ABILENE- Sept. 1, 2007 was the first time Brad Bankhead and Ben Allen found themselves competing on the same field. Bankhead was, at the time, in his second year as the head coach of the UMHB men’s soccer program. Ben Allen was a freshman midfielder from Burleson, Texas, who would go on to play in 11 more matches for The Cru that fall.
Fast forward 16 years later. On Thursday night, the duo will find themselves competing on the same field once again, but this time, as opponents. Bankhead is in his first year leading the Hardin-Simmons men’s soccer program–his alma mater– and Allen is a second-year head coach, at the helm of the lone undefeated team still standing in American Southwest Conference play.
“I know the vast majority of those guys,” Bankhead said of facing UMHB. “They’re great players and great young men. I was certainly excited about them going to Mary Hardin-Baylor. And now, I’m having to compete against these boys. There’s a challenge in that.”
Bankhead is just one season removed from leading the Crusaders, as he took an administrative position in the UMHB athletic department following the 2021 season; a year in which The Cru went 10-0 in conference play. As a result, he helped recruit many of the current players on the roster, and even coached a number of UMHB’s juniors and seniors during their freshman and sophomore seasons. Bottom line: he knows this UMHB team pretty well.
“I told them that for the next five days, we’re enemies, and after that we’ll get to be great friends again and root for the programs,” Bankhead said with a laugh. “I keep up with a lot of those guys and how they’re doing. It’ll be a really fun game, and in good spirits.”
Allen succeeded Bankhead at the helm of the program in Belton, and guided UMHB to both an ASC Tournament Championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance last fall. The Crusaders have by and large picked up where they left off last November, racing out to a perfect 5-0 start in their ASC slate.
“We preach trying to play our best soccer at the end of the year,” Allen told True To The Cru. “Right now, we’re in a good spot. Certainly, we’ve got some hard opponents ahead of us. But with the way practice is going, I feel like the guys are starting to click at the right time.”
Bankhead, interestingly enough, had a similar comment on the state of his program. With just two weeks left in the regular season, the ASC Tournament picture is coming into full view. And despite a rough 0-4-4 start to his tenure in Abilene, Bankhead has the Cowboys playing their best when it matters most. HSU is 3-0-1 in conference matches, having not yet fallen to an ASC opponent with the league’s top program arriving on Thursday evening.
“That was a challenge. But it wasn’t so bad that we were beaten up and left with no confidence. We’re still trying to figure things out, and we’re not there yet, but we’ve found a little bit of the identity of who we are. We’ve been fortunate to get some results to make Thursday a really fun game.”
That is, of course, a reference to the always highly-anticipated No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the conference that inevitably comes about during each regular season. The fact that it is later in the year only adds to the storyline. Not to mention that it will be the first time that Bankhead has ever faced off against one of his former players.
“I think back to 2007, when Ben came into the program,” Bankhead recalled. “Our saying that we have at Mary Hardin-Baylor, and the same thing here at Hardin-Simmons, is we hope to produce great men that become great fathers, husbands, and bosses. Ben Allen has always been a great example of that.”
The respect between the two is mutual in a lot of ways. As is the case with most young head coaches, Allen learned plenty from his predecessor, serving as an assistant coach with Bankhead for seven seasons, and a graduate assistant for one year prior to that. He took away a number of things that have served him well in his first stint as a head coach, perhaps none more important the evolution that is necessary to remain committed to the pursuit of excellence.
“I remember the coach that I played for and I remember the coach that I worked for,” Allen said. “He evolved over those years and kept improving, and getting better. To me, it’s always been a great lesson learned that you have to continue to learn, and grow, and evolve.”
In the early years of Bankhead’s career at UMHB, during the time when Allen was on the field as a player for The Cru, HSU had dominated the series with UMHB. In fact, the Cowboys prevailed in 13 of the first 14 meetings, with a 2-2 tie mixed in between. UMHB’s first win over HSU came in 2007, during Allen’s freshman year. A 2009 ASC Championship match between the two furthered the rivalry, as HSU won the title on penalty kicks in Belton.
“Hardin-Simmons was the best team in our league,” Allen recalls. “Coach Bankhead had just started turning the program around and had gotten us competitive with Hardin-Simmons. When we lost to them in the conference tournament final, it created even more of a rivalry from that moment on. No matter who is on the sidelines for those games, it’s always fun.”
Not surprisingly, Bankhead and Allen share a similar philosophy on their roles as coaches within their respective programs. It almost goes without saying. And yet, it needs to be noted. It is about more than soccer, and certainly about more than just developing skilled players, for the leaders of the programs at HSU and UMHB. Developing high-character men is the ultimate goal. It might sound cliche, but it really isn’t. Because it is something Bankhead and Allen live out in their leadership each day.
“When I stepped away,” Bankhead said, “I felt it was an easy step for me to know that the guy that I’m leaving that program to loves that program just as much as I do, has poured himself into it and seen it come a long way. More than anything, he cares about those dudes. More than just soccer, he cares about them in life. He does it the right way.”
Added Allen, “At the end of the day, all I can remember is working and playing for Coach Bankhead. A lot of what I draw off of is his leadership and the things we accomplished together as a staff, and things we accomplished when I was a player for him.
“It’s a foundation, and just like he is creating that culture over [at HSU], for us at Mary Hardin-Baylor, creating great fathers, husbands, and bosses is no different.”