that. "You got a lot of them who do their work, and you got a lot of them who don't," Thomas said, "just like any other college."

But they all were part of a team, together on a bus, riding up Interstate 4.

Ernest Givins looked at Anthony Givins.

"We fixin' to coach college football," the big brother said.

"That just hit you?" the little brother said.

• • •

Faith lost 65-10 at Edward Waters.

Lost 32-7 at Mississippi Valley State. The schedule at universityoffaithfl.org says the game was on ESPN. It was not.

Lost 30-20 at Warner and 55-15 at Southeastern.

Lost 47-10 at Kentucky Wesleyan. Faith's website says that game, too, was on ESPN. It was not.

Lost 56-14 at Mississippi College. It was Mississippi College's first win of the year. The schedule on the site says the game was on ESPN2. It was not.

The schedule shows Faith has three more games this fall — Saturday in Charlotte against their College of Faith counterparts; Nov. 15 in Polk County at Webber International University; and Nov. 28 against the College of Faith, again, but in St. Petersburg. The schedule says that game will be played at Al Lang Stadium. That's not happening, according to officials with the company that runs Al Lang, though they're willing to help find an alternate location.

The athletics directors at Warner, Southeastern and Mississippi College said their schools paid the University of Faith to come play and almost certainly lose — "a guarantee," in the parlance of college sports — but the sums, they said, were as low as they go. They paid barely more than enough to cover Faith's bus and hotel rooms. "They didn't call us and say, 'Hey, we need 50 grand,' " Southeastern's Drew Watson said. "The amount of money they were asking for was much less than we've paid before. It wasn't even close."

People say there's a ton of money in college football. No. There's a ton of money at the tip-top of college football. The vast rest hustles for what might or might not trickle down. This fall, Texas A&M, of the peerless Southeastern Conference, paid Lamar University, of the lesser Southland Conference, no small amount of money to come lose 73-3; Lamar paid Mississippi College much less to come lose 55-10; and Mississippi College paid the University of Faith even less to come lose 56-14. "That's just how it works," said Mike Jones of Mississippi College. Four degrees of separation, stair-steps of "guarantees," the backbone of college football — connecting the moneyed SEC to the University of Faith, which is not affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics or any other recognized sports governing body; which practices on a city soccer field; which still owes $33,000 at Sarasota's Ball & Shoe.

One recent evening at a practice, as players crashed together in tackling drills led by his assistants — "We ­smashed 'em! Whoooooooo!" one of them yelled — Anthony Givins stood by his truck parked by the sign that said "DEAD END."

"How can I get passed up for all those high school head coach jobs and then get a college job? How can you explain it?" he said. "I feel God has gave me my blessing."

He acknowledged finances were "tight," saying he's been using some of his own money, that sometimes he doesn't know how they'll make the next trip. He grinned. "That's why we the University of Faith."

Banks of bright lights flicked on at an adjacent field — but not at this field, where the sun started to set. The coaches ordered sprints. In the descending dark, the Faith players ran and ran.

News researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds and photojournalist Monica Herndon contributed to this report. Contact Michael Kruse at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow @michaelkruse.

       
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