The stars are aligning for the Centenary Gents as exhibition games kick off.
Sport ready for rebirth at Centenary
In March of last year, when Byron Dawson became head coach of Centenary College’s first football team in more than 50 years, the former standout player at Evangel Christian Academy and four-year letterman at LSU knew he was in for a lot of hard work.
After all, building a program from scratch is not for the timid.
But what has happened away from the field has surprised Dawson the most.
“I knew people would be intrigued by (the return of football), but going into grocery stores and seeing the joy that comes over people’s faces – little kids from all ages – when they walk up to me and give me a high-five and a hug, and say, ‘Man, we are so fired up about what you are doing,’ you would have thought we were soldiers going off to war to serve our country. It’s that type of pride that people in the Shreveport-Bossier area and northwest Louisiana have. The excitement about having college football here in Shreveport, I just didn’t see that coming at that level.”
Saturday, Aug. 19, the Gents traveled to Millsaps College (Jackson, Miss) for the first of 11 exhibition games. This year’s results won’t count in any standings, but Dawson – who is accustomed to winning – knows there may be more L’s than W’s.
“Patience. Patience,” Dawson said when asked how he is mentally preparing for what’s to come. “Anytime you’re growing something, you’re going to have growing pains. Progress is a process. Our goals and our milestones are not focused on wins and losses. We’re focused on mastering the fundamentals and playing as a team.”
The Gents’ first game resulted from almost three years of planning. In the fall of 2020, a feasibility study group was formed. That group spent more than a year determining if a football program would benefit the Kings Highway school and how to shape that program.
“We worked with close to a dozen football schools across the country that are kind of like Centenary,” said David Orr, the school’s director of athletics and recreation. “More than half those schools had either started or restarted football in the last 15-20 years. We got a lot of information on how to build a budget, how to hire a coach, what the impact on the institution would look like. Then we had to put that together in relationship to Shreveport-Bossier City and Centenary College.”
Not only would the Gents need a place to play, but they would need a place to get dressed, a place to practice. The result will be $6 million worth of new builds and improvements.
“We wanted to make sure we had an on-campus facility for football, so we would be able to play our home football contests on campus,” Orr said. “In the days of the Gold Dome (basketball) when Robert Parish was playing, and into the late ’70s and ’80s, this place was packed with community. We wanted to replicate that with an outdoor sport like football.”
Adding football has benefited other sports at Centenary. Construction of a new field house – which will accommodate football, women’s soccer and softball – is expected to be completed in the next two months. Also under construction is a synthetic turf and lighted, multiuse field where football, soccer and lacrosse will practice. However, it will take a while longer to finish the transformation of Centenary’s current soccer and lacrosse field – Mayo Field – to a football stadium. The Gents will play their home games this year at Rodney Duron Stadium (Evangel) and Lee Hedges Stadium. Centenary’s on-campus stadium is expected to be ready for the Gents’ 2024 season.
“Every Saturday evening when LSU plays football, the whole state rallies behind that,” Orr said. “We want to bring something to just our northwest Louisiana corridor – that little corner that’s not occupied by Northwestern (State), Louisiana Tech or Grambling.”
Orr said there are several reasons school leadership chose to bring back football. Among them, Centenary wanted to create something people in Shreveport-Bossier and the surrounding area could get behind and enjoy.
But there was also a business reason. Orr explained that approximately 90 percent of the school’s students – athletes and nonathletes – receive some merit-based aid. The student pays the dollar difference between that aid and the cost of attending Centenary.
“Centenary being a small, private, liberal arts institution, we are enrollment-driven when it comes to our resources. Our enrollment needs to grow, and then our resources grow. Adding another 100 more students to the population would certainly add to the resources of the institution.”
While there is one player on the 80-man roster from Miami, the vast majority of the football team is from Louisiana and Texas. One of Dawson’s big recruiting pitches to high school seniors – and their parents – was the opportunity to play at – or close to – home.
“We want local kids. I feel like there is a lot of talent in this area. Local for us is the region. We’re in the Ark-La-Tex. We want to pull from the Tri-State area. We want to pull kids from East Texas. That’s within driving distance.”
Now, Dawson is ready to see the results of his 17 months of work as a farmer.
“I compare it to planting a seed in the ground,” Dawson said. “You plow the ground. You sow the seed. You wait for the harvest. Now, I’m very excited, proud and happy we are now in harvest season. We get to see the fruits of our labor.”
To learn more about Centenary’s football program, you may visit www.gocentenary.com.