Courtesy GoBearkats.com / Brandon K. Scott / SHSU Athletics
It was early in Willie Fritz’s first year as Sam Houston State football head coach, but not too long ago when the Bearkats were 0-2 after dropping games against Baylor and Western Illinois by a total of 73 points to start the 2010 season.
Following the postgame press conferences at Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium in the season opener, Fritz walked down the steep tunnel which separates the locker rooms from the field, with his hair in a mess from the play-calling headset.
Fritz studied a stat sheet, scratching his head with a look of confusion on his face. The longtime coach was not confused. Rather, he was trying to dissect his team, even after losing to a Big 12 opponent which seemed all but inevitable.
The idea was to find much-needed answers to the questions that faced the Bearkats: Who is this team and what do its players do well?
Now, that same team is the best in Sam Houston State football history, tearing up its 2011 schedule with an undefeated record and undisputed Southland Conference championship.
As far as what exactly the Bearkats do well, with an 11-0 overall record on the season, the answer at this point just might be everything.
The only other Bearkat team to go undefeated was in 1956, a squad which posted a 10-0 record.
For several weeks, Fritz has been saying he believes he has the best coaching staff in the nation.
After the Bearkats wrapped up their storied season against Texas State on Saturday, cementing them as the only undefeated team in the Football Championship Subdivision, it’s difficult to argue Fritz’s point.
Last week, junior safety Darnell Taylor summed up the coaches’ role in the Bearkats’ continued success after being named Southland Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season.
“It was a big week but all of the credit has to go to our coaching staff,” Taylor said. “They do a great job with our game planning and putting us in great spots to make plays. It’s kind of hard to explain but they do a good job of putting us in the right position.”
It’s been a quick turnaround for the Sam Houston football program since Fritz’s hiring from Central Missouri in December 2009.
Coming off a subpar 5-6 record in former head coach Todd Whitten’s fifth year running the SHSU program, a drastic change was ahead.
Bearkats who were on the team during that time, guys like defensive back Robert Shaw and offensive linemen Travis Watson, said more player/coach interaction and discipline was needed.
But most of all, Sam Houston needed to rebuild, which meant an overhaul of the entire regime, from the coaching staff to the players.
The Kats graduated 27 seniors in 2009 and the team’s identity was shaken.
That’s where Fritz came in, enforcing his philosophy in the spring of 2010, to the point where dozens of players were either sent home or quit.
“I don’t argue with guys when they tell me they want to quit,” Fritz said. “That was when I got a chance to see who all was serious about playing football, and today it’s really the same way as far as how we go about our business. Practices have remained steady, but the difference now is that I feel like I have 20-something coaches on the football field and that’s because our players hold themselves accountable, too.”
Accountability begins with the coaching staff Fritz keeps talking about. The offense is led by coordinator Bob DeBesse, former Southwest Texas head coach and assistant at top-notch programs such as Texas A&M, Purdue, Minnesota and TCU.
When he was hired by Fritz, it was just after DeBesse had coached his son at A&M Consolidated High School in 2008 and ’09. The two coaches did not know each other at the time, but Fritz said they had mutual contacts and the interview process was an instant success.
After being congratulated on the undefeated season when the Bearkats beat his alma mater and former team Texas State on Saturday, DeBesse talked about how happy he was for the players which he’s seen vast improvements from since arriving on campus.
“The first thing is that we have good kids,” DeBesse said. “To be able to be a part of that locker room scene is absolutely phenomenal. It is very difficult to go undefeated. For these guys to persevere and do what they’ve done, my feelings are for those kids. We ask a lot of them and they pay a heck of a price.”
On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Scott Stoker and safeties coach Ben Beasley are the longest-standing Sam Houston football coaches dating back to 2009.
The last time Stoker was a part of an undefeated team was 1995, when he was an assistant at McNeese State.
“That tells you how long ago it was,” Stoker said after the victory over Texas State. “It’s hard to do, especially in FCS when you always have to play one of the bigger schools every year. The probability of this is almost like winning the lottery, to play 11 straight weeks and win all 11 games is an unbelievable task.
“I’ll probably coach another 20-plus years and if this ever happens again … I don’t know.”
Perhaps the most intricate piece of the Bearkat coaching puzzle is wide receivers coach Jeff Conway, Fritz’s longtime friend who worked with him as a graduate assistant for Sam Houston in the 1980s.
Conway, the only member of the coaching staff that Fritz knew before interviewing him, also won junior college championships with Fritz at Blinn College before taking the head position after Fritz’s departure. After a stint at the University of New Mexico, Conway and Fritz reunited at Central Missouri.
The driving force behind the Fritz-Conway combo returning to Sam Houston was how much the university had changed over the past couple of decades.
“It’s really been unbelievably rewarding,” Conway said of the Bearkats’ 2011 season. “When we got back (to Sam Houston), the campus and the university had changed so much, all for the positive. I hadn’t been back in a longer period of time than coach Fritz had been back, but we thought it was really positive.
“The bottom line is the kids who stuck around that spring (2010) bought in to what we were preaching. When we were 0-2 last year, after getting beat by Baylor and getting hammered by Western Illinois, it was really a gut-check time for everybody in the program.
“Everybody is 100 percent all in and that’s our motto,” Conway added. “Obviously, winning helps. But these are our guys and we love them to death.
“There were times this season, the New Mexico game in particular and this (Texas State) game, where going in there is so much pressure, you have to bind together as a unit or you’re going to fall apart when it gets tough. There’s been blind faith sometimes, but these kids have bought in.”