Troy -- not Troy State -- on road to name recognition after two early upsets
Posted: Wednesday September 15, 2004 12:05PM; Updated: Wednesday September 15, 2004 2:46PM
Junior Louissant's touchdown romp helped seal Troy's 24-14 upset of then-No. 19 Missouri on Sept. 9.
Not long after he arrived in tiny Troy, Ala., in 1999, tailback DeWhitt Betterson became accustomed to the special reception his team often received when visiting opponents' stadiums.
At Kansas State, for instance, fans sneered, "Man, we've never even heard of you," as the Trojans ran out of the locker room and onto the field. And at Marshall, Betterson says, people spit on Troy players as they entered the stadium, pelted their helmets with concession trash, and hollered, "Who are you and where are you from?"
Now they know. In its first two games as a Division I-A conference member, little Troy University -- formerly Troy State -- has toppled two nationally recognized programs to become the season's biggest surprise thus far. On Sept. 4, the Trojans went to Huntington, W.Va., to face their friendly foes at Marshall, which was looking for vengeance after being upset by Troy last year. They wound up beating the Thundering Herd 17-15, thus taking responsibility for Marshall's first season-opening loss in 27 years.
Five days later, No. 19 Missouri paid a visit to Troy, becoming the first BCS-conference team to take the field at Movie Gallery Stadium. For their trouble, the Trojans handed the Tigers a 24-14 loss and delivered a colossal blow to the Heisman campaign of Missouri quarterback Brad Smith.
After his team's loss, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel tried his best to address the Trojans' most stunning score, a fumble return for a touchdown by 276-pound offensive guard Junior Louissant, who caught the ball in midair and, against all laws of physics, outran the pack of linebackers and defensive backs who gave chase for 63 yards. "Freaky," he called it.
Just don't call them fluky. Troy has been building toward this season since 1991, when onetime Auburn quarterback Larry Blakeney took over the program and started setting goals that many thought the Trojans had no business having. Troy was the big fish in Division II at the time, but Blakeney looked at the team's raw talent and knew there was a lot more of it in surrounding southeastern Alabama. He then conceived of a plan to make Troy a legitimate competitor among the state's big programs.
His first item of business was to focus aggressive recruiting efforts in three main states, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, where he targeted junior college and high school players who flew below the Southeastern Conference schools' radar. Betterson is a prime example: A native of Starke, Fla., which is 30 minutes from Gainesville, Betterson rushed for 1,902 yards as a high school senior. But because his prep team struggled, he didn't garner much attention.
"The thing I liked about Troy is that it seemed like a school that was based on sports," Betterson said. "Like a lot of guys around here, I felt like it was a place where I could make my mark."
Blakeney's other main tactic was to start scheduling games in the manner of a kamikaze pilot. The Trojans hit up the best teams in the country for competition, and offered to go anywhere, anytime for the chance to play an elite team -- especially if it meant the possibility of appearing on television. Last year, for instance, the team traveled a total of 7,211 miles to away games.
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"Those games were going to give us visibility and some extra money, for starters," Blakeney said. "From the get-go, we knew that in order to gain credibility and respectability and have the chance to shock the world, we were going to have to play with the big boys."
The university understood. It makes no apologies about being a sports-centric school in a college football-crazed region, and supported Troy's needs as it ascended to I-AA in 1993, then to I-A as an independent in 2001 and finally into the Sun Belt this season. The school's stadium, for which many of those road-game paychecks came in handy, is being refurbished to include such big-boy bells and whistles as a players' lounge and additional luxury boxes.
"We don't have quite as much money, quite as big of a weight room, quite as great athletes," said Betterson, who had 1,161 rushing yards in 2003 and has run for 119 yards and a touchdown so far this year. "But we're getting there."
It's fitting that the school had a new identity to go along with its new I-A conference status this year. In April, the institution changed its name from Troy State to the less provincial-sounding Troy, to better reflect what admissions department reps call its "worldwide mission." That school pride showed when a record-crowd of 26,574 turned out to see the football team, the preseason consensus No. 2 team in the Sun Belt, play Missouri, the projected Big 12 North champion. They were rewarded with the biggest win in school history.
"You should have seen the energy in the postgame locker room -- it was phenomenal," Blakeney said. "We're not too stiff or formal around here. There's just this kind of unabashed love for each other and unabashed excitement. We focus on the student-athlete in this town, and as long as we keep that as the main ingredient, we'll do just fine."
Of course, along with the celebrations come new expectations. Not from AP pollsters, mind you, who gave more top-25 votes to Missouri than to Troy last week. On Monday, the Trojans were reminding each other that a win over fellow conference member New Mexico State this weekend is far more important than shock-the-world wins over BCS teams.
"Win the Sun Belt, and that's a guaranteed ticket to a bowl game," Betterson said. "And after the way we've performed so far, anything less than a bowl is a failure."
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.