In 1923, Stephen F. Austin squared off with Sam Houston in Huntsville, TX. That game, as it turned out, would end up being the first of nearly 100 played between the two storied FCS programs. From year to year, conference to conference and division to division, the Bearkats and the Lumberjacks have remained alongside each other. In fact, their streak of annual meetings was only interrupted twice over the last century, once due to World War II and once for the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020.
Saturday, though, will mark a poignant day in the long history of this rivalry. The "Battle for the Piney Woods", as it's come to be known, will be coming to an end after the two programs get together one last time this weekend.
Since that November clash way back in 1923, both Sam Houston and SFA have come a long way. Back then the two programs were in their dawning days with Stephen F. Austin quite literally in its first year of football existence. From Division II foes in the Lone Star Conference to the Gulf Star Conference to the FCS’ Southland Conference and beyond, the two schools have stayed together through it all.
Fast forward to now, though, and that is all about to change.
The last 12 years have been extremely good to Sam Houston. After competing for national championships in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012, the Bearkats brought in K.C. Keeler as their head coach in 2014. Keeler has done nothing but usher Sam Houston into a new era of its football success. The ‘Kats have qualified for the FCS playoffs six of the eight years of Keeler’s tenure and won their second national title in 2020 (the first coming in 1967).
All that recent success has forced eyes around the nation to take notice and last fall the inevitable happened. Sam Houston received and accepted an invitation to leave the FCS ranks and join the FBS’ Conference USA. The Bearkats, now an FCS independent, are in the midst of their final season before fully moving up.
Stephen F. Austin has not been as lucky. The Lumberjacks have seen their bursts of success but nowhere near the level as that of their in-state rivals. SFA has only played in the playoffs eight time since joining the FCS. They’ve reached the national title once (1989) and lost to Georgia Southern.
Come next year, SFA will be left behind as Sam Houston moves on to greener pastures. That means that the rivalry game will come to an end after this weekend... at least for a while. That’s sad news for fans in Texas because the rivalry is not only the second oldest in the FCS but it’s also been the origin of some remarkable moments.
In 2002, an unranked Sam Houston team rolled into Nacogdoches and upset a then-#23 SFA squad on homecoming night. In 2010 Stephen F. Austin squeaked by with 31-28 win after the Lumberjacks defense stopped the Bearkats on a fourth down late. Even last year, Sam Houston won the game thanks to a missed field goal with under a minute left to keep their undefeated season alive.
It will be hard to say goodbye to all that history and Keeler, who has never lost one of the rivalry tilts with SFA, knows it.
“We knew as we were making the move up to FBS that there would be growing pains, and this is a growing pain,” he said. “It is a loss for the state of Texas.”
Current Lumberjacks head coach Colby Carthel shares the sentiment but also understands keeping a yearly meeting going is difficult to do once the two schools are in different divisions.
“This is the last one as long as I’m the head coach here unless they want to write a check for half-a-million dollars,” he said plainly. “If we’re going to play an FBS opponent, we need to be getting paid half-a-million dollars so we can help the rest of our athletic programs here at SFA.”
So as the teams come together on Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium in Houston, it will mark the end of an era. Carthel and his 2-2 Lumberjacks need a win to get their season back on track; a season that many had very high expectations for earlier this summer. 1-2 Sam Houston is looking to win its 11th straight in the series.
There is nothing that says the two programs can’t resurrect the rivalry down the line. Maybe someday SFA also goes FBS. Maybe the Bearkats are willing to foot the bill to keep the game going in a few years. For now, though, Saturday’s 96th meeting between the schools will be the last one.