Jonathan Nelson and Collier Ricks took opposite paths to Texas Wesleyan University.
Nelson, who grew up in Fort Worth, loves the cattle steeped in the city’s history. Ricks, who is from a small Louisiana town near New Orleans, never imagined he would end up in Fort Worth.
But a common goal brought the two men together: playing football for the Rams.
For football coach Joe Prud’homme, building a good football program is like cooking a good gumbo — it takes time and the right ingredients. And if you rush it, you burn it.
Now, he’s tasked with creating a football program as good as the gumbo his Cajun wife makes as his team prepares for the 2022 season. The university hired Prud’homme when it brought the football team back in 2016, and is set to start construction on a $16.5 million 5,500-6,00 seat stadium in May.
Prud’homme has assembled a team with young men like Nelson and Ricks, and they’re eager for a field on campus and giving up their nomad ways.
Wesleyan Board Chairman Glenn Lewis said the university wanted to bring football back because, “this is Texas” and football is great for student affairs and community engagement.
“When I went to this university, it was a community university. Very few students lived on this campus so there wasn’t much of a student life on this campus at all,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to change that … and we think intercollegiate athletics is a very big part of that.”
Wesleyan disbanded its football team in 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The men on the team joined the military to fight, and the university did not restart the program after the war.
The college started exploring adding football in 2014, which prompted an extensive study. Texas Wesleyan started this conversation because, during the previous few years, other members of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics announced they were adding the sport, university President Fred Slabach said.
It is fairly common for an NAIA school to use a local school district’s stadium, and the organization does not require a stadium or practice field on campus, Slabach said. Once Slabach noted other small, private universities were partnering with local schools, that’s what they decided to do as well, he said.
Although the football program plays without its own stadium or field, a new stadium will enhance other sports, too, Slabach said. The stadium will be used for men’s and women’s soccer, track and field and possibly women’s flag football, if that sport is added.
The team practices on fields around Fort Worth and plays its games at Farrington Field through a partnership with Fort Worth ISD. Without a locker room, the players carry around their equipment in canvas athletic bags.
Prud’homme works with what he has, though. When he started, the current weight room was essentially a cafeteria for students. He had it remodeled into a weight room and kept the kitchen space and turned it into a laundry room, storage and a makeshift cafeteria.
He keeps the kitchen stocked with supplies people donate or he buys from Sam’s. There are ingredients for sandwiches, snacks and protein shakes. The office space was originally just an open loft area above the now weight room; he had it closed in and converted to offices for the football staff.
No space in the building is unused. Everything has a purpose for the team. And the students are working to prove the program deserves the stadium coming its way. The team started spring practice for the 2022 season on March 23 at Scarborough-Handley Field.
The field and stadium will come in phases, Slabach said. The first is the practice field and lighting; the second is the track; and third is the bleachers, press box, fieldhouse and concessions. The fundraising is on track to pay for the practice field and track at the same time, which are set to be completed at the end of September. The groundbreaking is scheduled for May 3.
If you go
What: Groundbreaking for the Texas Wesleyan University football field and stadium
When: 4 p.m. May 3
Where: The corner of Binkley Street and Avenue. E
More information: Read the press release here
The university chose to break up the fundraising campaign so it was not dependent on reaching the goal before starting to build, Slabach said. The campus already has raised 50% of the funds, or $8.3 million.
Lewis is confident Texas Wesleyan would raise the remainder of the funds, he said. But even if it doesn’t happen, at the very least, the teams will have a field to practice on. That’s another reason the university wanted to split the project into phases, Slabach said.
“What we’re doing now, quite frankly, it can’t continue,” Prud’homme said. “The field and the stadium have to happen. I mean, we roll a truck with equipment at it from field-to-field and practice wherever we can before with Fort Worth ISD’s permission. It’s not feasible.”
A program eight decades in the making
The school’s football program started in 1934-35 and quickly made a name for itself, winning a conference co-championship in the 1940-41 season. Then World War II changed the program’s trajectory.
