Summer 2024

Harding football playing for Division II national championship with focus on honoring God

After Harding University secured its spot in the Division II football national championship game for the first time ever, and in the process broke the single-season D-II rushing record, head coach Paul Simmons’ opening comments in the postgame press conference were about none of that.

Instead, Simmons used the opportunity to share the three things he prioritizes above all else in his program: culture, love and God.

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“A national championship has never been the goal of Harding football, and it never will be,” he said following Harding’s 55-14 win over Lenoir-Rhyne University on Saturday. “The goal of Harding football is to have the very best culture anywhere in the country, and that, for us, is defined by honoring God. And what honors God is to love each other at a crazy high level.”

After a pair of one-point victories in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Harding exploded for 34 first-half points and accumulated 500 yards of total offense in the semifinals. All but 69 of those yards came on the ground, with seven different players rushing for more than 20 yards in the Bisons’ flexbone offense. Running back Blake Delacruz and quarterback Cole Keylon accounted for 255 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.

The team is averaging 404 rushing yards a game and broke the Division II rushing record β€” held by Lenoir-Rhyne β€” in the third quarter.

Located in Searcy, Arkansas, Harding is a private university with a mission of providing “a quality education that will lead to an understanding and philosophy of life consistent with Christian ideals,” according to its website. Simmons became his alma mater’s head coach in 2017 and reached the national semifinals in his first season. Harding has won at least nine games every year since and is 14-0 for the first time in program history.

Asked later in Saturday’s press conference what the secret to his success was, Simmons answered quickly and emphatically.

“The secret ingredient β€” the secret sauce β€” of Harding football is always love,” he said. “It’s always love. Everything that we do is about love. The greatest motivator is not fear or greed. The greatest motivator is love. When you really love somebody, it changes how you do things.”

Last week, Simmons shared in a post on X that Bibles with personalized covers arrived at his office for every new member of the program. “Been showing up like this for years now β€” no idea who is responsible. Praise God,” he wrote.

The Bisons’ perfect record gave them home-field advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs, which meant Simmons was able to watch his two sons help Harding Academy (a K-12 private school affiliated with the university) win a 4A football state championship later Saturday night. He made a point of thanking God for the way everything has unfolded during his team’s postseason run.

“I probably can’t handle any more blessings,” he said. “It’s flowing over. It’s unbelievable. God is so good. He’s been so good to me and my family.”

Harding, ranked No. 3 in the AFCA D-II Coaches Poll, faces No. 1 Colorado School of Mines (14-0) in McKinney, Texas, at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Orediggers have reached the semifinals three years in a row and lost in the national championship game last season. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

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