SB Nation

ArkansasSportsBookAuthor | February 18, 2015

Is the College of Faith for real?

So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. —Matthew 20:16

Depending on your perspective, the journey into college sports’ heart of darkness, or depending on how you look at it, one of its most inspiring beacons of light, begins as the sun sets on the West Memphis, Ark., home of Daniel Bandy.

Bandy is the head coach of the basketball program for the College of Faith, which shares little in common with any college basketball program even the most dedicated college basketball fan has ever heard of. Yet its foes are, for the most part, real. They include NCAA Division II and Division III schools, NAIA colleges and a few collegiate athletic programs a tier or two below that. Its players are, on the whole, not untalented. Most are older than the stars who inhabit the upper firmament of Division I — early-to-mid-20-year-olds who have already pinballed through more established programs before settling in a place where, if nothing else, they can get minutes on the court. Many still dream of playing pro basketball or coaching.

In this, the College of Faith is not unique. It’s just one more example of the collegiate athletic universe’s dark matter, the invisible 99 percent who toil unseen by major media, national audiences, and, sometimes, hardly any audience at all. But the College of Faith also strays from the pack in some significant ways.

Behind Bandy’s spacious home, in the backyard, is a 20,000-square-foot metal building: Bandy’s gym. In the twilight, by the front door, a sign reads: “Official Practice Facility of the College of Faith Warriors.” Bandy may be the only collegiate basketball coach in America whose team practices in his backyard. Well, if he is really a college basketball coach, because there may be some disagreement on that.

Meanwhile, inside, some of Bandy’s players, students and clients laugh and shoot basketballs as they wait for others to arrive. Their first tipoff of the season is only a few hours away.

The walls inside the gym are covered with reminders of success. Someone wrote “#hardwork” on the area above the bench press set. Above the water fountain, a large banner with “#PressOn” and, beneath it, Philippians 3:14: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God and Christ Jesus.” There is a banner with the names of the Division I student-athletes Bandy has helped train, folks like former SEC football star and NFL linebacker Jerry Franklin, most recently a member of … that’s right, the New Orleans Saints.

But no banners hang for the players of the College of Faith. Not yet at least. Bandy and his players have high hopes for this year after going 10-12 in 2013-14, a significant improvement from the previous winless season. A core group of Warriors have been training hard here and a few even hope to start pro careers abroad after a year or two.

On this particular evening, though, things are getting off to a rough start. Car troubles have delayed Bandy, forcing him to leave his Mercedes on the side of the road. He calls one of his players and asks for a ride home.

This represents only the slightest of hiccups for the College of Faith, because, well, they don’t have much, but they do have one thing in abundance: faith. And as you can imagine at such a college, faith, unyielding unwavering belief, is almost everything. Besides, this year the basketball program includes several seasoned former Division I-caliber players who promise to give it a better shot to stay close in games in case faith alone falls short.

In that, they are lucky. The College of Faith has football programs, too, and they are having an exponentially tougher go of it. And, yes, that’s football programs, and basketball programs, as in, more than one. Unlike, say, The Ohio State University, for instance, which has one football program you may have heard of, the College of Faith actually has three football teams and two basketball teams spread across three independent campuses in Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina. More on that in a minute.

For now, consider the COF is likely the most spectacularly unsuccessful college football program in the modern history of the sport. In the fall of 2012, it lost 73-6 on the road against the University of West Alabama Tigers. The score was actually much closer than what it could have been. In the first quarter alone, West Alabama racked up 38 points and made a plethora of big plays, including a 48-yard punt return by future Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler.

Starting in the second quarter, West Alabama players didn’t even bother to return punts. In an act of apparent mercy, they just called fair catches. “It was the really the saddest thing I had ever seen,” user socialchild wrote. “By the end of the first half the score was 59-nil and the Tigers were way, way down the depth chart.”

With only one win in the last three seasons, things on the football field haven’t gotten much better. In its inaugural season the College of Faith’s Tampa program didn’t come close to beating a four-year institution. Meanwhile, its Charlotte program hasn’t scored a single point in its two-year existence. Last fall, Tusculum College, a Division-II school in Tennessee, set several all-time, NCAA all-division records in a 71-0 victory over the Saints, holding COF to negative-124 rushing yards and negative-100 total yards for the game as COF averaged negative-2 yards per play for the game. Had the quarterback taken a knee and prayed on every down, they would have done better. After the notoriety the COF gained from this, more than 1,000 readers chimed in on Reddit posts questioning whether College of Faith schools were “diploma mills” with subpar academic standards preying on deluded athletes.

