November 25, 2015—30 minute read
How an Arkansas street preachers' Bible school fielded the worst college football team in America.
This article was co-published with the New York Post.
On a warm August afternoon in 2014, about 20 minutes from Charlotte, North Carolina, the worst team in college football was taking a pounding. The College of Faith Saints didn’t stand a chance against the Davidson College Wildcats, who were cruising to a 56–0 victory in front of their home crowd when Saints nose tackle Gerald Carr crumpled to the turf.
“I was trying to go for a tackle,” recalled Carr, who at 6’7” and 330 pounds has at least the size to compete at the upper collegiate level. “And all of a sudden someone got their foot under my foot and then someone else fell on top of me.”
Carr’s ankle screamed in pain, but his team could not help as it didn’t have a trainer or anyone on hand with even remedial medical skills. There was only one option — to summon the Davidson staff. The Wildcat trainers responded, examining Carr’s injury, helping him up, sliding his foot into a sling and outfitting him with crutches. The next day Carr took himself to the emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, where doctors determined his ankle was broken and required surgery. Carr later returned to the hospital, and surgeons inserted a plate and pins to repair the damage. His family’s health insurance covered the bill. His college provided nothing.
But in the wake of the lopsided loss — to a team that had not won in 12 previous games, going back more than a year and a half — and a host of injuries during the blowout, questions percolated about the College of Faith, its players and just what kind of football program the school was running.
“This was the most embarrassing shit ever,” posted a Davidson player who was upset about what occurred that day, the team’s 2014 season opener. “We were bad last year, but us players were still pissed we scheduled these guys. We had our starters out before the end of the first quarter and barely ran our offense because we felt bad for almost putting up 50 in the first half.”
Davidson hadn’t just provided medical assistance to its outmatched opponent. It donated equipment (including practice pants and shoulder pads for the Saints players), covered their transportation costs to get to the game and served them a meal when they arrived. There was also a direct payment of thousands of dollars. The big question: What exactly was this tiny Bible college — which has no stadium, campus or professors and whose founder, Sherwyn Thomas, a once homeless street preacher, has moved his football program back and forth between Charlotte and West Memphis, Arkansas — doing playing a school like Davidson?
The Wildcats, part of the NCAA’s Division I Pioneer League, have been cellar dwellers of late, but previous teams sent five players to the NFL, including Kevin Donnalley, a standout guard who anchored the offensive line of the Carolina Panthers in 2003, the year they set a franchise record for scoring and played Tom Brady’s Patriots down to the wire in the Super Bowl. Many consider Davidson to be a small-school sports power. The college’s basketball team has appeared in 13 March Madness tournaments, making the Elite Eight three times. Among its alums is NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
By contrast, Thomas’s football teams — called, variously, the Mighty Believers, the Wildcats and the Saints and decked out in uniform colors ranging from lime green to maroon to tangerine orange — have scored just once in their 19 games against NCAA and NAIA opponents, most of them Division I or II schools, losing by a combined 1,159–6. Last year the Saints set a new standard for futility by totaling negative 124 yards rushing against Tusculum College in a 71–0 loss, an NCAA record, meaning their running backs would have fared better had they stopped trying to advance the ball and simply knelt and recited the Lord’s prayer.
This year Thomas’s squad is back in West Memphis, where it started in 2012. Christened the Warriors, they’re losing worse than ever. The team is 0–5 and has been outscored 343–0, including an 86–0 shellacking at the hands of Valparaiso University on Sept. 19. Mercifully, its Oct. 31 game against Texas Southern University was cancelled due to heavy rains and flooding in Houston. The Warriors then were trounced 61–0 by Saint Francis University — which leads the Division I Northeast Conference — on Nov. 7 in what turned out to be their final game of the season. (They had “open dates” listed on their schedule through Nov. 28.) And though they didn’t get a whiff of the end zone all year, an upbeat Thomas sees only the positive.
“I’m very excited about everything,” he told Contently.org. “These kids get stronger and better with every game.”
But a probe into College of Faith revealed disturbing questions about the legitimacy of NCAA football records, big-money “guarantee” payments from stronger teams to weaker ones and a lack of oversight of schools that claim to provide religious instruction.
