Decades in the making, Sam Houston set to host first conference game as FBS program

Photo by Brian Blalock | Edit by DCTF

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Sam Houston was in the back half of a 21-game winning streak in 2021 which included a national championship in the spring season when head coach K.C. Keeler learned that his Bearkats were transitioning to the FBS and play in Conference USA starting in the 2023 season. Keeler, who is the only college coach to win FCS national titles at two programs, wasn’t jumping for joy about the future because he was worried about the present.

“There was this realization that this was going to be the last go around for us to win a national championship,” Keeler remembered from a team meeting in the fall of 2021, right before the start of the group’s second playoff run of the calendar year. “I was a little unsure (about the move to FBS) because I know resource wise, we were a long way off from what the other FBS programs have, especially in the state of Texas.”

One person who was sure was Sam Houston athletic director Bobby Williams. The former Rice football player arrived in Huntsville in 1982 as an assistant coach under Ron Randleman. Williams transitioned into a role as assistant director of athletics before becoming the interim director of athletics in 1997. He eventually became the full-time athletic director and has watched the Bearkats march through five conferences on its way to FBS football.

Sam Houston was an NAIA member from 1932 to 1981 before moving to Division II as a member of the Lone Star Conference. The Bearkats then transitioned to the Gulf Star Conference in 1984 and to the Southland Conference in 1987, where they stayed through 2020. They then played in the WAC for two seasons, including the national championship year in 2021, before moving to Conference USA in 2022.

That's a lot. So, forgive Williams if he’s suffering from whiplash.

Sam Houston over 10,000 students when he showed up 40-plus years ago. The university is trending towards 28,000 by the end of the decade. Most expect Sam Houston to surpass the 30,000-student threshold by the mid 2030s. Williams began planning for this move to the highest level of athletics with former university president James F. Gaertner over two decades ago. From capital campaigns to R-2 status to bringing on a medical school, Sam Houston has geared up to be a major university while the football team marched up the ladder.

“If we build it, (the FBS) will come. That’s the approach we took,” Williams said about the move up from NAIA to FBS over his tenure at Sam Houston. “We had to be best in class and compete at a high level and then we were able to build out from there. We’re fortunate that the university saw enrollment growth.” 

Williams knows how much alignment between the athletic department and the university matters. Sam Houston struggled on and off the football field when the program moved to Division II in the 1980s, and Williams attributes that to the university not being all-in on the move. He vividly remembers standing on the sideline of a Sam Houston game two years ago with current university president, Dr. Alisa White, after a visit from CUSA commissioner Judy MacLeod. Dr. White asked Williams for his opinion on moving to FBS. 

“I said, ‘I know what I want to do. We’ve built this for this exact opportunity, but it doesn’t matter what my recommendation is,’” he said. “It matters if you think this move fits with your vision for the university.’ I knew we had a chance when university was behind it.” 

And the university is all-in this time around. The student athletic fee has contributed over $10 million to the pot while the direct institutional support is over $4 million. The operating budget for athletics has raised around 20 percent. The next step is to grow the fan base and alumni network. The $750,000 annually from the CUSA media deal also helps, as do payouts from opponents such as the $1.2 million from BYU this year or the 800K from UCF in 2024. 

“We were tapped out with our revenue streams at FCS,” Williams said. “Everybody thought revenue was coming in because of those games on ESPN and such in the spring, but it actually cost us about 300,000 dollars with infrastructure to play those games on TV.” 

With the deal done, attention turned towards Keeler. He was given an extension and raise in the offseason to stabilize the staff amid the move to the FBS. The Bearkats navigated a final year of FCS football in 2022 in which they weren’t eligible to win the WAC or play in the playoffs. Keeler calls it the hardest year of his college coaching career. Over a dozen of the team’s best players redshirted to save eligibility for FBS while the team limped to a 5-4 record. 

Sam Houston was thrown in the deep end from the start of the 2023 season. Finding opponents that late in the game meant that the Bearkats couldn’t be choosy. The typical G5 schedule includes one pay game, a 50-50 game against like competition, and one layup against an FCS opponent to guarantee at least a 1-2 start before conference play. Instead of that, Sam Houston played two Power Five teams – BYU and Houston – and an Air Force team that blew out Baylor in a bowl game nine months ago. 

“This was a big decision to go FBS,” Keeler concedes. “We’re going to tear down our press box and put at least $60 million into that next year. They’re making a major investment in this football program, so when we got the schedule, there was some trepidation about what we were getting into.” 

Sam Houston acquitted itself well despite an 0-3 record. The Bearkats only allowed 14 points to BYU and 13 to Air Force. Pressure was high to contend early and prove that Bearkats belong. That sigh of relief you hear is from the administration at Sam Houston. 

Keeler has never coached in FBS before this season. He’s used to chasing national championships and playoff berths, not bowl bids and conference crowns. He admits that his mindset must change from the FCS approach.

“It is a different world when you’re trying to win a conference and get bowl eligible instead of shooting for a national championship,” he said. “We are not a moral-victory program. It has been a challenge for me to try and work towards the 24-hour rule. I’ve made some strides.” 

The good news for Sam Houston is that a familiar foe greets them into the world of conference play at the FBS level when the Bearkats host Jax State on Thursday night in Bowers Stadium – the first on-campus game as an FBS program after playing their first home game of the season at NRG Stadium in Houston. Sam Houston and Jax State shared the Southland Conference years ago and played a few times in the FCS playoffs over the last few seasons. 

“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with those guys and know how good that they are,” Keeler said. “We won’t complain about a rivalry game to start off our life in Conference USA.” 

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