The College of Faith is not a collegiate diploma mill ... or really a college at all

Well, the answer is that the College of Faith is not a collegiate diploma mill. That’s because, despite its name, the College of Faith isn’t really a college at all — at least in the traditional sense. It’s barely even a school. There is no building covered with ivy, no student center filled with eager young students, no frat parties and definitely no dormitories. The word “college” in the name “College of Faith” barely means what it does in many other places. To be accurate, the College of Faith is actually an online extension of a ministry that’s technically a church. The most collegiate thing about it, apart from the name, is its sports teams.

That makes it something else, something pretty unique: an independent athletics-ministry hybrid lacking amenities almost all of its foes have as either a college or an organized athletic department — things like staff who have previously coached college sports, coaches who are paid salaries, athletic directors who aren’t also head coaches, as well as trainers, true scholarships, cheerleaders, locker rooms, stadiums or, get this, even a campus.

The College of Faith is mostly built on — isn’t it obvious? — faith. This isn’t an “If you build it, they will come” kind of place, but an “If you imagine it …” kind of place. The only athletic association to which it belongs is one it created itself. Yet despite all the things the College of Faith does not have, what it does are athletes who believe, players more than willing to deal with these shortcomings — and even pay for them — all just to play the game they love a little longer, guys for whom the joy and camaraderie of college sports would otherwise likely be lost. And what does the College of Faith receive in return? Stories like this, box scores on the agate page or the newspaper, ersatz self-produced coaches shows posted directly to YouTube … its name made familiar so it can get down to its real mission.

“[A]t the crux of the matter is they’re going to learn we’re just broadcasting the name of Jesus Christ”

As Daniel Bandy sees it, the bottom line and business of College of Faith is not winning games at all or even providing a college education; it is saving souls. Even a string of blowouts can serve this goal. “People are starting to look into us, search us out and see who we are and what we’re all about, and that’s actually what we want,” he says. “Because at the crux of the matter is they’re going to learn we’re just broadcasting the name of Jesus Christ.” Bandy, who is not only the basketball coach but also his school’s provost, dean and main instructor, adds, “We are not trying to be like everybody else. We’re not here to be like mainstream sports programs or mainstream society.”

In that, they are wildly successful already. And yet, the College of Faith plans to add new sports programs, hopes to branch out into even more states, and is seeking higher-profile opponents to help reach a national audience. The COF football programs played two Division-I schools in 2014, but are scheduled to play twice that many in 2015. In anticipation, last month the Charlotte campus released its own ESPNU-style recruit signing video, and this year an even newer post-secondary online sports-ministry entity - a COF spinoff named the University of God’s Chosen, will also field a football team.

There are signs that, once all this goes down, the College of Faith’s Christ-dependent, yet DIY brand of rogue, could be in vogue. After all, everybody loves an underdog, particularly one that provides its opponent an almost guaranteed victory.

According to its website, tuition at the College of Faith is $3,000 per year, but in reality, Bandy allows players to pay less. The fees mostly go to the cost of keeping the basketball program afloat, Bandy says. Its “guarantee” games provide another source of income. Four times this year, a bigger school has paid the COF between $500 and $2,500 to play on its campus. The payment, meant to cover the expenses of a long road trip, typically buys the bigger school an easy win as well.

Such transactions are at the bottom of the collegiate sports financial food chain. At every level, programs open their pockets wide to play smaller schools for the right to avoid a homecoming game upset. And while there are fewer games in football, there is more money to be made than in basketball. Tusculum, for instance, paid the COF-Charlotte Saints $7,500, according to a Charlotte NPR affiliate station.

And about those names. The coaches of each campus choose their own mascot for their team. The Saints are in Charlotte. COF-West Memphis are nicknamed the Warriors. COF-Tampa, the Glory Eagles. Actually, make that UOF-Tampa, as in the University of Faith. That’s because Glory Eagles’ head football coach/president Anthony Givens is a big fan of the “The U” down in Miami.

No COF team has played a program as big-time as the Hurricanes, but this past August Division-I Davidson College did pay the Saints few thousand dollars to make a 30-minute drive northward. The result: 56-0 and a highlight film that makes Davidson look like Ohio State. Davidson Athletic Director Jim Murphy told WFAE 90.7: “I felt like this was opportunity to help a local football team get its legs.” Equipment, too. The same week of the game, Davidson donated practice pants and shoulder pads to the COF. Then players from both teams visited a local soup kitchen.

