Two years ago, the University of West Florida football team was playing intrasquad scrimmages in minor league baseball stadiums in its inaugural season. A year ago, the team went 5-6 in its first full season.
But this year, the team has won four road games in a row in the NCAA Division II playoffs, Including wins over the no. 7, no. 2 and no.1 teams on their way to a Super Region two title. All of this in only their second ever season in existence.
For most teams, you see a long period of growth before they get anywhere close to what the Argonauts did. For reference, they set the NCAA record for fastest team to go from start-up to the playoffs.
“I caught myself walking on the field just thinking back to all those steps, all those moments in the process of starting football and thinking how far we’ve come this quickly,” UWF athletic director Dave Scott said to the Pensacola News Journal.
Now, UWF heads to its first-ever D2 national championship, despite not having a player in the top 10 for passing or rushing yards and a defense that ranks 31st in the whole division for points given up per game. Yet, they’ve managed to beat teams that on paper seem much better, including three one-possession games against higher seeded competition.
The quick start is nothing new to UWF athletics, former Athletic director Bill Healy had started a soccer team on his own with flyers and 30 players, according to the Pensacola News Journal. They have now won nine national titles.”
But, to have it happen in football is a seemingly impossible undertaking. Head coach Pete Shinnick has managed to win with a conglomeration of his own recruits and transfers from other universities. That includes seven former Group of Five players and two former Power Five players.
There’s plenty of stories on this team too. Look at quarterback Mike Beaudry, the program’s first ever recruit.
The Canadian-born, dual-citizenship holder came to Florida when he was 11 and missed two seasons after injuring his fibula in Spring 2016.He threw for 153 yards and two touchdowns in last Saturday’s win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Look at brothers Ben and Samuel Antoine, who were born two years apart and play tight end and offensive line respectively, Look at tight end Austin Blake Smith, who was part of UTSA’s first ever bowl run last year before he came to UWF.
The toughest part about bringing those players on is the fact that you’re selling them on the concept of something, a dream of sorts. Shinnick didn’t have a fancy practice facility or a winning tradition to sell the team on. He barely had a “team” for them to play for in the early periods of recruitment.
The Argonauts aren’t the first teams to experience growth in the state. At the division I level, both Florida Atlantic and Florida International experienced a quick rise to the FBS level from the FCS in the early 2000s and have experienced intermittent success since then.
FAU even made it to the FCS semifinal in its second season and later became the fast team to make it to bowl eligibility in NCAA history (seven years total, three in the FBS.) While in different divisions, UWF still outpaced the Owls by a year.
All those factors make the run seem more and more improbable. A championship would make this outlive any player’s memory and put UWF in the books as one of the best underdogs to ever play in the NCAA.
All of this comes just four short years after Shinnick was announced as head coach.
“It is an honor to be here today,” Shinnick said during his first press conference in 2014. “The more I learned about the vision for football here at the University of West Florida, how it would be incorporated into the other sports, the success of the other teams, the number of conference and national championships we have won, it continued to get me excited about the opportunity.”
Shinnick and his team may not have clearly envisioned where they are at now. But with a season that will live in D2 history, the Argonauts sit with a chance to keep that so-called vision of success alive for years to come.