Pete Fredenburg, who started the UMHB football program in 1998 and guided the Crusaders to two national championships, announced his retirement Friday.

BELTON — After 24 years, 17 conference titles and two national championships, the man who built Mary Hardin-Baylor football from scratch and turned it into the country’s premier NCAA Division III program is hanging up his whistle.

In a room filled with family, friends and former players inside Crusader Stadium on Friday, Pete Fredenburg announced that he is retiring as head coach of the Crusaders and stepping away from the sport he has loved since he started playing as a youngster.

“If I can make it through this without crying, we’re all going to be happy,” he began. “I’m announcing today that I am retiring as the head football coach. I had 24 glorious years.”

The announcement came exactly three weeks after UMHB won the national championship — its second in a span of three full seasons — with a rout of North Central in the Stagg Bowl in Canton, Ohio.

The 72-year-old Fredenburg will be replaced by defensive coordinator Larry Harmon, who was promoted after two decades as a Crusaders assistant.

“I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be the second head football coach ever at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor,” Harmon said. “Trust me. I know what I’m biting off. I do know what the scope of this means.”

Fredenburg was a three-year letterman as a player at Southwest Texas State and began his coaching career with high school stops at New Braunfels Canyon, New Braunfels and Giddings before spending 14 years as an assistant at Baylor, one at LSU and three at Louisiana Tech.

He was hired in July of 1997 as the first head coach of the UMHB football program, which began play in the fall of 1998.

“I thought I would stay here a couple years and then get back into Division I. That was 24 years ago,” said Fredenburg, who didn’t make it all the way through his remarks without choking up a few times. “As I look back and remember all the twists and turns of my career, I realize that God’s hand was in every move. He directed me to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

“Here’s the great thing about coaching at a DIII school. It’s the players. They love the game. They’re passionate about it and sacrifice so much for it.”

After going 7-13 over the first two seasons, the Crusaders went 224-26 over the next 22 years, making 17 trips to the NCAA Division III playoffs and winning national titles in 2018 and 2021.

UMHB athletic director Mickey Kerr rattled off the accomplishments of Fredenburg’s tenure, which include a 231-39 record, 47 postseason victories, 173 All-Americans, four national coach of the year honors and enshrinement in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

“Now there’s a legacy,” Kerr said. “Thank you, Coach. Thank you for this incredible journey.”

Friday’s ceremony was a mix of celebration, nostalgia and emotion. For a man who has devoted the majority of his life to football, it wasn’t easy to walk away and he talked about the toughest parts of making the decision.

“It’s the relationships you have. Talking to 180 kids today and telling them I’m not going to be part of their daily lives any more. Saying goodbye to coaches,” Fredenburg said. “Of course, I’ll be around. But it won’t be the same. It’s been football for 24/7, and now it won’t be.”

Among those in attendance were former players Jerrell Freeman, Jeff Shinn and David Branscom, former assistants George Haffner, Joe George and Marvin Agnew and the two men who hired Fredenburg back in 1997 — former university president Jerry Bawcom and former athletic director Ben Shipp.

Fredenburg thanked all of them and many more people who helped him forge the program into a national power.

For many, that will be his enduring legacy. That he built a football team out of nothing prior to the 1998 season — from hiring assistants to recruiting players to ordering the equipment — and turned it into the country’s flagship Division III program with a resolute vision that never blurred over the course of 24 years.

He hopes he will be remembered for that and more.

“I just really care about the people that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. I love the guys that give of themselves and sacrifice,” he said. “I hope they learned from me how to be a servant leader. I think that is what I respect the most.”