For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. —1 John 5:4

Bandy finally arrives at the gym. The 5’9 former point guard excelled at the College of the Ozarks before a pro career in Iceland and Lithuania. He enters the gym door with a bounce in his step, a coiled energy that served him well as a state championship long jumper in his West Memphis Christian School days. The 30-year-old Memphis native wears a tan houndstooth jacket, green pants, matching tan socks and Gucci loafers, the standard uniform of an upwardly mobile, inexorably optimistic college basketball coach. You can already see him standing on the sidelines, clipboard in hand, screaming out directions.

This is sharp contrast to his players. Some wear T-shirts and jeans after working a day shift.

No matter. Soon Bandy summons his players to midcourt and begins praying with them. He also gives a pep talk for their game a few hours later against Bethel University, an NAIA school in northern Tennessee. “We’re gonna define who we are tonight on the floor.”

In the corner, a couple works out. The woman uses an elliptical machine. Her husband stretches on a nearby bench. These aren’t College of Faith students. They belong to the gym, members of Bandy’s Primetime Sports Training, which he operates alongside and sometimes inclusive of the College of Faith program. He trains anybody age 8 and up on sport-specific skills as well as speed, agility and quickness. On his old website, it explained, “At PRIMETIME SPORTS TRAINING, we know that there are many definitions of winning … Our training is geared to meet the wide range of needs of our athletes, from those just starting out, to professionals who make their living on the field or court.” Or for those who play for the College of Faith, or who need a little financial help to do so.

Littlejohn, the Warriors’ 6'2" starting point guard, is in his second season with COF

One of Bandy’s players, Trent Littlejohn, is part of his Primetime team. Littlejohn, the Warriors’ 6'2" starting point guard, is in his second season with COF after playing at a junior college in Chicago and Lincoln University in Missouri. Last year, he recalls paying about $200 a month in his fees as an enrolled COF student pursuing an Associate’s in Ministry degree through the school’s online curriculum. He said he had offers to play pro ball this year in places like England and Denmark for $800 a month, but he and Bandy, who also essentially functions as his agent, decided against it.

Instead, Littlejohn chose to stick with the COF team and continue training under Bandy and working at the gym. In fall 2014, he was taking online courses for a criminal justice degree at Arkansas Tech University, but stopped pursuing his ministry degree. Bandy was understanding, and allowed him to play that semester without taking online classes. In fact, Littlejohn said he doesn’t have to pay any fees at all this year, but works as a trainer for some of Bandy’s other Primetime clients. He currently trains two high school basketball players and a woman at Primetime and makes roughly $300 a month. He lives with his grandmother and the job provides spending money.

Under Bandy, the College of Faith Warriors basketball program has been more competitive than the school’s football programs and the only other current COF basketball program in Charlotte. A major reason: the Memphis area overflows with basketball talent and Bandy knows many of the area’s biggest sports names. One of his players last year, Tarvin Gaines, starred at Jacksonville State and now plays professional basketball in Brazil. Bandy also trained Sonny Weems, a former Arkansas Razorbacks star and current Euroleague standout.

Euroleague standout Sonny Weems is one of Bandy's former trainees

Some of Bandy’s current players regularly sharpen their skills against former NBA superstar Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and other local NBA stars and professionals. Littlejohn and COF’s Erik Stuckey, once a highly recruited 6’8 center out of West Memphis High School, were introduced to Hardaway through Chris Campbell, the older brother of College of Faith player Mike Campbell. Chris Campbell is Penny’s longtime friend and helps run his AAU program, Team Penny, based out of Hardaway’s hometown of Memphis.

For nearly the last five years, Littlejohn, Stuckey and Mike Campbell have been in Hardaway’s inner circle. Campbell said Penny regularly advises him, whether helping him hone his game or encouraging him to pursue his education. “He really looks out for you,” Littlejohn said, recalling the summer Hardaway paid for his flights to basketball tournaments in Florida and then Mississippi. Hardaway regularly invites them to join scrimmage games in a Memphis gym he owns with an assortment of pros and collegians. Littlejohn said he and Stuckey have squared off against the likes of Grizzlies Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, as well as former Grizzlies star and current Sacramento King Rudy Gay. In one scrimmage, Gay and Stuckey “went at it,” Littlejohn recalls, and the 28-year-old Stuckey “gave [Gay] problems” on defense. According to the Central Basketball Association, a minor professional league, as recently as March of 2014 Stuckey appeared in a game with the Memphis Soul Kings.

After the COF players’ scrimmages, Penny sometimes takes them out to eat and “gives us money, shoes, whatever,” Littlejohn says. “I guess he just really wants to help us … He knows our situation and stuff like that. He knows a few hundred dollars here and there helps.”

