Redhawks: Year 3 - Significant improvement?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Southeast Missouri State football coach Tony Samuel believes year three of any rebuilding program often results in significant improvement.

That happened to Samuel at Division I-A New Mexico State, when he led the Aggies to a 6-5 record in 1999 for only their third winning season in 32 years.

Samuel is banking on that taking place at Southeast, which isn't so much trying to rebuild a program as attempting to build one.

Southeast has had hardly any success since moving up from the Division II level in 1991.

In 17 Division I-AA seasons, Southeast has produced two winning records -- 8-4 in 2002 and 7-5 in 1994.

During that same time, Southeast has had four winning Ohio Valley Conference records, most recently in 2003.

Southeast's overall Division I-AA record is 65-125, which spans three coaches. The program has gone 44-82 in OVC play.

Taking into account the above, Southeast athletic director Don Kaverman said he is pleased with the job Samuel is doing despite records of 7-15 overall and 3-12 in the OVC since the former Nebraska player and assistant took over.

"I think we're blessed to have coach Samuel and his staff," Kaverman said. "The comments we get from the players, they all speak very highly of coach Samuel and his staff. It's going to take some time, but I think we're headed in the right direction.

"He's trying to change a culture. We haven't had much success in 17 Division I seasons. It takes more than two years."

Entering his third season of a five-year contract, Samuel said he likes the direction the program is headed, even if wins have not come as frequently as he would like.

"We're headed in the right direction," Samuel said. "This is our third year and that means something. When you inherit a developmental program, there are phases you have to go through."

While Samuel acknowledges that having sufficient talent is important, he believes experience, commitment, sacrifice, team bonding, playing as a unit and familiarity with the system as vital in the building process.

Samuel thinks the Redhawks are starting to develop all of that. As an example of commitment and sacrifice, he pointed to the roughly 60 Southeast players who spent the summer in Cape Girardeau working out together.

"The common theme among the players is sacrifice. I've heard it a lot from the players," Samuel said. "The mindset of the team is as good as I've seen in my career, and I've been in this business for 27 years."

Several of Southeast's team leaders say the players have bought into what Samuel and his staff have been preaching. They believe the Redhawks are ready to turn the corner.

"A lot of sacrifices took place this summer," senior defensive back Kendall Magana said. "Coach Samuel is always talking about his third year. ... I'm really feeling it."

Said fifth-year senior wide receiver Mike Williamson: "We keep talking about it's the third year. It's a process. Everybody is getting the hang of it. The commitment, the bonding we had this summer. A lot of people in the community can't see it, but I believe it's what creates championships. ... We're excited to be the team that sets the standard."

The Redhawks are counting on experience to be a major factor as they return 17 starters among 48 letterwinners from last year's squad that went 3-8, including a ninth-place 1-6 in what was then a 10-team OVC.

"As many guys as we have returning ... you'll see a bigger team, a faster team, an older team," Williamson said.

The rest of the OVC doesn't expect the Redhawks to make as much progress as Samuel envisions.

In a preseason poll voted on by the league's head coaches and sports information directors, Southeast was picked last among nine squads.

Most of the Redhawks said they expected as much, since Southeast struggled again last season and does not have a winning tradition since moving up to Division I-AA.

That doesn't mean the Redhawks expect the prognosticators to be correct.

"I don't really pay attention to all that stuff. It goes off last year," senior defensive end Ben Gugler said. "Our whole team has changed."

Said Magana: "I guess it's [being picked last or near last in the OVC] kind of became a trend for us. I think this year we can break that trend and be a contender."

Southeast upset perennial OVC power Jacksonville State in the 2007 finale -- the Gamecocks are this year's preseason favorites -- which senior quarterback Houston Lillard said has given the Redhawks confidence.

"It boosted us a lot," he said. "It showed we could play with one of the best teams in the OVC."

Southeast's schedule, evenly split between six games at home and six on the road, appears to be something of a mixed bag.

Half of the Redhawks' four nonconference opponents had winning records in 2007, while half posted losing marks. Ditto for Southeast's eight OVC opponents.

At the high end of the schedule are top-10 preseason Division I-A Missouri (12-2) -- which is paying Southeast $250,000 for the expected mauling -- defending OVC champion Eastern Kentucky (9-3) and 2007 OVC runner-up Eastern Illinois (8-4).

At the low end are Division II Southwest Baptist (0-11) -- tonight's season-opening opponent -- and Indiana State (0-11), Southeast's other two victims last year in addition to Jacksonville State.

Samuel said he will not predict wins and losses, but does stand by his belief that the Redhawks will be improved considerably.

"We don't know how many wins we're going to have, but I know we've put ourselves in a position to have a lot of success," he said. "Our kids are developing a mindset right now that they know they can win. If you believe you can win, you're going to win. If you don't believe you can win, you won't win."

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