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Football as a Tool for Spiritual Formation

SAGU places a priority on developing Christlike character in athletes.

WAXAHACHIE, Texas — Jesse L. Godding has experienced a measure of satisfaction during his 21-year span as head football coach and now athletic director at Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU).

The football program started at the school in 1996. Six years — and four head coaches — later, Godding accepted the post, bringing both stability and respectability in a state where the gridiron is next to godliness in many locales. As Godding oversaw a better resourced program, he won a championship in the Central States Football League and received CSFL coach of the year accolades in 2013.

“Football is the lifeblood for a lot of communities in Texas,” says Godding, 57. “People move to certain spots just to put their sons in the football program.”

SAGU initiated a football program with the mindset that if an athlete is going to attend college to obtain a degree, it might as well be in Waxahachie.

“Athletics is a medium, a tool for spiritual formation,” Godding maintains. “Athletics is an opportunity to reveal character, to become more Christlike and grow in grace.”

Godding already had coached football at Crown College in Minnesota and at the AG’s Trinity Bible College in North Dakota before being hired at SAGU in 2002.

In 2011, he took on the additional responsibility of athletic director and he functioned in the dual role for four years. He remains athletic director, and in his 12 years in that post the number of athletes at SAGU has mushroomed to 465 from 185. Under his watch, the number of sports at the school has more than doubled to 15, with the addition of programs such as softball, women’s cross country and Esports. Godding has received top conference athletic director honors three times, including 2021 and 2022. Last year, SAGU women won the National Christian College Athletic Association softball national championship.

For a couple of reasons, Godding believes the football program is about to enter a new phase of accomplishment. One is the new multiphase plan launched last year to transform the current sports complex and ultimately develop a football stadium on campus. The Lions currently play their games at a local high school.

The presence of a stadium on campus will benefit SAGU in myriad ways, Godding maintains, including a reduction in travel, the ability to practice at the school at night, and a stimulus for student body and alumni interest. The already-finished phase one involved installation of an artificial turf field and track with lights, as well as practice fields for football, soccer, and field programs. Future phases will include grandstands, a press box, and scoreboards.

But Godding is equally excited about head coach Greg L. Ellis, a National Football League 1998 first-round draft pick, who went 7-3 in his first season last semester at SAGU. Ellis, who stands 6 feet, 6 inches tall, played starting defensive end and linebacker for the nearby Dallas Cowboys for 11 years. In 2007, Ellis received Comeback Player of the Year honors and went to the Pro Bowl after an Achilles injury the year before. In his career in Dallas, he accumulated 377 tackles, 77 sacks, 20 forced fumbles, and four interceptions. A salary cap victim in 2009, the North Carolina native played a final season with the Oakland Raiders.

With a head coach opening last year, Godding hired the former NFL player. Ellis, 47, jokes that he didn’t impress Godding with his initial foray into college coaching. In his one-year stint at conference rival Texas College, Ellis went 0-11. But Godding saw something unusual.

“Greg is a good fit because he understands who we are as an institution, and he embraces the values,” Godding says. “He brings a wealth of football acumen to the job.”

Certainly not many people know football as well as the gregarious, kind-faced Ellis, who often worked at mini camps and summer camps after his playing career.

“When I played football, I studied a lot of film,” Ellis says. “A scientific approach is better than leaving things to chance.”

Former Cowboys coach and mentor Bill Parcells encouraged Ellis to become a coach and indeed a trio of NFL teams called to offer him a staff position. But he declined, citing the workaholic requirements of professional sports. He didn’t want to be away from his wife, Tangie, and their children: Tyann, now 23; Geremiah, 19; and Taliah, 14. Greg and Tangie, high school sweethearts, have been married 27 years.

SAGU is everything he wants at this stage in his life.

“This is a breath of fresh air,” Ellis says over lunch in the cafeteria. “It is a school that encourages people to have God at the center of education. We’re at our best when we function to please God, and we need faith to please God.”

Ellis says faith has been paramount in his life since 11th grade, a time when many classmates figured he might become a preacher.

“I hope the football program continues to grow, and not just in wins and losses,” Ellis says. “I want to see our guys develop even more as godly men.”

His philosophy aligns with SAGU President Kermit S. Bridges, who is personally involved in the hiring of all head coaches, making sure they are fully committed to the school’s mission and values.

“I’m far more interested in whether the coach is a man or woman with a heart for God than I am about knowledge of their sports and past success,” says Bridges, 64. “And we will not compromise in recruiting or in expecting athletes to live up to the standards of the university.”

Meanwhile, fitness is a priority for all students. The Garrison Wellness Center on campus has a recreational gym, weightlifting room with treadmills and elliptical machines, indoor walking track, racquetball rooms, and an aquatic center with sauna and hot tubs. Students can participate in 18 intramural sports.

When it launches in the fall, Joseph D. Reed associate professor in health and science will be the director of SAGU’s new kinesiology program. Initially, the program will allow students to go further into sports training and learn how to manage sports team. New course offerings that will be part of the curriculum include exercise physiology, biomechanics, sports psychology, and medical terminology. Existing on-site and adjunct faculty are academically qualified to teach all the prospective classes, according to Reed.

Down the road, SAGU hopes to offer occupational therapy and physical therapy degrees, Godding says. Eventually, Reed hopes SAGU can facilitate the path for students to become physical therapists, nurse practitioners, and even medical doctors.

“Our world is getting darker, and we want more Christians in these fields,” says Reed, 62. He says seven of the 14 students currently studying anatomy, which he teaches, have indicated they want to switch to kinesiology in the fall.

PHOTO: Athletic Director Jesse Godding (left) is glad to have Greg Ellis as the SAGU football coach.


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.