Littlejohn admitted earlier that, “Our team is really filled with a lot of people who fell through the cracks.” This became more evident when Jeremy “Duke” Brown, a 25-year-old father of five, told his story from the passenger seat of Littlejohn’s car as they drove to their season opener.

“Everything with my life just kinda smashed and crashed. I didn’t know what to do … [now] I want to show people anything is possible if you put your mind, grind and time into it.”

A longtime fan of Duke University, Brown grew up in West Memphis and played for an AAU team that practiced on the very same court now owned by Bandy (Bandy bought his home, and gym, from AAU coach Jeff House). Brown felt like he could play in college, but when his high school coach fell ill his senior year, Brown lost direction. “Everything with my life just kinda smashed and crashed,” he recalls as he watches the car’s windshield wipers sway. “I didn’t know what to do. I really didn’t think anybody was trying to look out for me.”

He walked on at Seattle University, but his life unraveled and he ended up getting arrested. He transferred to Mid-South Community College in West Memphis, and played there for a bit, but the draw of the streets and an easier life was too much. “I ran with the wrong crowd,” he said. “All of it just escalated where I was like ‘Forget this, and forget that. It’s too much. I just want money.’”

But he stayed broke, and broken, he started going to church in 2011. “People were ministering to me, and telling me God was calling me to be something.” It’s taken a few years but Brown feels like he’s closer to that point than ever before. Now he wants to become the first college graduate in his family, and started pursuing a criminal justice degree through the online University of Phoenix. He plans to one day become a probation officer in a bigger city, someone who can help guide wayward youth. Before that, though, he wants to play professional basketball, at any level, somewhere, to make his wife and five sons proud, for them to know “their daddy did this, even if it’s for a year or two.”

These days, he’s eager to see how far he can push himself. “I want to show people anything is possible if you put your mind, grind and time into it. And put God first.”

Brown believes the College of Faith prepares him for basketball’s next level while also helping him become a more Godly person. Brown had known Bandy from local AAU basketball circles since childhood, and when they reconnected this past summer, he felt Bandy’s expansive basketball contacts could help land a contract down the line.

It won’t be easy. He spends the majority of his time with his family, playing basketball and training while working a 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift at a local Hino Motors plant. He’s put the University of Phoenix education, which cost $9,000 a year, on hold. He now spends a few hours a week on his COF online assignments and pays $2,500 annually in fees to the COF.

About half of the team are dual enrollees like Brown. Players take courses, online and in person, at places like Mid-South Community College, Northwest Mississippi Community College, Southwest Tennessee Community College, the University of Memphis and Christian Brothers University. Indeed, COF’s Earnest Spiller played the previous three seasons on the Christian Brothers team, but hardly left the bench. Now, the Warriors offer him “a chance to still compete competitively” playing at the college level. Meanwhile, he’s still a full-time student at Christian Brothers and even serves as the commissioner of the school’s intramural league.

Last year, COF played home games at West Memphis’ Mid-South Community College and a local Catholic high school, but scheduling at those venues didn’t work out this season. For 2014-15, they have a new home at the gym of what was once Crawfordsville High School on the west fringes of West Memphis. The school district consolidated with nearby Marion and the gym fell into disrepair. The building is small, row benches on one side only, but cozy.

Once there, Bandy walks across the gleaming floor to meet with his assistant Vernon Wilson, who also coaches junior high basketball in the town of Osceola nearly 40 miles away. He — not the College of Faith — actually owns the gym. Wilson said he and his brother bought the place a couple years ago as a venue for their organization Hype Sports Academy, Inc. a nonprofit that helps teach, feed and provide athletic training poor children across east Arkansas while also providing a host of other faith-based services. “We bought this place to give young people something to do” after school, he said. “We get 100-200 people in here, we keep them off the streets.” He added, “We tell them ‘Hey, go get your secular education. We’re gonna help you with the spiritual product.’”

It appears the gym, which Wilson said they bought for $70,000, was a good investment. He and his brother pay about $600 a month in utilities and by fall 2014 it was appraised for $300,000, Wilson said. The COF pays rent to Wilson’s nonprofit.

As Wilson talks, 12 COF players stretch on the court. Since there’s no pep band, speakers blast Christian hip-hop artist Canton Jones’ song “G.O.D.” through the gym:

... God is my joy, and the strength of my life
He took away my pain and took away my strife
And gave me a wife and gave me a life
And gave me salvation and his Son paid the price
And now I’m a grown man cryin,
Cause I get choked up when I think about an innocent man dyin
But because of that I don’t have to fry
So I’ll serve G.O.D. till the day that I fly, say

Jehovah Jireh, God my provider
Jehovah Nissi, you reign in victory
Jehovah Shalom, you’re my peace
I call Him G.O.D., I call Him G.O.D.