College of Faith’s story centers on the ambitions of Thomas, 43, a self-taught minister and part-time truck driver who played linebacker on the practice team at Mississippi Valley State — Jerry Rice’s alma mater — before casting himself as head of an online school for second-rate players that provides almost no education.
Fit, trim and 6’2”, Thomas has a wide smile, an ingenuous demeanor and a passion for football. He speaks with righteous intensity, peppering conversations with biblical references and ministerial exhortations.
On a visit to his operation this summer, a reporter watched Thomas in action at a field behind an elementary school in West Memphis, which his players share with a high school team and a PeeWee squad. This Arkansas neighborhood, just over the river from Memphis, Tennessee, seemed miles from the city’s blues clubs and soul-food joints of honky-tonk Beale Street. Old tires littered the sidewalk, abandoned row houses were boarded up and a homeless drifter pushed a shopping cart full of salvaged pipes.
Thomas summoned his group of 31 to the center of the field in a half circle for a bit of inspiration as they prepared to travel 300 miles for their season-opening game against McKendree University in southern Illinois. He glared at them, then shot his finger up at the sky.
“The good Lord is on our side!” he bellowed. “We will be victorious and your names will be known.” Some of the players nodded their heads.
The game didn’t turn out quite as Thomas had hoped. The Warriors were pummeled 68–0 and lost tight end Anton Picket to a broken toe. He, like Carr, needed to be treated by the other team’s trainers, one of whom loaned Picket a pair of crutches. “We had a few injuries,” noted quarterback Quincy Williams, who didn’t attempt a pass and whose offense didn’t record a first down. “It happens sometimes. These teams may be a lot bigger than us and we got beat.”
Just keeping them on the field has been a struggle. Thomas’s budget is so tight that when the season began some players didn’t have pads, so they were forced to bring their own equipment from home or borrow from friends. Thomas said an apparel company chipped in as did a few other college teams. Such limitations haven’t prevented his program from being a force for good, Thomas claimed. “It’s all about them trying to make something positive out of their lives. To produce good athletes and good citizens.”
Thomas is skilled at selling his mission of helping disadvantaged young men, which generates donations and positive press. When NPR got wind of what he was doing last year, it sent reporter Michael Tomsic to interview him and his coach in Charlotte, Dell Richardson.
“You have to be honest, most of [the players] are coming to the school because it’s an opportunity for them to live their dream and to play college sports,” Thomas said. “But for us, the bottom line is we want you to get a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Said Richardson: “That’s why we work so hard. Because we want to equip them where they can be able to support their families, but also become good people through the word of God.”
The segment, broadcast last November, noted that the College of Faith has a religious exemption allowing it to operate without a state license, and that its entire staff, including Thomas and Richardson, is comprised of volunteers. But there was no mention of players getting hurt or an examination of the college’s finances, which according to Thomas involve payments from other teams up to $15,000 per game. Despite tuition and fees ranging from $350 to $6,000, no student has earned a degree or a single transferrable credit. Even the online courses in “sports ministry” promised by Thomas, who has no formal theological education or seminary training and who once declared personal bankruptcy, never materialized.
The founder conceded at the end of 2012 that he hadn’t actually set up any Internet classes because some students didn’t have online accessibility, and not much has changed over the last three years. Instruction is limited to homework that Thomas hands out on the field.
“I’ll give them some assignments before practice. If they don’t do it, they get an F. If they do it, they get a grade,” he said.
The one classroom space is an office of about 1,000 square feet that the college rents on the third floor of the Mid-Continent commercial building off Interstate 30 across from Memphis. The room, which last year was used sporadically for Bible and football instruction, sat empty this August, a layer of dust covering the floor and one small table. “I’ve never seen anyone go in there,” said the receptionist at Cereal Byproducts Co., which occupies the office next door.
None of the dozen players interviewed for this story cited the College of Faith’s curriculum. They said they gather occasionally for informal study groups, but no one recalled having sat for an exam. Some do attend classes — at other schools, mostly local junior colleges or vocational institutes. Carr says he took one class at Faith, a Bible study course that involved “minimal homework.” His education, he said, occurs at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, North Carolina, where credits can be purchased by the hour. He and others said they joined College of Faith for one reason only. They want to play football.
