Following the 2013 football season, Coach Willie Fritz left Sam Houston State University, but only after three straight post-seasons in the FCS playoffs, including back-to-back national championship game appearances in 2011 and 2012. Now enters K.C. Keeler, who is no stranger to playoff appearances himself. With Rowan University from 1993-2001, Keeler led his team to seven playoff appearances and five national title games. At Delaware from 2002-2012, Keeler’s team played in the post-season four times, going to the championship game three times and winning the national title in 2003. Coach Keeler graciously agreed to meet with Postcards Magazine on the day of SHSU’s annual Orange-White spring football game to help our readers get to know him and gain a better feel for him and where he and the Bearkats are headed.
Usually my day starts off with a glass of iced tea. I don’t have many vices, but…I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life. We start with an 8:00 staff meeting.
Every day starts with Hope (that’s Hope Parker, head athletic trainer for SHSU). She gives a daily injury report. We want to make sure our injured players are getting their rehab and progressing. Players hate the training room…but it is what it is, and we have to make sure they’re accountable and doing everything they can to get back on the field.
The topics can branch out from there. Yesterday, we had some of our academic people in to talk about summer programs for our players and plans for players at academic risk. Usually, the topics revolve around what’s going on with our players—academically, socially—you name it.
A couple of meetings ago we talked about community service. We have team community service events, but then each coach also has his own community service projects for his players. For example, the defensive backs recently worked at the Good Shepherd Mission. The players and coaches do this together, and it promotes a relationship beyond the football field. That’s something we are very conscious of—we are a family here. The athletes will play harder for you if they know you care about them as people, too. And relationships go beyond football.
In every single meeting, without exception, we will talk about recruiting. The single most important thing I do is hire staff—the second is recruiting. Motivating’s overrated. I motivate every single day, but making sure you have the right guys in your locker room is the single most important thing. I really challenge the coaches to make sure they do their due diligence in terms of recruiting. A great recruiter is not afraid to walk away from a player because there are some signs he is not the right fit for us. There’s a saying, “It’s not the ones you lose in the recruiting process…it’s the ones you take that don’t fit in that really hurt your team.”
Today is a little unique, but every day is unique. We have hired a new strength coach, Brian Hess, and we are meeting with him and going through each player in the program individually—what our expectations are for them and what we think their shortcomings are in terms of their physical performance. The single most important hires you make are your coordinators, and after that, your strength coach. Brian is one of the top young strength coaches in the country. We are really excited about him, and our kids are really excited about him. People don’t realize that this coach spends more time with my players than I do. His role is extremely important. We will bring him back in later and do the same thing to check player progress.
Today we have a lot going on. We have the past, present and future of Sam Houston football all on campus at the same time. It’s the spring game, we have an alumni barbecue, we have the freshmen coming in that signed with us from last year and their parents, as well as current player parents. The families will be together for a meal. We have a big brother-little brother program, and this is a big opportunity for those players to get to know each other better and meet each other’s families. We have a recruit coming in, and I’ll be having lunch with that recruit as well. There will also be a youth-football experience on the field before the game this evening.
They have a player host, and that host will introduce them to the rest of the team members. Player feedback is part of our due diligence on making sure the prospect will be a good fit.
I’m brutally honest with them. I tell them we do some things differently here. I don’t want them to get here and say, “I didn’t realize this is how things were done.” We play music all practice long. We run everywhere. Our practices are a little shorter than most. I just explain who we are, what we do, and how we do it. I also explain to them that I’m brutal when it comes to academics. If you miss class, it’s a deal breaker for me. If you have no interest in going to class, this is going to be a bad marriage. Brutally honest is the best policy. If you fool them to get them here, they’re never happy. If they’re not happy socially, they’re not going to do well on the football field or academically. If they’re not happy academically, same thing. And the same goes with football…all three of those have to work together.
I’m a “life lessons” guy. There’s an honor to the game. If the other team beats us, I’m going to make sure every one of my players is across the field shaking hands, because I know how much time we put in trying to win that ball game. They put in the same amount of time or more, and they beat us. Between the white lines we will fight you. Afterwards, win or lose, we will share some camaraderie together. This is not a “win at all costs” endeavor for me. Winning is very important for me, but I have to do it a certain way. I will do things the right way, win or lose.
During the season, we will practice in the morning. They’ve never done that in the past. We will be on the field by 8:00 am. We will be off the field by 10:15 am. Practice is fast-paced and intense, but shorter than they are accustomed to. They will have class from 11:00 am on. I like to do that because, first of all, they’ll never miss an 8:00 class. They’ll be with me. Secondly, it gives them all afternoon to focus on their studies, and it works out better that way. I’m trying to keep the weight on them, and they will melt away in this hot summer and fall weather.
I tell the kids that Coach Fritz had a lot of success because he did things his way. I’ve had a lot of success because I do things my way. Coach Fritz did a phenomenal job. I’m not doing things better—I’m just doing things differently. What I do is effective for me. The kids have bought in. I’ve hired a great staff, the players can see that, and they’ve bought in right away. That’s all worked out real well.
I’ve inherited a lot of really good players. I don’t mean just as players, because I haven’t seen a lot of that side yet. In terms of just character and the kind of people they are, I can tell. And I knew I was going to do that, because you don’t win unless you have good kids.
I’m not afraid to hire people smarter than me! I’ve been able to hire really good people, and I’ve been able to learn from them. At the same time, you know you’re going to lose them. I have coaches all over the country that have worked for me at some point. If they’re really good, they’re going to have other opportunities. That’s the frustrating part, but the good news is they help me win, so I help them to move on.
We have a lot of players out with injuries, and 95% on the list were on it when I got here. When you go to the playoffs three years in a row, it takes a toll. At the same time, every snap is an opportunity, so a lot of backups will be getting a chance to show what they can do in this spring game. So that’s been good, that we’ve developed some depth because of this whole thing.
I don’t like the term “player’s coach,” but I think the players would probably describe me that way because of the amount of interaction I have with them. I’m very communicative with them, and I’m always brutally honest with them. In a game, I can be very cerebral, or I can be very emotional. I can go both ways, depending on the situation.
Because of the relationships with the players and helping them with those life lessons. In a 13-month period, my dad died, my brother died, and I lost my dream job coaching for Delaware, where I was an alum. Ryan Carty, who had played backup quarterback for me under Joe Flacco, called me and said, “Coach, you measure life by how you handle adversity. You remember that? You taught us that.” That’s why I coach. The life lessons move on. Ryan’s now offensive coordinator at New Hampshire teaching those things to his players.
Everyone is just so “genuine.” When you come from the northeast, there is more of an edge—there is more of a judgment. Here, people have been very welcoming. I love it here. I just absolutely love it. I fall in love with this place every day, and I didn’t anticipate that. My wife feels the same way. She’s been here for a shorter amount of time, but she says the same thing over and over again. This is a great community; it’s a supportive community. I came here because I wanted to coach again, but I’ve found a great community and a phenomenal school. I didn’t realize the school Sam Houston was and the direction it’s going. That’s been great for me, because I wanted to be part of something special beyond a school’s football program. And it is. Usually when you take a job, there’s some level of disappointment. This has been a great surprise.
As we end our conversation with Coach Keeler and walk to our car, I flash back to his words about his daily routine, “Every day begins with Hope.” Yes, Coach…yes it does. Here’s hoping a great first season is in store for you and SHSU. Eat ‘em up, Kats!