K.C. Keeler was on a bus to the airport in Fargo, N.D., in 2017 when he decided enough was enough.
Sam Houston featured the nation’s best scoring offense, passing offense and total offense by a mile. Quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe became just the second back-to-back winner of the Walter Payton Award as the best player in FCS. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the program to break through.
But when the Bearkats took the field against North Dakota State in the national semifinals, all that went out the window. Sam Houston scored just 13 points, mustered just 63 rushing yards and gave up 9.8 yards per carry. The Bearkats’ dreams of their first ever national championship quickly collapsed as “If You’re Going to Play in Texas” by the band Alabama – NDSU’s Frisco anthem – blared over the Fargodome speakers.
“Ever since my freshman year, that one loss stung the most,” defensive back Tristin McCollum said. “Especially going so far in the playoffs and losing in that fashion.”
The loss came one year after future national champs James Madison smacked Sam Houston 65-7 in the 2016 national quarterfinals, wiping away what was a perfect season to that point. Sam Houston was happy to rank among the nation’s elite, but North Dakota State and James Madison had a trump card.
“We are among the elite, but we have not won the national championship,” Keeler said. “That’s the thing that’s always kept us from those two – we’re third – is that we haven’t won a national championship.”
So on that bus ride in the freezing North Dakota winter, Keeler started scheming.
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Ever since Willie Fritz took over the program in 2010, the Bearkats have competed for national success. Sam Houston earned trips to back-to-back national title games in 2011 and 2012, losing to North Dakota State both times.
When Keeler took over in 2014, he led the program to the final four in each of his first two seasons. Sam Houston posted the nation’s top offense every year from 2015 to 2017 and became the second winningest program of the 2010s in FCS football.
But after the shellackings at the hands of James Madison and North Dakota State, Keeler – named one of the 150 greatest college football coaches of all time by ESPN – decided to start over.
After rewatching film of his matchups against North Dakota State and James Madison, a theme emerged. Sam Houston was getting brutalized on the ground and in the trenches. In Keeler’s three games at Sam Houston against NDSU and JMU, the Bearkats allowed 1,102 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 7.3 yards per carry.
“We could score a lot of points, but I thought the way we practiced didn’t help my defense,” Keeler said. “I told [defensive coordinator] Clayton Carlin, we will stop the run, period. We will find a way to stop the run.”
It started in recruiting. The Bearkats went out and found big bodies like UTEP transfer Trace Mascorro, Texas Tech transfer Joseph Wallace and JUCO transfer Jahari Kay to give the program instant size up front. Schematically, Sam Houston was willing to stack boxes and get more linebackers on the field against certain physical teams.
But then came the big ask. Keeler went to athletic director Bobby Williams and said to win a national championship at Sam Houston, he needed to hire a full-time strength coach and nutritionist dedicated to football. For an FCS program, that is no small task.
Keeler courted an alum that was willing to put down money for the first year of a strength coach. Then, he paid out of his own pocket to provide some of the funding for the first two years of a full-time nutritionist until Williams could fundraise to cover it heading forward.
The Bearkats found husband-and-wife duo Parker and Susana Whiteman as strength coach and nutritionist respectively. The physical transformation of the roster versus the rest of the FCS ranks has been stark.
“I think we just last longer in practices and games,” quarterback Eric Schmid said. “There aren’t guys dying out there. I just think our endurance is improving really well.”
The way the program held practice changed too. To try and keep players fresh for Saturday, Keeler looked to the Oregon practice model. Monday through Wednesday are the most physical and aggressive days for practice and lifting to keep weight up. Thursday is simply a walkthrough, while Friday is about lightly engaging muscles. By the time Saturday comes around, players are fresh and ready.
Keeler compared the Whitemans to having an extra set of eyes. In one practice, Parker Whiteman noticed the quarterbacks weren’t getting much running in, so he pulled Schmid and the unit over when Keeler worked on special teams. The couple have also served as “mother hens” to players, a tremendous resource made only more valuable during a period where people were so disconnected.
“Those are things I don’t worry about anymore,” Keeler said. “Those are things that usually keep you up at night – are kids hydrating, are they keeping their body weights up.”
* * *
Keeler knew the changes would take time to pay off. The offense struggled at times as the Bearkats tried to find a successor to Jeremiah Briscoe while diversifying under offensive coordinator Ryan Carty. The unit fell from No. 1 in 2017 to No. 34 in 2018 during a disappointing 6-5 season, the program’s worst mark since Fritz’s first year in 2010. Sam Houston followed it up by going 7-5 in 2019 behind a rash of QB injuries.
As if changing some schematics and recruiting strategy wasn’t enough, Sam Houston then ran head-first into the COVID-19 pandemic. The schedule was pushed from the fall to the spring. A racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota forced players and coaches to have difficult conversations. A renovation of the athletic facilities meant players had to dress for games at home or in the weight room. The historic snow storm and failure of the ERCOT grid stole power and water for many players.
Simply put, Sam Houston was battle-tested beyond belief long before the football team ever took the field. The adversity only helped build this team.
“I feel like we’re close,” defensive lineman Jahari Kay said. “Everything we’re going through, we came together.”
But while the record did not show it, Sam Houston quietly improved in all the metrics Keeler pointed to. The rush defense went from No. 102 in 2017 to No. 1 nationally in 2019, and fell from 4.93 yards per carry allowed to an astonishing 2.15. The team was ready.
“We knew we had the talent and the guys and the coaches, it was just execution,” Schmid said. “It was just execution. Losing five games by 22 points was rough – we just knew we had to pull together. That’s what we’ve done this year.”
After giving up 462 yards and four touchdowns to Walter Payton Award finalist Cole Kelley in the opener against Southeastern Louisiana, the team started to come together. The next week, Sam Houston obliterated physical running team No. 7 Nicholls 71-17. It was all downhill from there.
The offense fell from No. 1 in 2017 to No. 10 nationally in 2021 as the Bearkats stopped playing at a breakneck pace. Sam Houston dropped from 77.1 plays per game to just 68.2, which helped keep the defense fresh.
On May 2, Sam Houston faced its first test against North Dakota State since the embarrassment at the Fargodome. This time at Bowers Stadium, the script flipped. Sam Houston jumped out to a 17-2 lead in the third quarter. The defense only allowed three points and held NDSU to 3.2 yards per carry.
It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t pretty, but Sam Houston became just the second team since 2011 to hand North Dakota State a loss in the FCS Playoffs. The Bowers Stadium PA fittingly played “If You’re Going to Play in Texas” over the loudspeaker.
Then, the Bearkats followed it up by overcoming a 24-3 deficit through defense and special teams to beat No. 1 James Madison and earn a trip to Frisco.
“We’ve come a long way,” McCollum said with a big smile after beating North Dakota State. “We changed a lot of things up – personnel-wise, scheme-wise, mindset-wise. Just to see all of that come together and pay off, it means everything.”
For Keeler, Sam Houston’s first trip to the FCS national championship game since 2012 is a reminder that two years of hovering around .500 was worth it. At long last, he feels like he has a national championship caliber team. And this is only the beginning.
“It’s great being in a place where they want to win a national championship, and that’s what they want to do,” Keeler said. “Winning 99 games in 10 years is cool, but what’s missing on our resume is a national championship.
“I didn’t move my family to Huntsville, Texas, just to coach football. I want to win a national championship.”
Sam Houston faces off against No. 1 overall seed South Dakota State at 1 p.m. Sunday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco for the FCS National Championship. The game will be broadcast live nationally on ABC.
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