“This is a good place for players like me,” said Travis Kuykendall, a slot receiver. He said he’s grateful just to get on the field again after having been expelled from Northwest Mississippi Community College for “being young, doing young things. A lot of good players do crazy stuff when they’re coming out of high school. This is a place for players to get a second chance. They take us in.”
Pressed on what off-the-field benefits his school provides for its students, Thomas claimed to supply “field ministry” experience. Or will soon. Once a month, he said, he plans to take students into the streets of poor neighborhoods of West Memphis to preach the gospel, hand out pamphlets and serve grilled hot dogs to hundreds of needy residents for a “First Supper.” Prior to the Davidson game, players from both teams visited a local soup kitchen.
“It’s one thing to hear preaching in the church,” he said. “It’s another thing to take it to people in the street, to people who’ve given up on life.”
Richardson claimed that one student in Charlotte has the potential to get a bachelor’s degree this year and he complained about suggestions that “we’re a scam.” But one of his players, Will Boling, said the school’s academics consisted of a single assignment per week. “It’s not too much work,” Boling told Tomsic. “Me personally, since I know the Bible, I can finish it up within a day, maybe within an hour.”
Thomas blamed his students for the College of Faith’s educational shortcomings. “The main reason is that a lot of guys come to play sports, but if you don’t do your work, then you won’t get a good grade. They haven’t done enough work to get the degree.”
If nothing else, Thomas proves that almost anyone can start a college. What’s needed, it would appear, is the ability to meet basic application requirements and a talent for self-promotion.
Thomas, who grew up in Memphis, never considered a career in higher education. His two loves were football and organized religion. Home life was not good. When he was nine, his mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack, an event so shocking to him, he said, “I couldn’t cry for two years.” His father suffered from mental illness, he said, and the teen-age Thomas got into trouble. “I used to steal a lot — anything I could get my hands on,” he said. Once, desperate for money, he and a friend planned to swipe some tires but he couldn’t go through with it, a decision that changed the direction of his life. “I realized that I needed to trust God,” he said.
He enrolled at Mississippi Valley State, a historically black college with a top-rated football program, and Thomas made the team. Though he says he practiced every day during the season, the coach refused to put him into any games and he quit his junior year. “They never gave me a chance to play and it was frustrating,” he said. “But I never stopped loving football.”
After college, Thomas worked as an assistant football coach at high schools around Memphis, got married and became a father. He didn’t earn much and struggled with his college loans and other bills to the point where Thomas felt compelled to declare bankruptcy. “I told my wife what I was getting ready to do with the street preaching and we had some debts and I had to do it.”
He began to deliver sermons on corners and in local prisons. In 2005, he launched his own church, Total Change of Heart Ministries, using the name of a non-profit youth group in Ashland, Mississippi that he’d registered with the IRS in 1999. Its mission is to teach followers “God’s plan to propel them to their blessed destiny!,” according to the ministry web site. Its location? “Right where you are.” The IRS revoked the charity’s tax exemption in 2011 after Thomas failed to file 990 forms for three previous years.
In 2009 he found work at a former Christian film school in Memphis, Shepherd Technical College, helping out with its football and basketball programs. The Eagles played three seasons, according to a newspaper account of their Sept. 2011 game against Harding University, which Shepherd lost 75–0, giving up more than 500 total yards of offense while rushing for minus six. There’s no record of the team having won any games. A recruiting video, featuring out-of-focus clips and floating text with grammatical errors, spelled out the appeal of attending: “Keep the Dream,” it said. “Get Noticed…Play Ball, get recruited.”
The school folded in 2011, and Thomas was again out of a job. Frustrated over having devoted himself to an athletic department only to see it shut down, he asked himself, “Do I just want to let this go, or do I think I can do something with it? I prayed about it. And I said, `Let me research how to start your own college.’”
It turned out to be surprisingly easy.
The first step was for Thomas to write to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and request a religious exemption from licensing requirements. A copy of his 2012 application, obtained by Contently.org, states that the College of Faith is “an online, four-year, coeducational, private Christian college … balancing biblical truth with education.” The school, he stated, was committed to recruiting “quality educators.” He put down Total Change of Heart Ministries as the parent organization and its location as Shepherd Tech’s old address.
