WHO: Sam Houston State University football
WHAT: The Bearkats beat South Dakota State in Frisco Sunday, giving Texas its first NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) winner since the tournament began in 1978.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Remember what it’s like to watch a Texas college football team win a national championship? It’s fun. It’s agonizing. And it sometimes seems about as rare as being struck by lightning.
On Sunday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, lightning struck North Texas in the second quarter, delaying the FCS championship game between South Dakota State and Sam Houston for more than an hour. And then it struck again, when the Bearkats turned a 17–7 lead into a 21–17 deficit with five minutes and 41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter . . . only to prevail, 23–21, with 16 seconds left.
The Bearkats join Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor (2016, 2018) and Division II Texas A&M–Commerce (2017) as recent Texas NCAA football national champions; the last school in the state win such a title at the Division I level, of course, was Mack Brown and Vince Young’s University of Texas Longhorns, in 2005.
Huntsville native and SHSU alum Richard Linklater is sort of the Matthew McConaughey to Sam Houston’s University of Texas, but he’s more of a baseball guy (and also not on Twitter). Instead, another distinguished graduate chimed in:
Also offering congratulations was some combination of Governor Greg Abbott, his social media team, and an erroneous autocorrect.
In some ways, this was old hat for Sam Houston head coach K. C. Keeler, who won championships as a player at the University of Delaware and playoff berths as a Division III head coach at Rowan University before returning to his alma mater and leading them to the 2003 FCS title. Sunday’s game made Keeler the only coach to win an FCS championship at two different schools; he also passed Jim Tressel (of Youngstown State and, later, Ohio State) to become the winningest postseason coach in FCS history.
But for Sam Houston, the glory was new, and also overdue: under Keeler’s predecessor, Willie Fritz, the Bearkats lost to North Dakota State in the 2011 and 2012 championship games, while Keeler’s teams got bounced in the semifinals three times between 2014 and 2017. In the locker room after the game, the Pennsylvania native evoked the spirit of Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero’s famous quote: “Win today and we walk together forever.”
(Shirtless college football players in cowboy hats. Talk about the best thing in Texas!)
“This is immortality,” Keeler said. “For the rest of Sam Houston’s life they’re going to celebrate this national championship. For the rest of existence.”
It almost didn’t happen. Sam Houston joined most of FCS (but not fellow Southland Conference teams Houston Baptist, Abilene Christian, and Stephen F. Austin) in choosing to play spring football for a shot at Frisco. The Bearkats played through all the usual COVID-19 limitations and then some, including not having a locker room (the athletics facilities were undergoing an “off-season” renovation), plus the Texas winter storm in February.
With a 6–0 record in the regular season and a number two seed in the postseason tournament, the Bearkats got to play every game at home until the championship, but with the bracket reduced from its usual 24 teams to 16 (eliminating a bye week for the top seeds, and generally reducing the potential for chaos/upsets), Sam Houston’s draw was anything but easy. To make the final game, they had to beat undefeated Big South champion Monmouth, eight-time national champion North Dakota State, and the only team besides North Dakota State to win the FCS championship since 2011, James Madison. The Kats needed a game-ending defensive play to dispatch Monmouth, trailed NDSU in the fourth quarter, and were down 24–3 at halftime against James Madison. Then they got to Frisco, where some players, unable to walk the graduation stage in Huntsville with the other students, participated in graduation rites held at the ballroom of an Omni hotel in Frisco.
And then came the rain and lightning. If you think college football in May is weird, how ’bout college football without halftime? Due to the second-quarter delay, the mid-game break was just three minutes. But for Sam Houston, such weirdness was just more of the usual.
“It wasn’t a shocker for us because we’ve dealt with stuff like that all year,” said Bearkats quarterback Eric Schmid. “We were kind of joking in the locker room, like, it’s got to be this way for us to win.”
It was a slippery game in more ways than one. Sam Houston’s defense knocked SDSU’s starting quarterback, Mark Gronowski, out of the game early. Schmid took one hit that had him spitting up blood, and another that saw the trainers re-taping his ankle. He hit the ground repeatedly and hard, as both a dangerous runner and before and after pass attempts. Had this not been the last game of the season, he might have missed the next one. Keeler said that offensive coordinator Ryan Carty told the QB, “‘I’m riding you in the national championship. You have three months to recover.’
“And Eric goes, ‘I know. Ride me.’
“You talk about a warrior and you talk about a guy who is just so calm under pressure and just doesn’t panic,” Keeler continued. “I think that’s why a lot of us felt that we were going to be fine on that last drive.”
Indeed, while SHSU’s defense allowed a hundred-yard rusher for the first time in 21 games—South Dakota’s Isaiah Davis rushed for 178, including an 85-yard touchdown—and the team did most of its offensive damage in the second quarter, you could sense that they expected to prevail in the game’s final minutes, as they had all postseason. Dominant three-hundred-pound defensive end Joseph Wallace, a Texas Tech transfer out of Dallas’s Skyline High School, said the team never questioned whether Schmid would get the Bearkats back into the end zone.
“That last play, I was looking at my D-line coach, Coach Siddiq [Haynes], and he looked at me in my face—he said, ‘Watch this, we’re going to win.’
“And I told him, ‘I already know, Coach.’ Nobody ever doubted on the sideline. We all knew what was about to happen, honestly.”
Schmid hit wide receiver Ife Adeyi on third and goal from the ten-yard line for the winning touchdown, but another Bearkats wideout, Jequez Ezzard, was the game’s MVP. The Howard transfer made plays like this all year:
Soft-spoken on camera during the trophy presentation (and left out entirely from the postgame press conference), Ezzard still got himself an exultant hot-mic moment on the ABC TV broadcast.
If the Bearkats were formerly the Oklahoma or Notre Dame of FCS—often in contention, but with no title to show for it—now they’ll look to be Clemson to North Dakota State’s Alabama, battling to be in the final game each year, and maybe starting their own dynasty. And oh yeah: one nice thing about spring football is that Sam Houston’s fall season starts only 107 days from now.