(LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff) Yellowstone Christian College will expand to include more students and an athletic program in the fall. The small school on Shiloh Road plans to add a sport per year — starting with men’s and women’s basketball.
(LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff) Yellowstone Christian College board members meet at the school on Friday, May 22, 2015.
(LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff) The gymnasium at Yellowstone Christian College will be remodeled into a practice facility.
(LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff) The chapel at Yellowstone Christian College.
Epps, a native of Louisville, Ky., has been charged with putting this together. From scratch. He’s been on the jobs — he’s the men’s basketball coach and athletics director — since September and understandably has had plenty to keep him busy.
“It’s been 100 miles per hour,” Epps said. “Building a program is something totally different than taking a program over. There’s nothing there, no history.”
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Max Soft and Robert Workman, former college athletes themselves, took the idea of adding athletics to Cannon almost three years ago.
“He laughed,” Soft said. “We just kept at him, tried to get him to understand the value in athletics.”
It worked … eventually. Cannon admits he wasn’t as receptive to the idea as he perhaps should have been.
“My response was that we are an academic institution, that we’re not for sports,” Cannon said. “It took a while to convince me, about six to eight months. Now I’m all in.”
And it’s full speed ahead now as the school gets this rolling.
First came adopting a mascot for its athletic teams — the Centurions. A centurion was an officer in the army of ancient Rome and got the name because they commanded 100 men.
YCC also has applied to play as a member of the NCCAA, and there will be a site visit June 8 to determine that decision. If accepted, the Centurions will compete in the West Region with teams from Washington, Oregon and California.
They will start the men’s and women’s basketball programs in the fall. Recruiting and scheduling are under way. So is fundraising.
There are bigger plans. There’s talk of other sports — volleyball and soccer, perhaps softball and track and field. There’s talk of facilities on campus. Perhaps even a move to NAIA, the same association as Rocky Mountain College. YCC envisions itself to be a player in attracting athletes to its campus, whether local from Billings, surrounding states and even internationally.
Workman, the chief financial officer at YCC, said the school hasn’t been able to place an exact dollar amount on the startup. Among the requirements are salaries for coaches, a recruiting budget, association fees, scholarship money, practice clothing, jerseys and equipment.
Essentially, they need everything down to the whistles. And it will get done.
“There’s tons of potential,” said Soft, the school’s dean of enrollment and also a professor. “It’s very exciting. We’re all having a blast.”
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Yellowstone Christian College has been around since 1974. It was Yellowstone Baptist College until the name was changed nearly two years ago.
That was the first step in gaining exposure. Adding athletics falls in that category, as does adding majors and gaining accreditation. Work also has been and will be done around the campus.
A new chapel and library, both million-dollar buildings, can be seen at the front of campus. But a drive through will take you down gravel roads and into gravel parking lots where older and worn-down buildings with overgrown landscaping sit looking untouched in recent years.
“We’re putting in a great amount of effort and money fixing up the campus this summer,” Cannon said. “We want to look like a fully functioning campus. We want things to match and we want to be what people expect to find when they come to a college campus.”
Cannon said those gravel roads and parking lots will be paved. Lights will be added. Dorms will get a refresher. The campus, he said, will be ready to hold the number of students it anticipates having in the fall.
Enrollment for the 2014-15 school year was 35. Almost immediately, athletics will double that number. And by 2020, Soft said, the school hopes to have 220 students.
Those students, of course, must have a Christian background. They must fall in line with the school’s mission that reads: “YCC exists to instruct and coach men and women to shape the church and culture by reflecting Christ’s character.”
YCC is in candidate status with accreditation from the Association of Biblical Higher Education. Until it receives full accreditation, the school cannot add four-year degrees. The only bachelor’s program it currently offers is in Christian leadership, with an emphasis in ministry, music or business.
In addition, there are associate degrees with an emphasis in education, physical education, intercultural studies, theology/Biblical studies, church ministry, music or business.
“We are a faith-based school and institution and we’re looking for good Christian kids that fit that,” Epps said. “A lot of kids we can rule out right away; they know it’s not for them. If it fits, we move forward to the next step and try to get them here.”
Cannon took that a step further, admitting too that he worried about the stigma of adding athletes to the campus.
“We’re not looking for the athlete who wants to play basketball and put up with a Christian atmosphere,” he said. “We’re looking for a Christian kid who wants to play basketball in addition to his studies. There’s a big difference there.
“The culture on the campus will change, but it won’t change how we sculpt and mentor these kids. We don’t want athletes to change the culture of how we teach.”
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Epps seemed the perfect choice to lead Yellowstone Christian College in this endeavor. And if you ask him the story, he’ll tell you this is exactly where he’s supposed to be.
YCC went through a national search to fill the men’s basketball and athletic director opening. It landed on Epps, who after his playing career, was back home living in Louisville.
Cannon is a candidate for a doctoral degree in education from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. While on a trip there, he met with Epps. The two hit it off and Epps was hired.
“I give all the glory to God,” Epps said. “I mean, what are the odds? We just go where the good Lord calls us. Once you get signs like that, you go with it. You go with your faith.”
Epps knew nothing of Montana but got in his car and made the drive to Billings, questioning it at points along the way.
“I got around Wyoming and started to think, ‘Where is anything?’” he recalled. “My phone didn’t have service, and I just hoped I didn’t run out of gas. But lo and behold, I went up this hill and came down and Billings opens up. It’s been a great place.”