His own role would be as president and Bible professor, and Thomas listed himself as having an “MS in Education,” a false claim. Thomas, who graduated from Mississippi Valley in 1993 and cites Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville on his LinkedIn page, never obtained a graduate degree. In his filing, he identified only one other teacher for the college: Sammie L. Brookins.
His submission, however, describes a fully realized curriculum for those seeking degrees in ministry or biblical studies, with course offerings such as “Understanding the New Testament,” a three-credit class for freshmen that “examines major themes, broad divisions, key scriptures, major personalities, and the structure and context of each book.” Sophomores would be offered options such as the “Biblical History of Israel” and “Fundamentals of Biblical Exegesis.” Upperclassmen could take “Systematic Theology II,” “Old Testament — Minor Prophets” and “Principles of Church Administration.”
At the time, Thomas himself had no home. He spent nearly two years living in an abandoned office building, during which time he would sometimes also curl up and sleep in the basement of a church. “I’m still technically homeless in that I’m never home and always on the road,” he said. “I never get to see my wife and kids.” Filling out the College of Faith paperwork was straight-forward, he told Contently.org. “I did it all on my own. As long as you know how to read and write, it’s not a big deal.”
And what an opportunity for a student with no other prospects. Tuition for the year would be just $99, and applicants wouldn’t be required to have a high school diploma or submit SAT scores.
Arkansas gave Thomas the approval he asked for, allowing him to operate without oversight as long as his courses continued to be religious and not the sort of thing found in traditional higher education. And with that the College of Faith — despite having no license from Arkansas or accreditation by the U.S. Department of Education — was officially a college. The only cost to Thomas was a $250 filing fee.
“There is not much oversight as these institutions are exempt from certification due to them offering only church-related training,” said Alana Boles of the state’s Department of Higher Education. They are, however, required to notify the department of any changes in their educational offerings, she said. Thomas renewed his exemption in September 2014, and it’s good through the end of 2017.
Still, not needing a license doesn’t equate to an official endorsement, and on his application Thomas claimed he was in the process of becoming recognized by the National Accrediting Board for Bible Colleges and Seminaries (NABBCS). The agency might have the ring of authority but it proved difficult to track down.
Its last known address, 5104 N. Orange Blossom Trail, Suite 212, in Orlando, Florida, has been the home of the Hilda Tucker Insurance School for the past two years. Prior to that, the location housed the Christian Chamber of Central Florida, whose director, Lori Slough, helps religious ministries obtain tax-exempt status through her own company. She told Contently.org that she had never heard of the NABBCS. Nor were representatives at two other schools claiming to be accredited by the board — Trispirit Christian University and Damascus Bible College — able to provide any details about it.
The path Thomas took to college ownership is well traveled.
Arkansas has 32 faith-based outfits on its books, six of them with PO box numbers, including Gethsemane Bible Institute, Jubilee College and Concordia Seminary. Hundreds of others exist, mainly in southern states. Florida has 47 religious institutes for education, with names such as King Solomon University and Getting Your House in Order Ministries Inc. Leadership Academy. Some do not have active web sites or working phone numbers. There are an estimated 1,000 postsecondary Bible schools in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Association of Biblical Higher Education, a private accrediting agency and network in Orlando that claims 200 member institutions.
They operate free of state and federal scrutiny and are not alone in providing dubious value on the fringe of higher education. College of Faith began operating the same summer that Senator Tom Harkin, the longtime Iowa Democrat, released a blistering report on for-profit colleges, many of them small independent trade schools that offer job training in fields like appliance repair.
What Harkin found was that enrollment and profits have skyrocketed in this industry, but the majority of students never get a degree, all while their schools collect $3.2 billion annually in government subsidies, mostly Pell grants and student loans, and pay their presidents like princes. One chief executive, Robert S. Silberman, received $41 million in salary and stock options in 2009.
“In this report,” said the now-retired Harkin in a statement, “you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit and regulatory evasion and manipulation.”
Having established his college, Thomas’s next order of business was to put together a football team from the field of discarded players.