In February 2016, the university announced the program would return with a team of 75 student athletes.
The funds needed to restart the program came from the regular operating budget and philanthropy. In the first year, there were minimal expenses, just hiring a coach and starting recruiting, Slabach said. Then in the second year, students started coming to campus and the tuition revenue, philanthropy and ticket sales covered costs.
Prud’homme, who coached at Nolan Catholic High School, was hired that spring. To recruit players, he sat on a stool in the lofted area above what would become the weight room and called over 600 people who had submitted their names for the team.
The prospects represented almost all demographics. Athletes ranged from high school seniors to Jason Spangler, who was 50 when the season started.
In 2016-17, the team practiced and scrimmaged and then, in 2017-18, started conference play. The campus had fun with the return of football. At a Downtown Rotary Club meeting in March, Slabach said he remembers the most popular shirt on campus that first year was one that read, “Texas Wesleyan football, undefeated since 1941.”
Then, the season started.
“We were bad,” Prud’homme said. “I mean, I thought I could go with a lot of young guys and bring them up to the ranks. And it was tough, man. Imagine ninth-grade football teams playing varsity. That’s what it looked like.”
There’s a big difference between an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old, and Prud’homme was playing with a smaller, younger, less experienced roster, he said. The team won only one game that year – a forfeit.
As the team started improving, attendance at games averaged about 1,000 per game. The Rams finished the 2021 season with a 7-3 overall record and 7-2 Sooner Athletic Conference record, their best season since the program’s rebirth.
Financing the team
The finances of an NAIA football team are very different from large NCAA universities that most fans know about from TV, Slabach said. For example, the university can provide a maximum of 24 full football scholarships. With a team of over 100 students and only some on the equivalent of 24 full scholarships — some partial and some full rides — the university earns additional tuition revenue from all the other student-athletes.
According to its website, a full-time residential student at Texas Wesleyan pays about $36,000 in tuition annually. Adding in additional fees brings that up to almost $49,000 per school year.
According to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an NAIA athletic department generates about $3.9 million annually.
Wesleyan Athletic Director Ricky Dotson said through university spokeswoman Shannon Lamberson the revenue from just the football program exceeded the program’s costs by about $2.5 million in 2020-21.
Additionally, he said, more than 100 students each year chose to attend Texas Wesleyan to play football and pursue their degrees. The tuition revenue generated from the increased enrollment justifies the cost of the program, he added.
Dotson said the university is currently in the first year of a five-year fundraising campaign. That campaign is a $40 million effort for endowed scholarships and faculty positions, science labs, music facilities and athletic facilities. Currently, half the funds for the stadium are raised.
In late November, Wesleyan trustee Karen Cramer donated $5 million for the stadium, which will be named in her honor, making it one of the few in the country to be named after a woman.
For Cramer, the value of gifts is not measured by dollars and cents, but by impact, she said.
“They must be measured by their impact on the lives of the students, faculty, staff and people of the community,” Cramer said in a written statement. “As honorary chair of the comprehensive campaign, I am committed to its success and believe that reaching the overall campaign goal will translate into a measurable benefit for the Texas Wesleyan community.”
Slabach said the private university could not provide an exact budget, but the revenue far exceeds it because the costs are significantly less than what people are used to when it comes to college football. The NAIA is a completely different operation, and the coaching salaries are lower, he said.
The program also is not about preparing the student athletes to play professional football, Slabach said. It’s about developing athletes on and off the field and engaging students, alumni and the community.
How Title IX applies
As part of the university’s approach to comply with Title IX — the landmark legislation that says entities receiving federal funds cannot discriminate based on gender or sex — the university added several scholarships sports since 2012, even before the football team returned, Dotson said.
- 2012: Women’s golf
- 2015: Women’s tennis
- 2017: Men’s tennis
- 2019: Men’s and women’s wrestling
The university also plans to hire a coach to start women’s beach volleyball this year. When the new stadium is completed, the track and field program will be expanded for both men and women.