Epps started his college basketball career at Eastern Kentucky but got injured. His grades took a hit and eventually he was kicked out of school. At that point he decided to go a different direction and transferred to York College in Nebraska.
York is a tiny Christian school of about 500 students just west of Lincoln and about 100 miles from the big city of Omaha. It was at York where Epps said he found Christ. He was baptized there. And it led him on the path that eventually ended in Billings.
In between, he played and coached overseas for News Release Basketball, which “travels mainly throughout Europe to run basketball camps and to play against professional and club teams all while sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Epps also ran basketball camps and coached AAU teams in his native Louisville and spent a season as an assistant at York. His cousin is Anthony Epps, a former player at Kentucky who won a national title with the Wildcats in 1996.
“I know he’s been real excited about the opportunity to make something that’s never been before,” said York men’s basketball coach Delton Deal, whose team will come to Billings for YCC’s inaugural season. “If you meet him he’s really charismatic. People love him. He’s a great leader, a great person and I know he’ll handle it all very well.”
Deal said Epps was “rough around the edges” when he arrived at York. That quickly changed.
“He turned his life around,” Deal said. “I think he’s the perfect fit for what they want to do there. He’s proved that the system works, that if you put yourself out there, the Lord can change you. He’s the perfect example of that.”
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In the back of campus sits an old storage shed, tan in color and very much in need of paint and plenty of TLC. They call it the “Tin Can.”
“You have to use your imagination,” Soft said.
Those at YCC have and have made plans for the building, which as of now still holds plenty of dust and junk accumulated over the years.
By the time students arrive on campus this fall, the building will have been transformed. It will be turned into an area for athletes, especially basketball players. It will include a regulation halfcourt on which players can shoot in their free time and coaches can hold individual workouts.
The building also will serve as the weight room and workout area. There will be a lounge for players. Coaches’ offices will be in two rooms on the second level overlooking what will be the brand-new court.
“We do have huge plans for that building,” Epps said. “It’s kind of hard to see now, but I think it’s going to turn out to be a great thing for us.”
In the meantime, the basketball teams will practice at New Life Church, located immediately next to campus. It offers a high school size, 84-foot court. Practices also could be held at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch.
Games will be played at Shrine Auditorium and scheduling, Epps said, is nearly complete. The Centurions will play a 30-game schedule, facing four- and two-year colleges in the area. YCC will fill out its schedule playing teams from the Montana Dakota Tribal League.
Epps said he hopes to bring around 20 players to campus in the fall. Recruiting, like scheduling, is nearly complete. Players for the inaugural team will come from all over the country and will include a few international students.
Players are eligible for scholarship money and, as with all students, can receive academic scholarships and earn money through work study on campus. YCC as a school, Cannon said, makes an effort to ensure no student leaves with debt. At this time, that number is around 90 percent.
“It’s been a huge blessing that people want to partake in a startup program,” Epps said. “We haven’t been around and I can’t tell them what we did last year. But there’s an interest in it because it’s the first year. It’s history.”
Jawaun Lanouette said that was a draw to come play for Epps and the Centurions. A 6-foot-1 guard from Phoenix, Lanouette signed without seeing the campus or Billings.
“Coach Epps reached out to me and recruited me pretty heavily. He wants me to be a leader and be a big part of the team,” he said. “I jumped at the chance. It’s a chance to start something, to make my own mark and for us to do the same.”
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Back to the initial idea some three years ago, it’s hard for Soft and Workman to believe this time has arrived. Athletics at Yellowstone Christian College was their dream.
Soft, a 1987 graduate of Billings Senior High School, played basketball at Seattle Pacific and then Indiana Wesleyan.
Workman played football at Montana State in the late 1960s, graduated in 1970 and left the state for Arizona for a while before returning about eight years ago.
The two weren’t certain just what they were getting into and asked colleges around the area to clue them in. Soft said he talked with officials at Gillette College, a two-year school in Wyoming that started athletics about six years ago.
“It’s an interesting challenge and I wouldn’t want to do it again,” said Shawn Neary, the men’s basketball coach at Gillette. “There has to be patience; it’s always a work in progress. You start with nothing and there’s no history.”
Neary is a Butte native who coached at Miles Community College for 13 years before leaving for the startup program at Gillette. He and Soft have been friends since high school.
“There’s recruiting and funding and facilities. All that needs to be taken care of,” Neary said. “You’re going to have student-athletes on campus for the first time and that can be a different challenge than regular students. The biggest thing is to get the culture right from the start.”
Soft also reached out to officials at the University of Great Falls, which dropped athletics in 1984 and restored them in 2000. UGF plays in the Frontier Conference with Rocky Mountain.
“Our school has been out here for 40 years and been flying under the radar,” Workman said. “It’s amazing the number of people in Billings who aren’t aware we even exist. We have a lot of good things going on out here and we see athletics as trying to take advantage of the momentum we have.”
The increase in students will mean an increase in money the school sees. It also will increase visibility and help attract and retain students in coming years.
While all that is important to the bottom line, adding athletics truly comes back to the mission statement of Yellowstone Christian College.
“Sports played such a critical role in my life. I wouldn’t have gone to college if not for basketball,” Soft said. “Sports teach camaraderie. You develop friendships. To me, it teaches you so many things about life. I really believe sports parallel nicely with what we are trying to teach kids here.”
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Yellowstone Christian College