The music comes from Bandy’s iPad, where he stores his playlists for these games. He bumps only Christian music, mostly rap or hip-hop. He encourages his players to do the same, as Littlejohn can attest after Bandy advised him to drop the Lil Wayne he was playing at a recent practice in favor of Christian rap. More important than on-court success, “we want to show holiness,” Bandy says. “How you respond to referees, how you respond to cheap shots, your language — those are the kinds of things we are focusing on.” He added, “When we go out there with that mission, people will recognize God and they will glorify God based off our actions.”

Bandy watches his players in their layup line before the game. Behind him are four banners hanging on the wall, each with an acronym of a college athletic association with which the COF is involved, if not actually a member. The first two are the usual suspects, NCAA and NAIA. COF doesn’t belong to either one. The third is for the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA), a network of more than 100 small colleges inclusive of NCAA and NAIA schools. COF doesn’t belong to the NCCAA either.

The fourth acronym, ASCAA, stands for American Small College Athletic Association, of which the three College of Faith campuses are members in good standing. In fact, they are the only members, since COF created the ASCAA. Down the line, Bandy and other COF leaders have ambitious plans for the organization; touts the league as a place for smaller schools “to gain national experience and have many of the same opportunities as larger institutions.” Members can compete for ASCAA All-American awards, as well as National Players of the Week awards and even the ASCAA National Championship.

If all this seems strange, well, it is. For what it’s worth, the font and logo on the ASCAA banner look and feel just as official as the NCAA and NAIA signs beside it. Things appear even more legit when the ASCAA is mentioned in the press releases touting a matchup with the College of Faith by an NCAA school like Mississippi College. Here, in this industry, no official is entrusted with calling what should or shouldn’t count. If enough people believe it to be true, then it is.

Some think that’s what faith is.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. —1 Timothy 6:10

Fans, family and friends mostly trickle into the gym. Eventually, there are about 60 of them, not enough to kill the echoes.

There is one notable exception: Sherwyn Thomas, the erstwhile homeless athletic director and founder of the College of Faith, is, unfortunately, a no-show.

More than 10 years ago, Thomas founded the Total Change of Heart Ministries, an extension of his abiding optimism and desire to change the lives of others. The native north Mississippian calls it his church, although as with its auxiliary “college,” physical walls don’t come into play here. It’s mostly a website:

“Location: Headquarters - Right Where You Are!
Destiny - Everywhere God Leads.
Hours: 24/7”

It describes its mission as “meeting the people of our community right where they are and teaching them God’s plan to propel them to their blessed destiny!”

Thomas, age 43, is a self-described “street preacher.” A 6’2 former linebacker at Mississippi Valley State University, he graduated and began serving as an assistant football coach in Memphis area schools. His road has never been smooth. He’s known bankruptcy, and Thomas admits, “I used to be a thief. I used to steal everything.” But that all changed when God showed him “you don’t have to do this.”

Well, not everything has changed. Thomas has never been wealthy, and in the last year, he’s been busy with a new job as a truck driver. He drives 18-wheelers to make ends meet, and hopes he can one day afford a house for his wife and daughters who are living in north Mississippi. In the past, he’s often slept on the floor of a Sunday school room in a local church or in the cab of his truck. Not many other college administrators can say that.

Thomas first combined the ministry with sports and school in 2011 at a short-lived technical film school in Memphis called Shepherd Film Academy. No student, no matter how poor, was turned away. Most of them played football, basketball, track or baseball for the school. Thomas joined the football program as an assistant coach for its last season.

While Shepherd is no more, its premise lives on

Pablo Pereyra, the school’s dean of students, said every student-athlete there took classes involving a technical skill, personal finances … and the Bible. That’s a big reason Shepherd closed, he says. The school wasn’t able to secure government grant money — “You cannot preach on Uncle Sam’s dollar, period,” Pereyra said — and couldn’t afford to keep going.

While Shepherd is no more, its premise lives on through Thomas. According to documents provided by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, by May 2012, the Total Change of Heart Ministries shared the same address as the old Shepherd academy. That same month, Thomas announced on a small college athletic message board he had started the College of Faith as a four-year bible college offering Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in ministry at an initial cost of only $99 a year. He also mentioned his Mighty Believers, the name of the COF team he coached in 2012, were holding “tryouts for anyone who we feel that can play legitimate college football.” These days, all current and future COF-West Memphis teams are the Warriors. Bandy made the switch in 2013, in part, to reflect to a passage in Ephesians describing the “armor of God” that true believers should wear to wage war with evil.