Texas Wesleyan will conduct a feasibility study to develop the scholarship sport women’s flag football. If it moves forward, competition would begin in about 2023-24. The department also is exploring women’s lacrosse.
Title IX in athletics is not just about providing the same sports for men and women; rather, it looks at opportunities and scholarships.
Athletics programs are considered educational programs and activities. According to the NCAA, three basic parts of Title IX apply to athletics:
1. Participation: Title IX requires that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports. Title IX does not require institutions to offer identical sports but an equal opportunity to play;
2. Scholarships: Title IX requires that female and male student-athletes receive athletics scholarship dollars proportional to their participation; and
3. Other benefits: Title IX requires the equal treatment of female and male student-athletes in the provisions of: (a) equipment and supplies; (b) scheduling of games and practice times; (c) travel and daily allowance/per diem; (d) access to tutoring; (e) coaching, (f) locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities; (g) medical and training facilities and services; (h) housing and dining facilities and services; (i) publicity and promotions; (j) support services and (k) recruitment of student-athletes.
Building character, community
While the program started to improve, Prud’homme added another ingredient to the program, building great young men. Playing football is the easy part, he said, but building the character of his players is more important.
He does this by taking the team to volunteer places like the Boys and Girls Club, having conversations about respecting women and fatherhood and giving them chances to help others.
Ricks, a 21-year-old senior who plays wide receiver, said he especially appreciates the mentor program that connects the players with people in the community to help them. That mentorship and the team mentality bleeds into their everyday lives.
“We take pride in that in everything that we do,” Ricks said. “From the little things, from the way we have team bonding, the way we walk around campus opening doors for people. We’ve got to have shoes on, we can’t wear slides around campus. We’ve got to make sure we separate ourselves from everybody else on campus as a student athlete at Texas Wesleyan because we represent a higher purpose than ourselves.”
If not for Coach Prud’homme recruiting him, he probably would not have ended up in Fort Worth. But football is football, and the love of the game and the program brought him to Texas Wesleyan.
During the recruitment process, Ricks knew he wanted to be part of something bigger and growing a legacy. Both Ricks and his teammate Nelson called the program a blessing.
Nelson, 21, is the offensive team captain and plays left tackle. Prud’homme visited his practice at Lake County Christian School in Fort Worth to recruit one of his teammates. After practice, Nelson visited with him and the coach said he believed he could be a building block for the team.
Nelson felt the same way. He said he thought if he worked hard and stuck out the early days of the program, he could be part of something special.
“I love being a part of that, and I love being a part of this program, changing the school in great ways,” he said.
Some athletes might see a small school as a deterrent for where they play, but it was a selling point for Nelson, who went to a smaller private school. He wanted the small classes and professors who knew his name.
“The people, they make it better,” he said. “We don’t have the crazy indoor fields that everyone else has. We don’t have 1,000 trainers out there. I still have to pay for my cleats, but at the end of the day it’s almost like an expense for the experience.”
And those people are helping him become a better person outside of football. In the fall, Nelson was diagnosed with an atrial flutter — a condition that causes an abnormal heart rhythm. When he told his coach, he expected the talk to focus on when he could get back on the field and how it would affect his training.
Instead, Prud’homme stopped and asked, “Jonathan, how are you?”
Prud’homme turned the dialogue to asking about his grades, his relationship with his fiancee and how he was personally handling the diagnosis.
“He cared more about me personally than he could ever care about me on the field,” Nelson said. “And, honestly, the best way to describe that is they just love us. They want to see us grow into great men.”
When Nelson looks at the stadium being built, he knows he will graduate before he gets a chance to play on it. But he also knows he’s part of laying an important foundation.
“Knowing that everything that we’re doing, the hard work, the Saturdays, the six days a week that we’re doing in the middle of spring right now — it’s all toward something,” he said. “It’s all toward a common goal and that common goal is us winning football games and us leaving a mark on Fort Worth.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.