His first roster included single parents, ex-cons and students who had been kicked out of other colleges. He reached them with frothy recruiting pitches Thomas posted on message boards for college athletes. Some he’d coached previously at Shepherd. His own staff worked without pay since there was no money for salaries. He convinced Rickey Jemison, a former arena league assistant and star fullback at Arkansas State, to come aboard as athletic director and interim head coach. Defensive line coach Waycus Luckett lasted one year. In 2013 federal agents arrested him on charges he helped run a cocaine-trafficking ring. (Luckett was convicted of gun and drug felonies and isn’t eligible to get out of prison until 2019.)
As Thomas got busy preparing for the season, a critic emerged: reporter Jon Morse of “SB Nation,” who wrote: “I can safely say that in all my years of following college sports, I have never seen a situation as crazy as this. It’s absolutely insane. I mean, how do you even pull that off? How do you get your players to practice and games when they’re not tied to a location?”
The Mighty Believers’ first game, on Sept. 1 2012, was a disaster.
The team, 40 players strong and wearing red and white uniforms that confusingly said “CATS” on the fronts of their jerseys, had inherited Shepherd’s season-opening opponent, the University of Arkansas at Monticello. The Boll Weevils scored 11 touchdowns against College of Faith and broke the Great American Conference record for points with a 78–0 win.
“Their opponent was inferior and woefully overwhelmed,” reported a local paper, noting that the Mighty Believers were penalized twice before their first snap, then fumbled the ball. The team lost 35 yards rushing on the day, and the Boll Weevils pulled their starters at the half. Yet Jemison was full of praise for UAM. “I thank God for [them] scheduling us to let these young men come out here and see what they’ve been missing. Because otherwise, according to NCAA, they wouldn’t have a chance. I know a lot of these guys couldn’t go to college, not even junior college.”
Its second game got cancelled amid complaints from opponent MidAmerica Nazarene University of Olathe, Kansas. One supporter blasted Thomas’s school and its president.
“A student at College of Faith doesn’t need a HS diploma or GED to enroll. So, in essence, anyone can play for their football team,” posted predictionking on the Victory Sports Network forum. “On one hand, I’m angered how MNU scheduled this game. On the other hand, I’m impressed with the boldness and idiocy of this football coach.”
Thomas saw the missive and shot back: “We don’t have time to cheat and/or play ineligible players. We are focused on building a very honest and reputable reputation in the collegiate community … We will be a young team, but we will be very competitive.” He improbably claimed to have recruited two or three “legitimate NFL prospects.”
The team changed its name to the Wildcats for its next game, against Concordia College of Alabama, and managed to score its first points, a three-yard touchdown run by Xavier Jones with 9:59 left in the game. But the extra point failed and Faith lost 48–6.
As the season progressed, Thomas fielded more barbs.
One came from a student at the University of West Alabama who attended the Tigers game against College of Faith on Oct. 12, 2012 and was shocked by Thomas’s unit, which had gone back to calling themselves the Mighty Believers. They gave up 38 points in the first quarter, along with a 48-yard punt return by future Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler.
“Their jerseys were varying shades of maroon, if I remember correctly, and they looked like high school hand-me-downs,” the student posted on Reddit. “Helmets were various shades of gold. It was really the saddest thing I had ever seen… By the end of the first half the score was 59-nil and the Tigers were way, way down the depth chart. The second half was played with shortened quarters, and the commentators were joking that the Tigers coach was giving as much mercy as he could.”
While struggling to achieve respectability with his football program in 2012, Thomas formed a basketball team at College of Faith, which went winless in its first season and lost one game by 98 points, 118–20. But perhaps more important, he succeeded in portraying himself as an impoverished David taking on the Goliaths of big-time college sports.
“I do not have a bunch of savings,” he revealed to an Oklahoma TV station after loading a dozen football players into his 14-seat van, Old Bessie, and driving them 500 miles for their season finale against Southern Nazarene, which they lost 42–0.
“I have to be honest. I was not a good manager of my money. My wife always tells me, `You’re making money but you give it away.’” To get by, he said, he’s worked as a house painter, a car mechanic, a grass cutter and furniture mover. A few years ago he borrowed $200 from a cousin to get a truck-driving license and began hauling “all kinds of goods — plastics, toys, cereal, whatever you buy in the store.” He said he’s logged 100,000 miles in his rig, while his wife and four children remain in north Mississippi. “Anything to keep it going.”