The process of starting the College of Faith wasn’t complicated. Just about anyone can start a religious college — about all it takes is a letter to a state department of education asking for a religious exemption to bypass the need for accreditation, a curriculum consisting of only religious courses, and the offering of some kind of religious degree. It’s that simple. Using the same method, there’s nothing to stop any other religion from doing the same thing: Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Scientology — any religion could use the same approach. “’I wasn’t no A Student,” University of Faith coach Anthony Givens told the Tampa Bay Times. “I made C’s and D’s. But you’re standing next to a man who has a university!’” Although this won’t exactly merit canonization, it’s sort of miraculous nonetheless.

“Every American knows what ESPN is, which on the one hand is sad, but on the other hand it provides us a way to spread Jesus’ name”

Thomas believes the College of Faith should illuminate God’s love and ways in a world that’s all too dark. Despite the focus on sports, he says, sports per se really mean nothing at all. They simply help him reach more young people. As Bandy puts it, “Every American knows what ESPN is, which on the one hand is sad, but on the other hand it provides us a way to spread Jesus’ name.” The school hasn’t yet been on national TV, but COF-Charlotte has a team page on ESPN’s college football site.

After coaching College of Faith football in 2012, Thomas put that program on ice to focus on truck driving, hiring Bandy and getting the paperwork rolling for the College of Faith football teams in Charlotte (est. 2013) and Tampa (est. 2014).

Thomas says each of the three colleges is independent and creates its own rules and classes. They share sports programs, of course, but also require players complete “field ministry” missions like service projects or trips feeding the homeless, giving clothes to the poor or delivering school supplies to local children. The academic side of the COF-West Memphis curriculum primarily consists of online courses through the World Bible School that provides free, online curriculum, as well as in-person discussions led by Bandy.

The lessons are “something I look forward to every week reading and doing,” College of Faith guard Earnest Spiller says. “It’s not a hassle or anything. It’s pretty straightforward. Just scripture and the Bible … it ties into everyday life.”

It only takes a few good players to compete in basketball, but it takes a lot more resources to compete in football. The COF has been learning this the hard way since its inaugural season. That’s when, to save money, Thomas, an assistant coach and one of their players occasionally slept on their office floor. They borrowed used equipment from a local high school. The team made it to their last game with only 13 of their original 38 players and was outscored in its first four games 241-12.

After a season of constant breakdowns, Bandy’s dad rented the team a van

That’s OK though. The College of Faith is doing things the right way. “We don’t have time to cheat and/or play ineligible players,” Thomas wrote on the Victory Sports Network message board. “We are focused on building a very honest and reputable reputation in the collegiate community. We have a great coaching staff that takes great pride in their work.” He wrote the team had “2-3 legitimate NFL prospects.” (It didn’t).

The tough times even spilled over to the following season in basketball. In 2013-14, Thomas’ 15-passenger van, nicknamed “Old Betsy,” served as the team’s ride on long road trips. It consistently broke down. In many instances, “the other team would come and pick us up,” Mike Campbell recalls. On long trips, the team sometimes left a day early just to make sure they made it in time. At the end of the season, Bandy’s dad, the owner of a local demolition company, rented the team a van.

Thomas was a regular attendee at COF basketball games and practices in 2013-14, and also taught some courses. This season, trucking has gotten in the way, but that doesn’t mean he has abandoned his missions. With athletics so unprofitable, he’s laying the groundwork for a more promising revenue generator through College of Faith: a faith-based trucking program. He has big plans, plans he thinks about nearly nonstop during those long truck rides.

Thomas wants to see the program launch this fall, but he must first finish the curriculum, finalize an agreement with a potential trucking company partner and get state accreditation. That’s a lot harder than starting a football or basketball team. Then again, who would have guessed he’d have carried the mission this far? Sure, COF is no Notre Dame, and it’s still many, many miles from being a well-established religious institute like Oral Roberts University or even Bob Jones University.

But Oral Roberts and Bob Jones didn’t have to drive a truck all day long, either.

With God we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies. — Psalm 60:12

As the College of Faith players file off the Crawfordsville gym floor and into their locker room, teammates Earnest Spiller and Sedrick Mitchell are waiting. The two teammates’ shoulders slump. Because of a uniform mix-up, Spiller and Mitchell are missing their requisite white basketball shorts. It’s unclear who’s at fault, but they had expected some would be waiting for them at the gym. They weren’t, and now they don’t want to miss the game.

