In his first season at Sam Houston State, head coach K.C. Keeler made quick work. After taking a year off from coaching, Keeler made his way to Huntsville. Coming in with a successful coaching resume, expectations were high for the Bearkats’ new coach. In his 20 years of coaching prior to Sam, Keeler had great success with two programs in the Northeast. First he built Rowan University into a successful Division III program. Then in his ten years at the University of Delaware, he won the national championship in 2003 and also played for two more in 2007 and 2010.
This past season, Keeler won a share of the conference title and took the Bearkats to the national semifinals. The Houstonian sat down with Keeler and reflected on his first season here at SHSU.
The Houstonian: Can you tell me the expectations coming in to your first season here at Sam?
Keeler: It was remarkable in many ways. When I got here, the expectations were very different. In some ways the expectations were very high because of three straight playoff appearances and the goal to win a national championship. That was one side. Now on the other side of it was the fact that so many people told me that due to graduating so many players it was not going to be a good season. It was going to be a rebuilding year. It will be tough to be as successful as they’ve been in the past because of all the new faces.
H: Can you talk about some of the obstacles you faced this season?
K: It started with the fact that we didn’t have a lot of players in the spring, and they graduated such a big class. First of all, we got here so late, and it was tough to put together a good freshman recruiting class due to the two and a half week period that there wasn’t a coach in place. So we signed a smaller freshman class and decided this year we were going to take more transfers. With that being said, we just had so many moving parts going in to the summer. We also had a lot of injuries from the previous season, so guys who we thought would be big players didn’t even go through spring such as Keshawn Hill, Jared Johnson, Gary Lorance, Shane Young and P.J. Hall. The other thing is, when you bring in 15 transfers into your program, it’s going to take a little while to get everything going in the right direction, especially due to the lack of senior leadership on the team, because there really weren’t a lot of seniors. I knew there were going to be a lot of challenges that we faced, so it didn’t surprise me that early on we were finding our way.
H: After starting the season 1-3, what were some of your first thoughts? Also, how were you able to overcome this and go on a run?
K: I think we overcame it as a group. The credit I will take for overcoming the 1-3 start is that I didn’t panic. I had been doing this for a long enough time, and I had dealt with enough situations. My whole thing was I still had a strong belief that this team was as good as it was. I think me and the coaching staff relaying that to the players was heathy. Instead of saying we’re just young we don’t have to blow this thing up, I told the players we’re really good, we just have to play really good. So I think not panicking and having a positive attitude played a big part. I think the guys coming in for that month (which was like our second training camp) with great work ethic and energy in practice was huge. Because there was some guys that were part of those successful teams in the past or at least saw it from a distance; they knew how that feeling was to win and they wanted it back so badly. I think it was a combination of a lot of things that kind of put us over the top, but I think it all started with us not panicking as a coaching staff. I can remember losing that game and walking up the ramp and thinking this is probably the most important talk you are going to give this season, and I thought it was really powerful the message that was there of “We Own This” and I think that was very reassuring to the players. During that time the chemistry that was created was so unique because we all went through it together.
H: Can you talk about the late push and playoff run?
K: We played five of the most brutal games in a row that I have ever been associated with. Starting off with Central Arkansas, who is as good as anyone in the country talent wise. Southeastern Louisiana was number nine in the country and probably would have been ranked higher if they hadn’t had a couple of slip ups when there quarterback was injured. Jacksonville State was number three in the country and they thought they should be number one in the country and the favorite to win the national championship, and we had to go beat them at their place. Villanova was just a really good football team who was number six in the country. Then you have to play really the number one team in the country, North Dakota State. So that’s a five-game run that’s pretty brutal, plus three of those games were on the road. I think eventually we tired out a little bit. Eventually some injuries started to creep up on us. In that North Dakota State game we lost some offensive linemen, we lost a corner, we lost a linebacker, so we just started wearing out a little bit. We made a couple of mistakes in that first half, and when you play a great team you can’t make the mistakes we made. But yeah that was a great run, it really was.
H: In all your years of coaching, what did this season mean to you?
K: It was really one of the more memorable years. You know I’ve done this for 30 years as a head coach and an assistant, and it will go down as one of the great years of my life because I just enjoyed being around the guys so much. Winning 10 out of 11 games the way we did, it was as good a run as I’ve ever been associated with, especially when you look at some of the teams we faced along the way. I really enjoyed all the players. I thought the Texas culture and how important football is and being coached hard in the past was unique and a lot of fun. I think we also had fun with the cultural differences between how I either talked or handle things compared with what the players we’re used to. I’d say also not coaching for a year and missing it as much as I missed it made it unique, too, because my attitude on game day was different than it has ever been before. I really went out there every week and enjoyed the day with the players. I almost felt like I was closer to the team because my attitude of “let’s go play” made me feel like I was just one of the guys.