A year after launching, Thomas kept going — straight out of Arkansas, thanks to Richardson, a full-time high school coach in Charlotte who reached out to Thomas with a proposal: Why not join forces with him in North Carolina?
“He called me up one night,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know who he was but he’d heard about my school and asked me how I was doing that. I asked him to come under my wing and he thought about it.” The result was College of Faith Charlotte, created by Richardson but spurred on by Thomas, who vowed to devote himself to this new football team, the Saints. “I brought him all of my football equipment. I had two players go up there. One of them [Kuykendall] is still there.”
Richardson, the head football coach, eventually took over the running of the school. He also serves as the College of Faith’s “Academic Counselor.” Thomas’s current title is “General Overseer.” The president is Daniel Bandy, who coaches the school’s basketball team in Arkansas using a gym he had built in his backyard.
The Mighty Believers were sacrificed at the end of 2012 when Thomas shut down his football program in West Memphis to concentrate on Charlotte. The hastily formed Saints quickly established themselves as a punching bag for the ages.
Their first season, 2013, included what may have been Thomas’s only win on the gridiron: a victory over North Georgia Sports Academy, which like College of Faith is an online school that appears to exist solely for the purpose of fielding a football team. But the score of that game is unknown. Neither school’s coach could remember what it was or any details about the win, which was not covered by the press or recorded by web sites. The rest of the year was epically miserable.
The Saints played four Division II schools and one from the NAIA in 2013, losing by the combined score of 282–0. Things didn’t get any better in 2014. In six games against NCAA opponents, they were crushed each time, including the record-setter against Tusculum, and failed to score a point. The final tally: 341–0. The Saints also lost against marginal teams with unaccredited programs, including NGSA, which won its rematch against College of Faith 17–8.
While all that was going, Thomas received another request to partner. Anthony Givens, the younger brother of ex-Houston Oilers receiver Ernest Givens, wanted to start a college in St. Petersburg, Florida — so he too could field his own football team, which Givens hoped to name after his NFL favorite, the Philadelphia Eagles. He’d learned of Thomas from a recruiter scouting for College of Faith in Florida.
“I’m trying to spread the word any way I can,” Thomas told the Tampa Bay Times. “So when he called, it was just a matter of finding out what type of person he is.” Alas, Givens was not particularly well-suited for college presidency. He had a criminal record and, like Thomas, filed for bankruptcy. He’d also been suspended from his job as a high school coach after two of his students got pulled over in a car he’d rented and arrested for pot possession.
None of that really mattered to Thomas.
“I knew about his brother,” he said. “I used to watch him all the time.”
So he filled out the paperwork required in Florida and faxed the filing to Givens, putting down the coach’s home as the school’s address and listing a smattering of online courses, with titles such as “College Exploration” and “Speed & Agility.” The University of Faith Glory Eagles were born. Thomas’s only advice to Givens: “Tell the truth. Don’t do nothing stupid.”
The Glory Eagles played six games in 2014, including one against Mississippi Valley State, Thomas’s Division I alma mater, and lost them all by an aggregate score of 285–76. In a lopsided defeat at Southeastern University attended by the “Times” reporter, the home team’s place kicker looked up at his family in the stands, made his hand into a pistol, pointed it at his temple and pulled the trigger.
Thomas is happy to count the University of Faith under his umbrella, but he’s never visited the team or its program, which has no campus, and only met Givens once, for dinner at a Chili’s restaurant near St. Petersburg when Thomas happened to be passing through. “I’m not involved in that school,” he told this reporter. “I don’t tell them what to do at all.”
Thomas also has distanced himself from College of Faith in Charlotte, where Richardson’s football squad has all but collapsed, having scheduled just one game this season, on Nov. 14 against the Apprentice School, a vocational academy in Virginia for shipbuilding tradesmen. It was subsequently cancelled. “He’s on his own,” Thomas said.
Said Richardson: “We have guys who have no business playing college athletics. They’re just not ready for it yet.” He stressed that his operation was different from the one in Arkansas. “We have our own vision of where we are going.”
