K.C. Keeler and Delaware, the school that fired him, on verge of ultimate revenge game for FCS championship
The irony would be too rich.
But here we are, one day away from the possibility of Delaware playing against former head coach K.C. Keeler, who is in his seventh season as the head coach at Sam Houston – for the FCS national championship.
That scenario would play out next Saturday in Frisco, Texas if UD beats South Dakota State and Sam Houston beats James Madison. Both games take place Saturday.
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And yes, Keeler has thought about it, as he said in a Zoom conference call with reporters earlier this week. But he explained it in an abstract way, as if he was thinking about not thinking about it.
Keeler coached at UD from 2002 until he was fired after the 2012 season. During that time, the Hens reached the national championship game three times, winning it all in 2003. Keeler was hired at Sam Houston State in 2014.
"In my talk to our players, I do a whole thing about I have a doctorate in playoff football because I’ve been in this a bunch of times," Keeler said. "The guys who look (ahead) to maybe the next game you’re going to play, those guys don’t play anymore because that’s when they get beat."
Then Keeler told a story of the 2003 season, when the Hens beat Colgate 40-0 in the national championship game. But in the first round, Colgate had a home game against UMass, something that didn't sit well with former UMass head coach Mark Whipple.
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The Minutemen were the higher-ranked team and Whipple felt they should have had the home game.
"All you heard on the press conference (that week) was Mark Whipple talking about how they shouldn’t be traveling to go play Colgate," Keeler said. "I said to the staff, ‘They’re going to lose.’"
Sure enough, Colgate beat UMass 19-7 in a snowstorm. That's why Keeler said he has approached the playoffs with a focus on the present, in his response about possibly facing UD next week.
"You can’t get distracted with that nonsense," Keeler said. "So there’s no nothing (about playing Delaware) ... If we win this weekend, it’ll be like, ‘OK, we’re going to be playing up in Frisco. I don’t know who. And we’ll find out.’ "
That strategy has worked well for Keeler at Sam Houston.
The Bearkats are 8-0 this season and 67-22 since Keeler took over. His teams have made the playoffs in five of his seven seasons. Of those five appearances, Sam Houston has reached the semifinals four times, losing the previous three semifinal games.
It was after the latest semifinal loss, a 55-13 drubbing by eventual champion North Dakota State in 2017, that convinced Keeler to go back to his UD roots to transform the Bearkats from an up tempo, speed team to a bigger, more physical team – one built to win in the playoffs.
The transformation took two years as Sam Houston missed the postseason in both 2018 and 2019 before returning this season. Even in those non-playoff years, Sam Houston was above .500, going 7-5 and 6-5.
UD, meanwhile, is in the playoffs for only the second time since 2010.
"We won a lot of ballgames," Keeler said about the up tempo approach. "But the goal wasn’t to win ballgames. The goal was to win national championships ... I just said I need to retool this thing like we were at Delaware – big, physical offensive lines, played great defense and got great quarterback play. That’s what we did."
Keeler also said he convinced the Sam Houston administration to hire a full-time strength and conditioning coach, as well as a nutritionist.
And Keeler did that in a unique way, as well. He said an alum funded the strength coach position for the first year. Then Keeler and two other alums "put money together" to fund the nutritionist program for two years.
"I wanted to show that this is my program, and that I’m willing to invest in my program," Keeler said. "We sort of took a real hard look in the mirror and said, ‘What do we need to do to go win a national championship?’ And we made those efforts to do that."
Now, the Bearkats are one game away from that chance, and Keeler's former school could be standing in the way.
Here is where Keeler instituted his "no brackets rule."
"To us, there are no brackets," he said about a grid showing the playoff field. "You have brackets. The fans have brackets. Your parents have brackets. We don’t have brackets. I will not allow a bracket in our facility.
"Our guys have a great understanding that you need to play the guys in front of us because they’re pretty good."
Still, Keeler did allow himself to reminisce briefly on his time at UD. Not only did Keeler replace a legendary coach in Tubby Raymond when he became the head coach in 2002, but he was a linebacker on the Hens' national championship team in 1979 while playing for Raymond.
"I’m a (Delaware) grad, my daughter’s a grad, my son’s a grad, my son-in-law’s a grad, my son-in-law is an assistant athletic director at Delaware,” Keeler said about Gary Michalowski, the assistant AD for event sales. “So that’s even more interesting."
But Keeler quickly caught himself.
"But that’s not even part of our world," he said. "It’s playing the Dukes (of James Madison). I mean, they’re really good. And that’s who we’re playing.”
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.