If you are a college football fan, it goes without saying that you know the names Nick Saban, Brian Kelly, Dabo Swinney and Lincoln Riley, as they are some of the best coaches in the game. In fact, it is hard to turn on a television set during the college football season and not see these coaches shining brightly every Saturday. While these coaches certainly deserve all the attention they get, there is another coach who you may not be familiar with that will take the national stage today. In fact the coach I’m talking about may just be the best coach that you have never heard of.
The coach I am talking about is Sam Houston State Head Football coach K.C. Keeler who at 2 pm today attempts to add to his staggering win total and become the first coach in NCAA history to lead two different programs to an FCS National Championship. Keeler's BearKat squad will take on South Dakota State this afternoon to determine the FCS NCAA National Championship.
I have known of Coach Keeler and followed his career for many years, having first met him back in the early 1990's when I was just starting out as a college football coach. As a young Wide Receivers coach, I often spent my summers working camps to earn a little extra money and soak up as much football knowledge as I could, and It was at one of these camps where I first met K.C. Keeler. At the time, Keeler was the Head Coach at Rowan College, a highly competitive Division III program in New Jersey and I was a first year Wide Receivers Coach at an FCS program in the Northeast. After meeting Coach Keeler, watching him interact with players and hearing him talk football, I was fascinated by him from the very first meeting.
Keeler even as a relatively unknown Division III head coach had a larger than life personality in my eyes and its no surprise all these years later that he has achieved so much success. At the time Keeler was quickly establishing his reputation as a program builder, a great recruiter and a winner. He was known for his engaging personality, recruiting prowess, ability to control a room and perhaps most famous for his trademark sunglasses which till this day he still wears, even if it’s a night game. After getting to know Coach Keeler a bit that summer, I always made an effort to follow the progress of his coaching career.
Rise of a Division III Superpower
In the mid to late nineties, I watched with amazement as his Rowan program quickly rose to national prominence. Many across the country started to take notice and began to wonder how this unknown school from Glassboro, New Jersey was able to achieve and sustain such a high level of success. Keeler quickly became known as one of the best recruiters in Division III but also became famous for his ability fill out his roster with “ Bounce Backs”, a term used to describe Division 1 players who after a year or two at programs like Penn State, Michigan, Syracuse and Notre Dame for one reason or another would end up leaving and return to their home state to play elsewhere.
Keeler not only welcomed transfers and Bounce Back's at Rowan but he made it the cornerstone of his program. In fact, in 1996 Rowan opened the season with 12 new Division I transfers, including those from schools such as Nebraska and Penn State. In total, that 1996 Rowan team had 19 Division I transfers and a staggering 47 transfers from all levels, including Division II, III and junior colleges.
Keeler's style and philosophy while not always popular with other coaches, was extremely successful. His Rowan teams racked up 88 wins with an .804-win percentage from 1993 to 2001. This included a school record seven Division III playoff appearances and five appearances in the NCAA Championship game. While Rowan became a fixture in the National Title game, they could never get that one final victory and it wasn’t until Keeler's next coaching job that he would finally win his first national Championship.
The University of Delaware
After this unprecedented success at the D III level, Keeler had opportunities to lead other programs, but it was not till his alma matter came calling in 2002 that he decided to take on a new challenge. Keeler made the jump from D III to the FCS ( I-AA) when he was named Head Coach at the University of Delaware, taking over for Legendary coach Harold R. "Tubby" Raymond. Raymond, a Hall of Famer won 300 games and three national championships with the Blue Hens and was best known as one of the innovators of the Wing-T offense. While Delaware had a strong football tradition, they had struggled later in Raymond's tenure.
Keeler abandoned the traditional Wing-T offense for an up tempo attack and quickly brought the Delaware program back to prominence. In addition to a new offense, Keeler also brought his transfer philosophy to the FCS. In 2003 his Blue Hen squad won the NCAA Division I-AA Football Championship behind Georgia Tech transfer QB Andy Hall and a defense led by Duke transfer Shawn Johnson. This was the programs first national Championship since Raymond’s D II title back in 1979.
Keeler would return to the FCS Championship game two more times in 2007 and 2010. The 2007 team was Quarterbacked by Pitt transfer Joe Flacco, who earned All-American honors. Flacco best known for his time with the NFL Baltimore ravens led Delaware to an 11-4 record after passing for 23 touchdowns and a school-record 4,263 yards.
While at Delaware, Keeler amassed a record of 86 -52, which included four NCAA playoff appearances, three appearances in the National Championship game, a national title and a .623 winning percentage. Even though Keeler was named "Delawarean of the Year" in 2004 by Delaware Today magazine and was listed as one of the top college football recruiters in the nation by American Football Monthly magazine, he was unexpectedly fired after the 2012 season by new Athletic Director Eric Zaidy.
An Opportunity at Sam Houston State
After taking some time away from coaching and dabbling in broadcasting, Keeler knew it was time to get back into coaching. That opportunity arrived when he was offered the job at Sam Houston State in 2014. After the 2014 season, Coach Willie Fritz left the Bearkats after four successful seasons to be the head coach at Georgia Southern. While Keeler had tremendous success at the FCS level, many questioned the hire, due to Keeler's lack of ties to the state of Texas. Keeler quickly eased those concerns by leading the Bearkats to four straight playoff appearances in his first four years. Over all since 2014, Keeler holds a 68-22 record that includes nine wins over top-10 ranked opponents and nine wins in the FCS playoffs.
Across his long 26 year head coaching career, Keeler is currently the 44th winningest coach in the history of college football. Keeler has won more than 240 games and taken 15 teams to the NCAA playoffs. Back in 2019, an "ESPN Blue Ribbon Panel selected Keeler as one of the 150 greatest coaches in college football".
While his past achievements are enough to make any coach envious, Keeler isn't satisfied. At his introductory press conference back in 2014, Keeler stated that he was coming to Sam Houston State to "Win championships, National Championships". Today, Keeler has a chance to follow through on that promise but regardless of today’s outcome, I have no doubt that this wont be his last chance at a title.
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