ARLINGTON – Disrespect by the media in the preseason poll is the least of the Sam Houston football team’s problems as the program begins its journey into the FBS ranks. The Bearkats were voted into a tie for the eighth spot in the preseason media poll, tied for last with FIU. But that level adversity is small potatoes for K.C. Keeler’s crew.
The Bearkats know how to overcome. Sam Houston went 21-1 in the 2021 calendar year, winning the spring season national title despite not having a locker room in the middle of a national pandemic. The national championship rings worn proudly by those players contains an image of a football player carrying his pads to remind them of the daily struggle.
Oh, and a historic ice storm rolled through Texas in the spring of 2021, requiring the coaching staff to buy feed shovels from the local general store to clear off the field because, unsurprisingly, Huntsville, Texas doesn’t employ any snowplows.
The players overcame the lack of facilities, bad weather, and COVID tests to win 21 straight games that year, but the physical toll didn’t stop after the FCS playoff loss to Montana State. In many ways, the toughest road was in front of the team.
“You do realize after the fact that you shouldn’t play 22 games in 10 months,” Keeler said. “There were afteraffects and I think we’re finally getting past those. I can’t tell you how many surgeries we had and the number of players we lost because of the toll that year took on us.”
The 2022 season might’ve been even harder on Keeler and the players. Keeler, who is the only coach to win FCS titles at two different schools, only knew how to coach one way – all-in, all the time. That tune changed last season because his Bearkats couldn’t win the WAC or qualify for the FCS playoffs due to the transition up to FBS in 2023. That required new solutions to tough challenges.
“I told my seniors, ‘You deserve to decide how you want to leave this program,’” Keeler remembered at Conference USA media day earlier in the week. “If you want to leave now, that is awesome. If you want to stick around, we’re redshirt you. I’m blessed to have a deeper roster than most FCS teams have when moving up.”
Fifteen players, including star middle linebacker Trevor Williams, decided to redshirt in 2022 to preserve a season for FBS football. For many players like Williams, playing FBS football is a dream. One that was within his grasp if he elected to play in four games or fewer last campaign. Williams was all smiles at media day as he enters his final season at Sam Houston, but that doesn’t mean the decision to sit out and watch his team limp to a 5-4 record was easy.
“It was different, but I got an opportunity to look at the game a different way,” he admitted. “I coached the younger guys and helped them see some stuff they might not see. I’m hoping to learn from it and take advantage of it.”
The roller coaster ride for Sam Houston football isn’t over. From COVID to two full seasons in one calendar year to a transition season played without 15 of their best players, the Bearkats are finally at their desired destination – FBS football. But that doesn’t mean the journey is over. Any explorer would tell you that.
“With the culture we have, we can have immediate success in Conference USA,” Keeler said. “I always approach every season like the last season never existed. We’re proud of our accomplishments, but that was accomplished by previous teams. We’re all on a one-year contract and we need to attack it that way.”
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