Moments after Sam Houston completed a 21-point comeback to stun James Madison and secure the program’s third trip to the FCS National Championship Game, head coach K.C. Keeler turned the floor over to athletic director Bobby Williams amid a triumphant celebration in the Bearkats’ makeshift locker room.
The leader of Sam Houston’s athletic department let out a scream of jubilation, echoed by the players surrounding him, before making a statement nearly nine months in the making that would send the room into a frenzy.
“When I made the decision to play this spring, it was pretty lonely for me because I didn't know if I did the right thing,” Williams said. “You proved that it was the right thing.”
For Williams and Keeler, the morality of the decision to play a spring season was never in question.
Playing in the fall would provide financial opportunities in the form of payout games, but with an ongoing pandemic, something didn’t sit right with either about playing games for the purpose of receiving a check from an FBS school. In addition to the monetary benefits, such games provide unique opportunities for exposure on television networks and in geographic areas that rarely feature FCS football.
What these “money games” didn’t offer, however, is what Bearkat coaches sold their players on when recruiting them: the chance to compete for a national championship.
“We had those deep, philosophical talks about what our program is all about,” Keeler recalled. “Together, we really thought that going out and playing money games ... not only was it not what we're about, we thought it was a bad message. That's not who we wanted to be. We didn't recruit these kids with, 'Hey, we're going to play some money games.' We recruited them here with the mindset that we're going to do everything in our power to try to win a national championship.”
Williams always felt confident that he’d made the right decision back in August, when he announced that all fall sports would be postponed until the spring. That doesn’t mean that doubt never crept in, though.
“I really believed it was the right decision back then, I just doubted that it was going to get through. That was the main thing,” Williams said. “Where was COVID going to go? What were the protocols going to be? Were we just going to shut it down like last year? Stuff like that. In my heart, and we'd gone through it logically, it was the best thing for us. I said it then, and this is so true, this is what our student-athlete experience is. We're not going to play just to play and try to do a marketing thing. We're going to play for championships.
“When the NCAA said that's when we're going to play, that made the decision a lot easier. It doesn't mean we didn't have pressure to play in the fall, or that coaches and student-athletes didn't doubt me on that. I think that's the loneliness part of it when you're in a leadership position — having to deal with the emotions from everybody from the outside and inside questioning you, and some doubt creeps in yourself. Did I do the right thing? The other night I was very emotional and it was pure love for this program … and those young men and every one of our student-athletes in our department have proven that we've done it the right way.”
As for marketing opportunities, the Bearkats didn’t miss out on anything by waiting until the spring.
Each of their past two playoff games have been broadcast on national television, with over a million combined viewers tuning in to watch Sam Houston defeat North Dakota State — winner of eight of the past nine FCS championships — and James Madison — the No. 1 team in the country — during the last two weekends. Sunday's national title game against South Dakota State will be televised on ABC, marking the Bearkats' second consecutive appearance on a network that hadn't carried one of their games since 1994.
This unprecedented exposure, however, doesn’t change the fact that the most cost-efficient option would’ve been to take those aforementioned paychecks in the fall.
“It was a big decision for the university to go this direction, because it wasn't cheap,” Keeler said. “This was not the most economical thing to do. The most economical thing was to go play those money games. I can't thank the university enough and I can't thank Bobby enough for making that decision. I had a phenomenal president in Dr. Dana Hoyt, and I have another phenomenal president with Dr. (Alisa) White. She's all in and she wants excellence, and I think she's really happy with what she's seen so far.”
While Bearkats’ path to the FCS title game has been one of the most treacherous in recent memory, with all four of their postseason opponents ranking in the top-10 in the country, that hasn’t stopped naysayers from questioning the legitimacy of the spring season. This includes Montana head coach Bobby Hauck, who has never won a national title, as well as some fans and media members involved with teams that have exited the championship picture.
Sam Houston senior defensive lineman Jahari Kay was asked about a hypothetical asterisk surrounding the spring champion during a press conference earlier this week. The Buck Buchanan Award finalist could barely contain his laughter.
“Well that's pretty hilarious,” Kay said. “I believe our side of the bracket was the hardest. First to start off with Monmouth, I don't think Monmouth was an asterisk or some Mickey Mouse team. They aren't some rollover team, they played us hard until the end. Let's talk about North Dakota State winning championships in the past 10 years ... then let's go to James Madison, they've been in the championship the last few years.
“Putting an asterisk on this championship, it's hilarious — and also ridiculous to say such a thing.”