Fortunately, at the last minute, someone donates a couple pairs of shorts to Spiller and Mitchell. As they prepare to finish dressing, Bandy wraps his locker talk, reminding his charges to run a “Fist” defense to start the game. Everybody returns to the court.

Soon, the national anthem plays over the speakers. The crowd stands. They look toward the far side of the court, where Bandy adds flag bearer to his ever-expanding résumé as he holds the stars and stripes upright.

College of Faith’s players are stronger and more athletic than Bethel’s, yet they start slowly, missing lots of gimmies around the goals. But things turn around in the middle of the first half. Littlejohn emerges as the best guard on the court, deftly handing out assists and draining timely threes. Meanwhile, nobody on Bethel can match up with the 23-year-old Campbell, a 6’5 forward who uses his nearly 40-inch vertical for a dunk that puts his elbow near the rim. His 14 first-half points pace all scorers.

College of Faith leads 40-28 at halftime and is never in serious jeopardy during the second half. Nobody on Bethel’s side can match COF’s centers. The Warriors’ Bouna Njang, for instance, stands 6’9 and grew up playing in a Senegalese basketball academy with Gorgui Dieng, who would later help lead Louisville to an NCAA Championship and now plays with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Bethel is plucky to the end, but falls 88-69.

After the game, Bandy invites the players and coaches from both teams, and every spectator in attendance, onto center court to circle up and pray. He performs the ritual after every COF game, even on the road, and says only twice has the other team refused participate. At least a handful of fans join him for the postgame prayer each time.

After the game, in the locker room, Bandy addresses Spiller and Mitchell: “I apologize about the shorts, fellas. I apologize. It’s not your fault. We got to get to the bottom of that.” As water drips from the ceiling, apparently from a bad pipe, Bandy praises the team’s efforts. “Lord, we thank you for the chance to play basketball … Keep us focused on the things that will take you from earth to glory.”

During the game, Bethel’s videographer mentioned the team on the court wasn’t the Bethel varsity, but actually the school’s junior varsity squad, even though in the COF schedule the foe was simply “Bethel University.” No asterisk.

This is news to the players. None of them had any idea they’d just beaten a JV squad. In retrospect, however, Littlejohn says had he known beforehand that it wouldn’t have made a difference. “As a player I don’t think it would have affected me at all,” he says. “I’d play just as hard as if it was Duke.”

There is no doubt in his voice.

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

The day after the season opener, Bandy gives a tour of the College of Faith’s physical educational facility. Since May 2013, it’s been on third floor of the Mid-Continent Building, right off Interstate 30. Neighbors include Cereal Byproducts Co. and Med Plus Medical Solutions.

College of Faith's neighbors in the Mid-Continent Building include Cereal Byproducts Co. and Med Plus Medical Solutions

In an information packet Bandy hands out, the school’s mission is stated simply “TO BE LIKE JESUS.” Exactly how this should work in a testosterone-fueled industry that craves money and abhors turning the other cheek isn’t so cut and dry. Nor is the College of Faith’s very identity, which is a remix of different worlds — part performance training, part Sunday school, part street ministry, and part mainstream small college sports — at least that’s the intention. A slender thread of education runs through it, that word “college” paired with that other word, “faith,” somehow holding it all together.

As Bandy strides through the roughly 1,000-square-foot office, he says one reason he chose to rent in a corporate office building is to appeal to the same customers of the popular online colleges Strayer University and the University of Phoenix. The main room sometimes functions as the classroom for up to 16 players at one time. Mostly, though, they use the gym since that’s more convenient.

In his office, Bandy keeps diplomas from the College of the Ozarks and Liberty International University as well as mementos from his pro ball days in Europe. He counsels and advises players in his office, which serves as the administrative hub for the entire outfit. Here, players don’t have to deal with the same medical insurance papers found in bigger college athletic department offices. “We have them sign releases, but my wife is a nurse and we have a lot of connections in the medical community,” Bandy says.

Even without such costs, Bandy and Thomas insist COF doesn’t a make a profit, and has nothing to hide from the non-believers. “They don’t understand that we’re ministry-based,” Bandy says. “They think we’re trying to loophole our way through athletics.”

Bandy estimates he “probably gets 5-10 calls a week” from curious would-be edu-preneurs looking to emulate the COF model for what they think is a quick buck. But there’s no real cash to be made here, its leaders insist. Although there is talk of paid positions this year, until now all COF administrators/coaches/teachers have been volunteers.