With Charlotte in his rear-view mirror, Thomas returned to West Memphis for the 2015 campaign, ready to rekindle his team there for an “inaugural season” as the Warriors. He also faced a growing backlash.
Other than the power and the glory, there’s a very good reason to start a college: the money. Income can be derived from student tuition and fees, grants, gifts and donations. And if you’re blessed with a hapless football team willing to travel hundreds of miles and take on all comers, you stand to cash in.
It’s unclear exactly how much Thomas has made, but he knows the value of playing the patsy. Opponents have written him checks from $500 to $15,000 per game, he told this reporter, as they seek to fatten their records and impress their boosters by blasting the College of Faith. Not all aspire to bowl bids or conference titles, but running up the score in front of homecoming fans is good for business.
The details of such closed-door deals, which occur at virtually every level of college football and are called guarantee games, are not required to be disclosed for private or for-profit schools. Even so, they have become better known.
Last year, the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes wiped out Kent State 66–0, but not before handing $850,000 to the Golden Flashes, who got humiliated before a packed crowd in Columbus. Northern Iowa received nearly $1 million in 2012 for playing road games against nationally ranked contenders Iowa and Wisconsin, according to a story in “Forbes” magazine, which chronicled a host of other six-figure payoffs: Tennessee State University pocketing $390,000 for a game at Air Force in 2011; Savannah State University taking $860,000 for losses at Oklahoma and Florida State, which won by a combined 139–0. Oklahoma has been particularly generous over the years, forking over seven-figure sums numerous times, including on Sept. 5, when it paid Akron an even $1 million and romped, 41–3.
One of the bigger windfalls occurred in Thomas’s neck of the woods. Arkansas State University went home with nearly $2 million for a pair of early season defeats against Oregon and Nebraska in 2012, though the Red Wolves fared respectably in both games and finished that season 10–3.
Whether they get paid or not, small Bible colleges are not infrequently on the receiving end of pitiable thrashings. One of the most notorious routes in college football history occurred in 2003, when Trinity Bible College of Ellendale, North Dakota, trekked 750 miles to Illinois to play Rockford College, a well-funded private Division III institution now called Rockford University. Rockford’s Regents slaughtered Trinity’s Lions 105–0. If any money changed hands, no one said. A similar fate awaited East Texas Baptist University, which played Texas A&M-Commerce on the same day last year that College of Faith lost to Tusculum College, and got beat just as badly, losing 98–20.
Thomas claims that revenue from guarantee games barely covers expenses. Tusculum paid $7,500 for its record-breaking annihilation, but Thomas says he spent nearly $5,000 on a bus for the team’s 500-mile trip to Greeneville, Tennessee. He wouldn’t say which team gave him $15,000 or reveal the total amount he’s taken from other colleges. “Most of our games are guarantee games because we can’t afford to play them otherwise,” he said.
The money he gets from students is no less murky.
Thomas hasn’t collected tuition this year — after charging as much as $3,000 in the past — but he did ask his players to come up with $500 to help pay for their equipment. When several said they couldn’t afford that much, he lowered his request to $350. Before the Warriors practice session in August attended by this reporter, Thomas mistakenly sent him a text message intended for a student. In it, the coach implored his player to bring “a decent amount of money” to the field that day.
Tuition at the College of Faith in Charlotte is officially $6,000 a year, but Richardson says many students pay less. “We work out payments with our students and allow them to do work study or [other] programs to work it off,” he told Contently.org. He would not provide exact figures. Last year he told NPR that there were 60 students enrolled and most paid about $500.
Basketball produces revenue as well. In 2014, the West Memphis hoops squad scooped up as much as $2,500 per game to play road games, according to Bandy.
Donations and gifts are also part of the equation. Thomas did not disclose which schools, non-profits or private contributors have given to the cause, but his LinkedIn profile says he’s a member of a grant-writing group of 16,000 members headed by a former executive vice president at General Electric who graduated from Harvard Business School.
In any case, he’s under no obligation to open his books.
The NCAA does not get involved in financial deal-making between competing football teams and has allowed guarantee money games. Since College of Faith is not a registered charity, it is not required to submit annual tax-exemption forms the IRS requires of non-profit groups. And it’s unclear if the College of Faith has filed returns as an ordinary business entity. A Contently.org search turned up no corporate registration documents on file with the state of Arkansas. Thomas, if he sees any profits, would have to declare that money as income, but he says he serves at the school without compensation. What he might put in his pocket is anybody’s guess.
