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Former TMU president David Armstrong makes gridiron impact at St. Thomas; new team faces Saints

By Walter Villa
Special to the NKyTribune

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — David Armstrong’s mother, Dolores, has had Cleveland Browns season tickets for more than 60 years.

His father, William, who passed away three years ago, used to play street football with Don Shula. David Armstrong’s paternal grandfather, also named William, was one of the first ushers hired when Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium opened in 1931, working Indians and Browns games right up until he passed in 1964.

David Armstrong, former president of Thomas More University and now the president of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, grew up on Cleveland’s East Side, entrenched in the city’s passion for sports, especially football.

“I was one of seven kids,” Armstrong explained, “and you weren’t an official member of our family until my dad took you to a Browns game. “Even years later, when I was working in Kentucky, I would drive to my parents’ house for Browns home games. I’d get there by 10 a.m., and (my mother) would have the van packed with fried chicken and pizza. Browns games were a fabric of who we were.”

“We’re going to start football in Year One.” (STU photo)

Given that history, it was only natural that one of the first things that Armstrong did after getting hired last year at St. Thomas was to announce that the university would be starting an NAIA football program.

Board members at St. Thomas had talked about “possibly starting football by 2022 or beyond,” Armstrong said. “But when I took the job, I said, ‘We’re going to start football in Year One.’”

Year One starts on Saturday at noon as the Bobcats will play host to Thomas More University. The visiting Saints from Crestview Hills are 0-1 after dropping a 54-49 decision to Kentucky Christian last Saturday night.

St. Thomas, which for more than two decades was once the practice home of the Miami Dolphins – that era included Shula’s Perfect Season of 1972 – finally has its own football program, and Armstrong hasn’t forgotten his Cleveland roots.

His first major football hire at St. Thomas was the head coach, Bill Rychel, who is also from Cleveland. In fact, Rychel’s father and Armstrong both attended the same Cleveland high school, St. Peter Chanel, which closed in 2013.

Rychel was hired less than two months after Armstrong made the announcement, on Aug. 29, 2018, that St. Thomas would start football. The two had worked together at Notre Dame College of Ohio, an NCAA Division II school where Armstrong was vice president and Rychel was the offensive coordinator before being eventually being promoted to head coach.

Rychel and Armstrong are kindred spirits — both of them played small-college football as offensive linemen.

“When (Armstrong was hired as St. Thomas’ president), I called on that first day, to congratulate him,” Rychel said. “I knew St. Thomas didn’t have football, and I asked him if he wanted to start a program. He said, ‘Absolutely — that’s one of the things that intrigued me about the job.’”

Rychel, who was an offensive coordinator at Savannah State at the time he placed that call, knew one key thing about St. Thomas, which was its location in South Florida, regarded by many as the nation’s best recruiting turf for high school football.

“It’s South Florida,” Rychel said simply. “It’s even easier (to build a football program) and better, potentially.”

Beyond Rychel, Armstrong also hired his former high school coach, Regis Scafe, who coaches the Bobcats’ outside linebackers.

St. Thomas plays host to Thomas More at noon Saturday in Miami Gardens, Fla. Former Thomas More president David Armstrong (center) played a major role in starting up the football program at St. Thomas. (STU photo)

Scafe was a long-time college head coach, leading Cleveland’s John Carroll University to a school-record 12 wins and the NCAA Division III national semifinals in 2002. But Scafe, now 69, was retired and living with his wife, a park ranger, in Bend, Oregon, when Armstrong and Rychel convinced him to return to football.

“At first, I said, ‘I don’t know,’” said Scafe, who has 45 years of coaching experience and was a conference coach of the year as recently as 2016 at Thomas More. “But (Armstrong) put the carrot out there, and Coach Rychel followed up with a couple of phone calls.

“I was intrigued. I thought it would be really exciting to be a part of – this area for football … oh my God. It’s awesome. And with Dave behind it … and a nice Catholic school like this – it was a natural. I came a long way (from Oregon) for this.”

The Cleveland connection goes beyond Armstrong, Rychel and Scafe. It also includes defensive coordinator Alex Gray, quarterback coach Malik Grove, offensive line coach Anthony Neymeiyer and defensive assistant Greg Cielek, who is also an academic coordinator.

St. Thomas’ inaugural football roster is comprised of Floridians mostly, but there is a quarterback from Cleveland, and that makes sense since Ohio has already given Miami sports heroes such as Shula, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield … and, oh yea, a guy named LeBron James.

“The Cleveland mafia is coming down,” Armstrong joked when asked about the Bobcats football program. “We’re getting the band back together.”

Walter Villa is a freelance writer from Miami

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