Bandy takes out the most recent COF basketball schedule for review. It includes 10 NCAA opponents, seven NAIA teams and five teams with smaller, more obscure associations. Where the season will end is still in question. Bandy knows he wants the Warriors to play in a postseason national tournament and there are a few to choose from. Maybe one in early March with the Association of Christian Colleges in Joplin, Mo. Or one with the United States Collegiate Association, home to many community colleges and junior colleges.

As of early February, the College of Faith Warriors have a record of 11-11

Bandy mentions one more thing before ending the tour: If the cards fall right, come spring a venue in the West Memphis area could host its own national tourney. It would be through the ASCAA, which is, of course, the association created by and consisting solely of the College of Faith(s).

As of early February, the College of Faith Warriors have a record of 11-11. Things were looking up, though. The Warriors have a new van that doesn’t break down, and the players no longer have to chip in for gas on trips. Even though sometimes only five players made it on the road trips, the whole team was better, losing by only 24 points to a strong DII program in East Central University and by 17 points to DII Delta State, then-ranked No. 21 in the nation. The top postseason tourney now on Bandy’s radar is the Christian College NIT in Indiana, but if the COF doesn’t get an invite there, Bandy says the COF will host its own version of the NIT at home.

The players are feeling good about themselves, too. While training for a shot at the pros overseas, Campbell, the Warriors leading scorer, is also taking online courses to get his personal trainer certification. Brown has been getting only a few minutes a game but looks forward to hitting it hard this summer and getting plenty burn come 2015-16. Littlejohn looks forward to the opportunity to help build Bandy’s business down the line, but in the short term, he’s pumped about his pro prospects. He says he’s heard a team in a smaller European league has some interest in him, and could potentially use him as early as this spring for the playoffs. If that were the case, he’d be leaving the COF to go pro before the end of the season. While most agents get a cut of the deal, Littlejohn says that Bandy has refused to take any contract money from him. Still, of his own accord, Littlejohn plans to donate that same amount to the COF instead.

In the meantime, Bandy has been working the phones trying to find four replacement opponents for previously scheduled February games that fell through for various reasons. One reason: the National Christian College Athletic Association stressed its member schools can’t count games as wins (or losses) unless the opponent’s school is accredited. This season the COF had scheduled one NCCAA school as an opponent and five different NAIA schools.

In late January, however, the NAIA also listed the College of Faith as a non-countable opponent. Its member schools decreed because the COF doesn’t have the right accreditation, and isn’t part of the right associations, games against them can’t be counted as official wins or losses. NCCAA schools take a similar stance.

Fortunately, for COF programs, NCAA schools can still count them as legit foes. If COF played Kentucky or Duke, the game would count in the standings. NCAA competition bylaws don’t define what kind of four-year colleges count as official opponents for its member schools, only that that they must be “four-year.” Likewise, there are no criteria attached to the degree those schools offer. Any kind will do. This ambiguity is a key to COF’s existence, a potential gateway to legitimacy for the startup to gain entry to mainstream college sports, to play games that could end up televised on ESPNU, ESPN2 or, most likely, Bandy insists the COF isn’t loopholing its way into college athletics, but few words better describe what’s going on here.

If NCAA member schools one day follow their NAIA counterparts’ lead and blacklist College of Faith, Sherwyn Thomas already has a plan that could buffer the blow.

The plan is rapid expansion. Thomas knows an interested party in Oklahoma City who wants to start a COF there, and this year he plans to put his coaching hat back on and take the reins for the reborn COF-West Memphis football team. Its schedule is already set. He just first needs to choose a staff, settle on a practice field and fill out the roster.

You see Sherwyn Thomas has a dream. His ultimate goal is to open at least 10 COFs, primarily across the South, within the next few years. He sees all 10 COF colleges belonging to the same conference and/or association, each playing the others in the regular season and then vying against each other for an intra-COF championship in multiple sports. In football, how such a self-contained universe would actually work is hard to imagine, especially since guarantee money from outside schools is so important now, but Thomas isn’t sweating the long-term details. He has faith in the COF model. He believes. COF would not need the NCAA, or the NAIA. All they would need is each other … and faith.

Whatever it is, someone — perhaps Thomas, perhaps God — has somehow summoned enough believers to push it forward and make it a reality, or a virtual reality, or something like both.

At times Thomas’ vision hardly makes sense. Yet as he heads down the road in his 18-wheeler, he already steers something only he and few others can see, something that is not yet a church, not really a school and not quite a full-fledged collegiate athletic program. Yet, incomprehensibly, against all odds and logic, it somehow manifests as all three at once.

At least for those who believe.

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