The negative attention, which started with shouts and murmurs, gathered force in September 2014 following a lengthy Reddit post by Honestly, a college football follower who had heard about Thomas’s operation from a friend and took a close look.
His entry — titled “Are there two fake schools operating on the periphery of CFB? Learn about College of Faith & University of Faith” — laid out information he’d uncovered along with links to stories, box scores, web sites and video. Among his discoveries was that the two schools appeared to be the only members of the previously unknown American Small College Athletic Association. “[They] seem to operate in a very sketchy situation,” he wrote.
Over the next year, hundreds of additional posts ensued, many from people who were outraged or worried about what was going on with Thomas’s players. Said one: “I just hope nobody gets killed.” The Davidson player upset over his team having scheduled the Saints added this observation from that day: “One of their linebackers was actually kinda good and during the game he kept telling us to `tell your coach to recruit me, I got the grades.’”
“SB Nation” published a feature in February about College Faith that focused primarily on its basketball team in West Memphis, and Morse chimed in with a fresh denouncement of its football program: “There is absolutely nothing to be gained by beating up on a team with a roster of less than two dozen players who don’t receive competent coaching, and the pretense that these players are receiving an education is patently absurd.”
On May 30, the NCAA took action, announcing for the first time that certain colleges were now classified as “non-countable” opponents, meaning any win against them was to be excluded from official records. All three of Thomas’s schools made the list, along with 29 others, a dozen of which were faith-based. In order for its games to be countable, a team had to be a Division I, II or III member or part of the NAIA or credentialed by one of six accrediting bodies. Any religious school needed to be “an active member” of the National Christian College Athletic Association.
In October, the NCAA expanded the list to 35 colleges, and while it did not explicitly state that its decision stemmed from the online furor over College of Faith, a spokesperson made it clear that the governing body was well aware of the tide of criticism.
“When teams are holding opponents to minus 100 yard rushing or beating them by 90 points in basketball, it catches everyone’s attention,” NCAA flack Dave Worlock told Contently.org. He said that games involving these teams “have compromised the integrity of our national statistics and records.”
“It is evident these schools are focused solely on fielding athletics teams. We have found many of them offer exclusively online courses and have questionable curriculum and/or no academic mission.”
The crackdown has had little impact at the College of Faith. One guarantee opponent, East Tennessee State University, had lawyers check their contract and cancelled their Nov. 21 game against the Warriors. Others went ahead and kept Faith on their schedules, including Valparaiso and Texas Southern, both Division I schools.
After all, the non-countable ruling didn’t prevent them from paying for blowouts if the outcomes being unofficial wasn’t a concern, or posting those wins on their web sites. Thomas said he was disappointed by the NCAA’s decision but shrugged it off. “It won’t affect us that much,” he said.
Nor has he been deterred by attacks.
“I’ve had coaches call me and say, ‘Why you want to embarrass these kids?’ I say, I’m giving them a chance. They want to play.”
In fact, he’s proceeding with plans to expand. Thomas told this reporter that he hopes to open a new school next year in Oklahoma City, along with an outlet in New Orleans.
“And I got a police chief in Atex, North Carolina who wants to start a Bible college and police academy,” he said. By the end of next year, he claimed, “there will be seven to 10 branches. They may have different names. Most likely they will have an affiliation with the College of Faith, maybe in our own association or league.”
Carr, now recovered from his broken ankle and hoping to revive his playing career, said he had no regrets about his time at College of Faith. “If I had to do it all over again, I would,” he said. “They’re good guys.”
Even so, he’s done with the program. He returned to Rowan Cabreras for the fall semester and is attempting to transfer to a bigger school, such as Winston-Salem State University, a historically black college whose football team, the Rams, play members of their own conference, the Division II Central Collegiate Athletic Association, and are 5–5 this year.
The Davidson player said he’s thrilled not to have to face College of Faith any more: “I’d actually lose my mind if we had to play those guys again.”
Scott Simone contributed reporting to this story. Photos by Blair Ball.