What does it take to win a small college national title?

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With Sam Houston’s win in the FCS national championship game last week, the state of Texas has won a national championship at every level from FBS to JUCO. 

There’s a great deal of talk at the Power Five level of football about the formula of how to win a national championship – recruiting, development, schematics. However, winning at the small college level is never quite as straightforward. 

Texas Football spoke to the four college coaches who have most recently won national championships in the state of Texas to learn what exactly it takes to win it all at the small college level. 

Tapping into your advantages

For Sam Houston, the path to a national championship started back in 2011. Veteran coach Willie Fritz took Sam Houston to the national championship game in just his second season, and a new era of Bearkats football was born. 

When Fritz left to take Georgia Southern to the FBS level, one-time national champion K.C. Keeler took over the program. With a mix of his dynamic spread talent and an eye for recruiting the state of Texas, Sam Houston established itself as one of the three top FCS programs in the nation. 

“I always try to explain to people, you know how much you put into football – losing is hard,” Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler said. “When you’re going to an institution, you want to find great academics, great social life, but you also want to go somewhere where the football program is successful. Winning makes life a lot better.” 

Over the past decade, Sam Houston has won more than any FCS program not named North Dakota State. Since 2011, the program has won 103 football games, won 20 FCS Playoff games, earned six trips to the national semifinals and won a national championship. It’s hard to argue with results. 

But perhaps one of the most underrated aspects of Sam Houston? It ranks as one of the most notable teaching colleges in this state. When the staff goes recruiting, it’s easy to make connections with teachers and coaches of recruits – many attended Sam Houston. 

When Keeler goes recruiting, the pitch is simple. Come to Sam Houston. You can win football games. You can stay close to home. And if you want to play in the NFL, FBS ball isn’t necessarily a better path there. 

“That’s where we need to be to be the next North Dakota State,” Keeler said. “That’s a long way away, but to be able to win another national championship, that’s what you have to do: you have to keep those guys who have FBS offers out of the state in the state.

“Bigger is not better. Better is better.” 

Finding the love

When Texas A&M-Commerce defensive back Dominique Ramsey thinks back to the Lions’ championship season in 2017, one word comes to mind. 

“The word love,” Texas A&M-Commerce DB Dominique Ramsey said. “The word love stuck out to me a lot that year. Nobody was afraid to go tell each other that they loved each other. It was a complete team and we were able to overcome many obstacles and come out the best team that year.” 

At the Division II level, programs have the financial equivalent of 36 full scholarships to work with, meaning many players receive disparate financial aid. 

“I think there’s a little less sense of entitlement in small college football, which makes it fun for fans to get behind these kids,” said Carthel, who coached the Lions to a national championship. “A lot of them are out there and have a $1000 scholarship, $500 scholarship. Those guys are out there just playing for the love of the game.” 

Carthel is one of the most ferocious recruiters in the game. Since moving to SFA, he’s brought in back-to-back top-five recruiting classes. That was very much true of his time at Texas A&M-Commerce. When recruiting at that level, egos are inevitable. 

But in that year, egos were put to the side, especially after losing to rival Midwestern State in the fifth game of the year. The Lions went on to win every other regular season game by double-digits behind the arm of Harlon Hill winner Luis Perez and fight past multiple nationally-ranked teams to win it all. 

“I’ve played with talent every year – better talent than 2017 some years – but it just showed in all walks of our life that we showed championship mindset every day,” Texas A&M-Commerce DB Alex Shillow said. “We were fortunate to have that showcased on the football field.” 

Texas A&M-Commerce opted out of the 2020-21 football season to focus on finding its footing for the Fall 2021 season. With a national championship on the line, the Lions hope it can find that love once again. 

Focusing on sacrifice

Building a culture is always a difficult task with so many players on a football roster. That’s even more difficult at the Division III level, where players pay their way and rosters balloon to well over 100 players. 

“We work diligently to make sure that youngsters are reaching the goals they want to reach,” Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg said. “Especially in Division III where there’s no scholarships, the guys give so much of themselves to other teammates. It’s a special deal.” 

If a player can’t find a spot on the depth chart, there’s little incentive for them to stick around and help the team get better in practice. That’s where team culture comes in to keep them around. Playing junior varsity ball helps retain players too. 

