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Fort Lauderdale and the Birth of a Football Program

How a small, Christian and little-known commuter school with a team led by a former NFL Pro Bowler is getting things off the ground in South Florida.

Reginald Byarse Jr. can’t blame the recruits he’s courting for not knowing of his school.

He hadn’t heard of it, either, until a few months ago, when he clicked on a job posting for an assistant coach at an upstart college football program in South Florida. Now, the defensive coordinator is doing his best used-car-salesman impersonation to football players everywhere, pitching them on the opportunity to come build the foundation of University of Fort Lauderdale football.

So far, Byarse said conversations with potential players go something like this:

“I introduce myself and the school, ask them if they’ve ever heard of it.”

“No, but I know what Fort Lauderdale is!”

The university has that going for it—its name. Brian Hankerson, the school’s chaplain and CFO, calls it a “godsend.” The University of Fort Lauderdale’s notoriety is principally associated with the popular spring break and tourist destination 15 minutes southeast of the campus in Lauderhill rather than its academics or athletics.

The reality of the university is less glamorous than its namesake.

It’s a private, Christian commuter school with enrollment numbers in the hundreds tucked in a small plaza between a golf course and strip mall. It was founded in 1995 and previously known as Plantation Christian University. The Eagles football program is embarking on its inaugural year in the National Christian College Athletic Association (not to be confused with the NCAA) after years of competing in club football. Its first game is just weeks away, and there’s an open tryout coming up just to fill out the roster à la high school, as just 10 players and no coaches remain from the 2020 season.

But the administration is confident it tapped the right man to pioneer its program. Chris Chambers is a former Miami Dolphins receiver and a man of faith who previously coached high school football in the area. He has a vision for the small school with the big name, one that will take years.

“From an aesthetic standpoint we’re just not there yet; from a campus standpoint we’re just not there yet,” Chambers says. “But if we can get guys to get past that part and just see us for what we are, and who we are, then we’ll be fine.”

Chris Chambers with a Fort Lauderdale signee

Before the university contacted Chambers, he nearly joined the coaching staff at St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Going to STA, an established football factory in Fort Lauderdale, would have been an upgrade but still a largely lateral move from his job as a position coach at a nearby school.

When the opportunity to lead a college program materialized, Chambers pivoted quickly. He was hired in late April and began in May.

The school’s name was a major selling point, he says: “To have the name University of Fort Lauderdale, to me, was almost like University of Miami.”

The appeal of a big name went both ways. Chambers says he was told the school wanted to hire a celebrity coach to bring it exposure. He qualified as a local celebrity, still beloved by Dolphins fans for his days with the team in the early 2000s.

Chambers always thought he could be an athletic director or a general manager, and he views coaching as a step toward those goals. He also has previous management experience—he owned and operated his own training facility called Chamber Fitness for years in a nearby city after retiring from the NFL. That’s how he met Hankerson.

Hankerson trained at his facility a few years ago while Chambers was preparing college athletes for the NFL draft, but he wasn’t aware of Chambers’s interest in coaching.

When Chambers emerged as a candidate, Hankerson was surprised. He would consider us? But it made sense because of who Hankerson found him to be: humble, hardworking, “an ordinary dude.” Someone who doesn’t let playing in the NFL define him, which mattered to Hankerson.

Taking over at Fort Lauderdale and reminding people of his Pro Bowl season wouldn’t match the school’s low profile or the administration’s vision. And besides—Chambers wants to be remembered for what he does after football.

He believes that the second act of his career can truly begin at Fort Lauderdale. In recent years, Chambers has been less fulfilled by what he was doing from a coaching standpoint. He felt he was coming up short on the impact he could be making on athletes and in the community. The pandemic and increased awareness of nationwide inequality pushed him forward.

“I was like, ‘Man, I gotta do something,’ ” Chambers says.

So he did. And now he’s here.

The stated goal for Year 1 is to simply get through it. But he has this vision that he and everyone around him see and seem to believe in.

Byarse, the team’s defensive coordinator, sees it. He’s known Chambers for years—they attended the same high school in Cleveland, albeit Byarse went years later. When he heard Chambers was heading a program in South Florida, he connected with him and was one of the first hires.

Thinking back on the rushed offseason that forced at least six months of work and planning into two months’ time, Byarse is thankful that Chambers is the one running the show.

“He knows what he wants to do,” Byarse says, “and he knows how he’s going to get there.”

Fort Lauderdale football workout

It wasn’t long ago when the Eagles played in a national championship game. For all the talk of building the program from the ground up, football has a brief but bright history at Fort Lauderdale.

The National Club Football Association (NCFA) consists of teams from a rotating cast of schools. Some you’ve likely never heard of, like Longwood University or Coppin State. Others are brand names, such as Ohio State and Michigan State.

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In 2017, Fort Lauderdale joined the NFCA in its first year fielding football at any level. The Eagles went 9–1 in their inaugural season and lost the national championship. They followed that appearance with a winning record, but the team fell off in ’19, playing just four games and winning only one.

COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCFA season. Fort Lauderdale still competed, albeit with more “canceled due to COVID-19” designations on its schedule than wins or losses.

The school began exploring options to join a league, which Hankerson said became a goal after 2017’s success. Fort Lauderdale fielded only three sports a year ago. That number has risen to nine, with plans to jump to 22. Football is the face of the athletic expansion, but it’s hardly the only program the university is focused on.

In March, the University of Fort Lauderdale accepted an invitation to join the NCCAA, which has close to 90 member schools. Chambers was hired about a month later.

“We’re not there yet,” Hankerson says of joining a larger association. “We’re a young school, we’re a small school and we’re a Christian school. We saw this as being a really good fit.”

Players work out at Fort Lauderdale

When he took over, Chambers’s vision for the program did not include the coaching staff that preceded him. The athletic department cleaned house and allowed Chambers to pick his staff. He didn’t inherit much; there were six games on the schedule and a list of athletes that the previous coach was recruiting. For all there was to do, recruiting wasn’t a chief concern.

“I can go down the street and get a receiver,” says Chambers. “We in South Florida.”

NFL talent is endemic to the area. In the 2021 NFL draft, 17 players were taken from it, two shy of California’s total.

The talent is there—the problem is that local athletes hardly know the university is. Chambers understands his duty to market himself and the school. His first month on the job, he offered quarterback Davi Belfort, the son of international MMA superstar Vitor Belfort, who holds offers from Alabama and Miami, among others. Davi, a 2025 prospect from Cardinal Newman in Palm Beach, posted his Fort Lauderdale offer on Instagram and Twitter to tens of thousands of followers. That exposure was Chambers’s goal, and he also gets the pleasure of saying he was ahead of Nick Saban in offering the incoming freshman.

In June, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent Chambers a letter congratulating him on his new job. Chambers posted it on Twitter and that, too, brought the program recognition. But one reply encapsulated the biggest challenge Chambers & Co. face: “There’s a University of Fort Lauderdale? In Lauderhill? Sorry, Chris, I missed that.”

It will take time for athletes in the area and beyond to have the school on their radar. Chambers understands, so he’s banking on finding players affected by the COVID-19 season, which backed up scholarships and put the squeeze on rosters at the higher levels of college football. He’s not discriminating—transfer portal, juco, incoming freshmen, everyone is welcome.

Larry Blustein, who has covered recruiting in Florida for more than 50 years, thinks there’s talent to be found in this approach.

“He may be able to come up with players who maybe should have been Division I kids, but they slipped down to this level because of necessity,” he says.

For that reason, Blustein adds, this is the perfect time to be looking for players. Chambers and the Eagles don’t have many inherent advantages currently, but they are able to offer scholarships. Being a fallback school isn’t the worst option. Chambers will gladly take what—and who—he can get.

Fort Lauderdale coach Chris Chambers with a signee

No one at Fort Lauderdale has illusions about the team’s competing right away. Administration is aware it’s not a rebuild. It’s a build. Chambers arrived to a scant foundation. That’s why 2021 is being billed as a learning year for the program. And still, Year 1 won’t even be a full one. When the season ends in November, Chambers will have been on the job for just over six months.

Chambers, Hankerson says, knows the school is going to give him time. Hankerson recognizes that bringing in the 42-year-old was an investment of which the benefit may not be tangible for years.

Many of Chambers’s ideations are multiyear undertakings, at least.

He wants the team to play in DRV PNK Stadium, current home to MLS’s Inter Miami. For now, the Eagles will play at Central Broward Park, a 20,000-seat cricket stadium. The uniforms Chambers wanted won’t be ready this year, either. Associate athletic director Rachel Steinbarger said it wasn’t that the coach wanted amazing uniforms, it’s that the time frame of him coming in as late as he did wasn’t conducive to custom ones. Finally, Chambers wants to one day play the University of Miami.

“He’s just a big image guy,” Steinbarger says. “He wants the big picture.”

Eventually, offseason rah-rah bleeds into fall and games are played. Five weeks from now, the Eagles have their first. That’s four weeks after the team’s upcoming open tryout. Chambers says he’ll take players up to Week 1 and even afterward, if necessary. Fort Lauderdale has a particularly tough schedule that includes defending Division II national champion West Florida.

This season, while about making history, is really about getting through it, Chambers says, and “showing the world that we’re here.”

“I know it’s going to take some time to really grow and build this thing out,” he says. “I’m not gonna sit up here and put all this pressure on me this year and say I need to get 95 guys or do this or win these games.

“I came here in May. I should have at least a year or two to get this thing rolling.”

Blustein, the recruiting analyst, says growing pains are inevitable. He questioned whether Chambers might be disheartened by the grind of the building process and inevitable losses in his first go-around. But he thinks, eventually, if Chambers stays and gets his players to buy in, there’s an opportunity to build something in Lauderhill.

All indications are that’s what Chambers plans to do. It’s all part of the vision.

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