Throughout his coaching career, first at Division III Rowan University, then at Delaware, and now Sam Houston, K.C. Keeler has always been used to competing for championships.
Lots of them.
Keeler is the only coach in FCS history to win national titles at multiple schools. He led Delaware to the 2003 championship (called I-AA back then) and Sam Houston to the FCS title in the spring of 2021 (when the season was moved due to COVID). He is the only coach in NCAA history to take three programs to the national title game. In 29 seasons, his teams have earned 18 NCAA appearances and appeared in at least the national semifinals 14 times, including nine times in the championship game. Throw in 11 conference titles and for the large majority of seasons, his teams were battling for something.
That wasn’t the case this past year, a transition season before Sam Houston would join the FBS and Conference USA, where the Bearkats will begin competition this fall.
So as part of the transition, Sam Houston was ineligible to compete in the FCS playoffs in 2022. Two of the teams on its schedule, Lamar and Incarnate Word, were planning to play in Sam Houston’s conference, the Western Athletic Conference. But instead, UIW stayed in the Southland and Lamar moved to the Southland in 2022. This past July, Keeler said both schools dropped Sam Houston from its 2022 schedule, leaving the Bearkats with just nine games.
So the Bearkats ended up going 5-4 in a season that opened with a 31-0 loss to Texas A&M, which was ranked No. 6 at the time.
“You look back, we had nine games, we can’t play for anything, not even a mythical conference championship, so we were in a very unique situation,” Keeler said in an interview with HERO Sports. “So we had to kind of get creative and it was probably the hardest season I have ever gone through.”
Keeler had to find a way to keep the team together, knowing that 2022 would be a transition year. One of the ways the program was creative was in saving eligibility for certain players.
“With a nine-game schedule, you begin to question do you really want to use a year of eligibility for your best players,” Keeler said. “So, we wound up redshirting 15 of our best players.”
Two of those players are linebacker Trevor Williams and linebacker/defensive lineman Markel Perry, both first-team all-WAC choices in the fall of 2021.
Some players who graduated but still had eligibility and didn’t want to redshirt or play the nine-game schedule did transfer.
“Those players who wanted to go play elsewhere, I helped them, I made phone calls,” Keeler said. “They got their degree, we get it because it was a situation they couldn’t play for anything.”
Sam Houston will be eligible to win a Conference USA championship in the first year. At this time, Keeler said that there is a way that the school could reach a bowl game, but it would only be if there aren’t enough .500 teams to qualify. Keeler says Sam Houston is appealing that and is hoping that the school can be eligible for a bowl regardless.
Of course, earning a bowl bid will be difficult, especially with the early schedule. Sam Houston opens at BYU, hosts Air Force at Houston’s NRG Stadium, and visits Houston in the first three games. Both BYU and Houston are moving to the Power Five Big 12. Air Force is coming off consecutive 10-3 seasons.
The C-USA schedule, with teams like Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, and newcomer Liberty won’t be any picnic either.
Still, there are so many benefits to moving to the FBS level, one of which is financial. G5 teams that visit Power Five Schools generally get a larger payoff for the scheduled game than those in FCS. In addition, there is a benefit with television revenue, and there is potential for bowl revenue.
Keeler says that many FCS teams lose money while competing in the playoffs.
Moving to FBS helps in recruiting, and it has to since the competition Sam Houston faces will be greater.
“There is no doubt that now that we are in FBS, the kids we got out of the portal, the kids we got out of junior college or high school recruiting, we benefited greatly (from now being an FBS school),” Keeler said.
Sam Houston is located in Huntsville, Texas, about an hour from Houston. Teams can build powerful programs recruiting in a talent-rich state such as Texas. In Sam Houston’s 25-member recruiting class that was announced in the early signing period, 14 were Texas high school players and 11 were transfers.
“We firmly believe that high school players are our base,” Keeler said. “When we won the national championship, 71 percent of our team was high school players we got right out of Texas high schools.”
There will be the occasional non-Texas high school recruit, but with so much talent in the state, Texas is the main focus.
As for transfers, Sam Houston will take players from anywhere in the country.
One of those players is quarterback Xavier Ward, a 6-2 and 205-pound sophomore transfer from Washington State who is from Corona, California.
“He was a top 55 quarterback in the country coming out of high school, he’s a phenomenal talent and he just needs an opportunity,” Keeler said. “If we were an FCS school I don’t know if he would have been as interested.”
With all the benefits of becoming an FBS school, as noted earlier, it won’t be easy in the beginning, especially with such a demanding schedule. Yet Keeler believes the future is awfully bright.
“When we come back for the 10-year reunion of our national championship team, there are going to be 30,000 students on this campus and they will be playing big-time college football and we will know that we were the foundation for the move to FBS football,” Keeler said. “I told the guys they should take pride because they would not approach us if we were a middle-of-the-road FCS program.”
In Keeler’s nine seasons at Sam Houston, the Bearkats have gone 85-27, with the national championship among the six FCS playoff appearances, and three other semifinal berths. There have also been four conference titles.
“What we have done is historic here and they recognize that,” Keeler said. “That [the past success] coupled with our great location, we now have the option to do this, and I do think this is the best thing for us.”