The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff won its first SWAC football championship in more than 40 years in record fashion Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.
The Golden Lions, who trailed Jackson State the entire game, fought from behind, tied the scored with a record-setting 95-yard touchdown pass and then beat the Tigers 24-21 to win the first overtime contest in the 13-year history of the SWAC Championship Game. The victory gave the Golden Lions (10-2) the first 10-win season in school history.
“What game,’’ said UAPB coach Monte Coleman,, who won three Super Bowl championships during his 16-year NFL career as a linebacker for the Washington Redskins. “A lot of records were set today. It was a lot of history made. It’s been a great day. UAPB is definitely on the map. When I was playing with the Washington Redskins I was a lot younger. I’m 55 years old now. This is sweet, real sweet. You can’t beat being in the Super Bowl, being winners or losers. But to be able to coach a team like I have right now, I don’t have the words to express the how grateful I am. This definitely ranks among the top sporting event I have been in.’’
It is the second SWAC title for UAPB, which originally joined conference in 1936 before leaving in 1970 and returning 1997. The Golden Lions’ other championship came in 1966 when they shared the title with Grambling, Southern and Texas Southern.
The Golden Lion, champions of the SWAC West and 34-24 winners against Jackson in their Oct. 1 regular season contest, seemed headed for defeat late in the fourth quarter. They trailed 21-14 when they got the ball at their four-yard line with 2:38 left in the game. On second-and-and nine, quarterback Ben Anderson, the game’s Offensive MVP after throwing for 225 yards and a touchdown running for a score, spotted freshman wide receiver Willie Young running free in the Jackson State secondary on a post pattern and unleashed a bomb in his direction.
The ball appeared to be overthrown, but Young – the fastest of the Golden Lions who, according to Coleman runs as fast as he has to – found another gear and hauled it in at his 45-yard line. He then outran Jackson State cornerback Mike Hill to the end zone to tie the score.
“I felt going into the fourth quarter we were going to win the game,’’ Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said. “Lo and behold, he throws what I consider a Hail Mary bomb. The kid tracked that baby down. It was on then.’’
Jackson State go the ball first in overtime but failed to move the ball and ended up attempting 43-yard field goal on fourth-and-11 that was blocked.
UAPB took over needing a field goal to secure the victory, and Coleman put the ball in hands of running back Justin Billings, UAPB’s leading rusher. Billings responded by ripping off a 20-yard run around left end to the five before stepping out of bounds while tip-toe down the sideline. He capped the run by lunging into the end zone and knocking over the pylon for an apparent touchdown. The Golden Lions spilled on to field to celebrate, thinking they had won the game, and were assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that would have moved the ball back to the 20.
However, after SWAC Supervisor of Officials Harold Mitchell interceded and the penalty was waved off. Two plays later, Tyler Strickland booted the winning field goal from 43 yards out.
“We beat a great football team in Jackson State,’’ Coleman said. “I really can’t say too much about the pressure that they put on us. But sometimes when you’re dealing with destiny, you can’t change it. When God’s favor is on you, it’s on you, and his favor has been with this football team the last two years for sure and for a lot of years.’’
The championship for the Golden Lions is the crowning achievement for a program t that 20 years ago staged a flag football game as the centerpiece of the school’s Homecoming celebration because the football team had been hit with the death penalty for rules violations and forced to shutdown. UAPB – found guilty of 41 violations by the NAIA during Archie “Gunslinger’’ Cooley’s tenure – and SMU are the only schools that have served the death penalty. SMU has yet to fully recover.
“I wasn’t in Pine Bluff during that era, so I can’t speak real specifically to it,’’
Coleman said. “But just watching the program grow from playing flag football to the SWAC championship, it’s kind of an obvious escalation from where we were to where we are now. ‘’
Jackson State dominated the team’s regular season contest statistically despite losing, and the Tigers seemed intent on a repeat performance in the rematch. They led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, after scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions following a three-and-out the first time they had the ball.
The Tigers first touchdown came on a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Clayton Moore to wide receive Rico Richardson, the 2012 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.