K.C. Keeler took a phone call from retired NFL coach Dick Vermeil after Sam Houston State announced its most recent coaching hire.
The congratulatory call led to a brief exchange about football in the state of Texas and Vermeil said that Keeler would be “living the dream” of a college coach.
During the news conference announcing Keeler’s selection, the Bearkats’ 15th head football coach admitted that life with his family had been comfortable since he last coached in 2012, yet he had accepted the lead position at Sam Houston because of how much he missed the job.
Sometime around the end of September, Keeler’s wife Janice told him it was time to get back into coaching. Janice Keeler is just about as hands on with her husband’s teams off the field as he is with them on it, helping coordinate gatherings and events.
They missed the relationships with the players, coaching staffs and communities.
But in order to live the dream referenced by Vermeil, who as former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles cut Keeler in 1982, Sam Houston State has to win championships. The Bearkats’ 15th football coach in school history had no qualms with being frank about it.
“I’m going to set the bar very high,” Keeler said. “That’s who I am. I’m not going to make excuses. We’re here to be the best.”
That was the message Keeler delivered to his new players in his first meeting with the Sam Houston football team.
“We’re here to win a national championship. We want to win one sooner than later,” Keeler said. “I’ve played for 10 national championships, two as a player and eight as a coach. It’s a challenge. But it’s something our players need to know about me. We’re here to be the best.”
Keeler teams at Rowan University and Delaware have made 13 NCAA tournament appearances and eight trips to national championship games.
His 2003 Delaware squad won the FCS national championship in 2003. The Blue Hens reached the FCS Championship Game in 2007 and 2010. Delaware compiled an 11-3 record in NCAA playoff competition.
“The mission statement is simple and each player will have a copy of that statement on their lockers,” Keeler said. “We’re here to relentlessly pursue being the best football team in the country. We will measure ourselves in three ways. One is academic excellence. Another is social responsibility. Our guys will be involved in the community like you've never seen before. And, the third this is we're here to win national championships.”
Senior running back Keshawn Hill said the concern since former head coach Willie Fritz left for Georgia Southern earlier this month was finding established leadership to keep things rolling.
“Basically, his whole mind-set is all about winning,” Hill said. “I’ve never heard a coach say that all he wants to do is be the best. That’s what I’ve always felt like in my own mind so I feel really good about that. I’m excited.”
The new coach’s first priority is recruiting.
“I’m very excited to start talking to recruits,” Keeler said. “Our coaches have done a great job of identifying talent. Now we have to keep that talent. One of the things that is impressive is that a lot of these guys have stayed with Sam Houston when everyone was coming in here and trying to pilfer them. That speaks volumes about where this school is. If this university wasn’t where it is academically and the players knew that, they’d just go somewhere else. But this is where they want to go to school.”
SHSU Director of Athletics Bobby Williams said the Bearkats’ goal is to consistently compete at a high level, especially after three straight Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances and FCS finals appearances in 2011 and ’12.
“This is a great day to have an opportunity to move our football program in a new direction and it’s exciting for all of us,” Williams said.
Keeler brings an overall record of 174 victories, 73 losses and one tie as a head coach to Huntsville. In his 11 seasons at Delaware (2002 to 2012), the Fightin’ Blue Hens rolled up an 86-52 record. Delaware went 11-3 in the program’s four trips to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with an FCS national championship in 2003 and runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2010.
“He was showing me his 2003 national championship ring at lunch and it was FCS Selection Committee,” Williams said. “He doesn’t remember this, but I was around that team. I got to see him in practice in 2003.
When I saw the ring and saw him kind of hoist the national championship trophy that night in Chattanooga, I was standing pretty close. I didn’t know at that time, he didn’t know it at that time that we’d be here today.
“That’s amazing how our profession is and how all things kind of grow in that direction.”
Janice Keeler had a three-item checklist for where her husband could coach. There had to be warm weather, championship potential and good people running the administration.
Everything seemed to check out well on Friday except the weather since it looked like Delaware in Huntsville on this particular day. The Keeler family plans on being around long enough to get a more accurate impression of the Texas climate.
“I’m here for the long haul,” Keeler said. “This is a great job. I’ve been two places in 28 years. I’m a builder. I left Rowan because I went to my alma mater. This is a place that my wife and I are looking to settle in and make it something special. We’re excited about that.”
Sam Houston State football players certainly are impressed by the new coach.
“We like him a lot,” running back Steven Hicks. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s had experience in championships. He’s had winning teams, built up programs. And he has confidence. I really like that about him. I like how he’s giving everybody a fresh start this next season. He doesn’t care about our pasts.”
Offensive lineman Donald Jackson III, a Southland Conference first-team selection in 2013, said he followed the coaching search every day through social media networks. Jackson said it’s Keeler’s championship pedigree that deserves attention.
“I followed the process really closely,” Jackson said. “Coach Keeler has a plan and knows what he wants to do. I like that. He’s already laid it down, what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.”
Keeler has made it clear there are no preconceived notions about the Sam Houston players. He said he purposely had not taken time to evaluate the current Bearkat players because he is more interested in where they are going than where they’ve been.
One thing Keeler will be looking for out of his players is leadership. The Bearkats lost 15 seniors from the 2013 season, which claimed the most successful senior class in the school’s football history.
“He talked about having that one player or that one play that can make the difference,” Jackson said. “Everybody knows you have to get over that hump. But I think he’s going to be able to continue the success here. We’ve just got to get the leadership going in the locker room.
“It’s a combination of who’s doing well on the field and who speaks out because you have to have a voice. You have to be able to speak. Quiet leaders are fine but only so many people are going to follow a quiet leader.”