You know it's football season now, because we're asking questions that need answers. With an FCS opponent in week one, this is more of a challenge; there's no big-time blog to reach out to, after all. But that's okay, because we found a perfectly acceptable option by reaching out to an actual newspaper. Taking time out of his busy schedule this week to answer our burning questions is Kevin Gore, who covers Stephen F. Austin year-round as the sports editor of the Daily Sentinel in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Jon: SFA won the Southland and reached the playoffs in both 2009 and 2010, but since then it's been a painful slide to last year's disaster, which cost J.C. Harper his job. What's gone wrong in Nacogdoches?
Kevin: J.C. Harper’s reign consisted of big highs and big lows. He had an 0-11 year in 2007, his first season. He won titles in 2009 and 2010, the first time the school had back-to-back championships. But after those titles, his program was 14-20, including a 3-9 year that cost him his job. He had just finished the first season of a five-year contract. On the outside, you’d have thought he deserved a longer rope.
Obviously, there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that we really don’t know about. HIs defense was just terrible last season. He was a former defensive coordinator. That didn’t help him any. I thought he fell in love with his offense during his time here. His special teams gave up big plays. His program was just inconsistent. Again, the highs and lows. SFA believes it has the resources to win titles or to win consistently. It seems like every seven years, the school is switching coaches.
Jon: The team had an interesting couple of days a couple of weeks ago, with Devonte Fields first announcing his transfer to SFA, then discovering he couldn't because his suspension rendered him ineligible. What's the reaction to that been like around the program?
Kevin: Fields is a great player. He was here two days. He showed up one day, got cleared to go to school, and he showed up for practice the next day. But they pulled him off the field when the school learned that TCU hadn’t fully released him. He would have been a fish out of water at SFA and the Southland. He’s too good for the league. He’s a big-time guy. There was some disappointment.
My take was that it was probably for the best. I figure he’ll sit out a season and enter the pro draft next spring. That will be better for him, because his chance of getting injured working out on his own in unlikely. He belongs in the Big 12 or the NFL, not the Southland for one season. That’s just my opinion.
Jon: The Lumberjacks have brought in Clint Conque, who had a very successful tenure at Central Arkansas, to replace Harper. What sort of guy is he, and what sort of culture does he appear to be trying to build?
Kevin: Conque is very straight forward and organized. He built Central Arkansas into a winner in his 14 seasons there, winning 105 games and two Southland titles. The program migrated from Division II to the Southland and won titles a few years later. That is impressive.
(Ed. note: you may pause to consider that while Central Arkansas didn't win a national championship under Conque, the "moved up to Division I and quickly became a force" thing is disturbingly familiar.)
The culture of the program is that this guy has been around the block or two and knows how to win. The players trust him. I thought it was a great hire. SFA usually hires coordinators who have a big learning curve when it comes to building programs. They hired a proven winner this time. Considering his track record, the returning talent on offense and the schedule, I expect SFA to have a winning record this season.
Jon: Offensively, who should K-State fans be keeping an eye on? What sort of offense will Conque be running, and do you see a particular weakness in the K-State defense the 'Jacks might be able to exploit?
Kevin: SFA’s offense will be up tempo, with a lot of no huddle. Conque wants to be balanced. He has a great running back (Gus Johnson). And there are several talented receivers. The offensive line had some fall camp injuries, but it seems to be close to full strength.
The big question is at QB. Conque’s son, Zach Conque, is a transfer from Texas-San Antonio who has a lot of promise. Coach Conque said he’ll play Zach Conque and backup Joe Minden against Kansas State. SFA’s offense have been fun to watch the last several seasons under Harper. It’s going to be fun to watch under Conque, too.
Jon: Similarly, who's worth watching on defense, and what can we expect to see?
Kevin: Linebacker Collin Garrett is a big-time player. He’s a transfer from Kansas a few years back. The front line has playmakers with some transfers at tackle. The ends are athletic, long and fast. The secondary was torched last season. It has been retooled with transfer starters at cornerback. If the CBs hold up in one-on-one coverage, it frees up the safeties to do some other things in the middle of the field with their coverage. SFA’s defense will be much better than last season. Again, last season’s defense was so bad.
Jon: Lastly, since we have you... K-State fans are pretty well-disposed toward the Lumberjacks these days because they still adore former Wildcat assistant Brad Underwood, and most were pretty thrilled to see his team achieve so much success last season. How are things looking for the basketball program heading into fall? Still a lot of excitement left over from March?
Kevin: There are high hopes for the SFA men’s basketball program. Going 32-3 was over the top. Our newspaper put out a book on that season. I got back from the NCAA Tournament, blurry-eyed and looking for time to walk my dogs, and I was told that we were writing a book. So, I wrote a book.
The challenge for Underwood and his staff and players is to keep it going. That’s going to be tough. The Southland is a one-bid league, meaning the lone SLC team in the NCAA field will have won the tournament. That’s life in the Southland. Underwood had good players, no injuries and a dream season last year. It’ll be interesting to see how his second go-around pans out. I really enjoy it. When you know people are reading what we’re writing, it makes it all worth it.
Back to football. SFA isn’t going to be North Dakota State. But SFA isn’t going to be the 2013 team it is was, either. I expect K-State to win the game, probably pretty easily. I’d be surprised if SFA doesn’t represent itself pretty well, though.
Our thanks to Kevin for taking the time for this interview, and we would be remiss not to call more attention to that book he suddenly found himself writing. Interested Brad Underwood fans can get hold of a copy of 32-3: Stephen F. Austin's Storybook Season, available from the Daily Sentinel for $24.99.