The D-III level requires sacrifice in many different ways. After building a powerhouse at UMHB like Fredenburg, the ability to cut through the chaff and focus on players and coaches who buy into the program is a game-changer. 

That was on full display on UMHB’s 2018 national championship team. Even while dealing with an upper body injury, Cru quarterback Jase Hammack came into the Stagg Bowl against highly-touted Mount Union and threw a pair of critical touchdowns. Fighting through the pain and making those throws made all the difference. 

“Guys who are a little selfish just don’t play,” Fredenburg said. “They don’t make it on that team because it’s all about being a great teammate.” 

Building leaders quicker

Early in the 2010 junior college season, some future NFL draft pick named Zach Mettenberger came to town and led Butler Community College to a 16-10 win over Navarro College. For Navarro, it was a turning point. 

“We didn’t play very well early in the year, but we found a way to fight back and continue to climb the ladder,” said then-Navarro coach Nick Bobeck, who is now the head coach at Central Oklahoma. 

In junior college ball, like most other levels, the upperclassmen lead the way. For Navarro, that meant relying on sophomores – and it meant relying on Texans. 

Back in 2010, many junior college teams were not allowed to field more than five out-of-state players. For Navarro – and Blinn, which also won a pair of national championships in the 2000s – that was a trump card. 

The roster was filled with kids who didn’t get scholarship offers paying their way for a chance at the next level. Navarro had a cornerback from Missouri City Elkins by the name of D.J. Hayden. He’s still playing in the NFL for the Las Vegas Raiders. Defensive end Cameron Henderson played at UCF. Three offensive linemen played at the next level – Rico Forbes, Tavon Rooks and Michael Bowie. 

"[Coaching JUCO] taught me how to wear a lot of different hats and also how to simplify what I was doing schematically to make something the kids could easily digest," Bobeck said. "That was probably the biggest thing we did well was we managed our time and were sound with what we were doing because you don't have those kids for very long." 

With only two years to develop leaders on a junior college roster, recruiting the right kind of guys who can quickly contribute both on and off the field is critical. At Navarro, the magic struck. 

After the nonconference loss, Navarro clawed its way to the NJCAA national championship game. Waiting on the other side? Mettenberger and Butler Community College. This time, Navarro nailed a field goal with 1:11 left to edge Butler 13-12 and win a national championship.

“It wasn’t the most talented team that we ever had, but it was definitely the most competitive team,” Bobeck said. “It had the best player leadership we had, and kids who were going to be successful whether they were playing football or not.”

Want to win? Invest

More than anything, what it takes to win at the small college level is investment. That comes in many different forms. 

“A lot of people think that it’s only the football program and coaches and players that have to be on the same page,” Bobeck said. “That’s absolutely incorrect. When there’s a commitment to football throughout the university, that’s what makes programs great.” 

For Sam Houston, that looked like spending more than $10 million on football facility upgrades. Keeler also convinced the program to hire a full-time strength coach and dietician that were dedicated specifically to football and pay for full-time summer classes to keep kids on campus. 

For Mary Hardin-Baylor, that means paying for the resources to field a junior varsity team and investing in high-level facilities to develop non-scholarship players at a high level. It means the university embracing football to recruit prospective students. Retaining coaches is also not an easy task at that level, but UMHB is committed. 

In the junior college ranks, it’s about recruiting budgets and community emphasis. As Last Chance U has taught us, players want to play in front of fans, and they want to go to a place that will physically prepare them for the future. 

When the lights go on and the playoffs start, no one cares what level you’re at or what your facilities cost. It’s just football, and it’s just one of life’s rare chances to be a champion. 

Back in 2017, Texas A&M-Commerce was in the midst of celebrating the 45th anniversary of its 1972 NAIA national championship team. For Shillow and other players on the roster, it was motivating to see that all these years later, these players were still remembered. 

Winning a national championship does much more than give you a shiny ring. It comes with immortality. And it comes with forever raising the profile of your university. 

“It just shows how much of a legacy you establish,” Shillow said. “It brought pride and joy back to our university, not just in athletics, but to anyone who had the Lion on their chest or on their shirt or on their car.”

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