HUNTSVILLE, Texas – The plains of east Texas look nothing like the West Plains of Spokane County – especially on a hot and sticky Friday afternoon.
The land here is flat and green. The trees are thicker, and so is the traffic, which fans out toward Houston to the south, Dallas to the north and College Station in the next county to the west.
Then you take a closer look.
Like the West Plains, much of the economy here is built on broken lives. But instead of Eastern State and the Geiger Correctional Facility, this city of 38,000 is home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, by far the biggest employer in Walker County.
Beyond the city, lakes and farms spread in every direction. So do sporting opportunities of every kind: hunting, fishing and football.
Winning football, just like in Cheney.
In Walker County, the best football is played on Saturdays at Bowers Stadium, home of Sam Houston State – the No. 2 employer in the county and the No. 2 FCS team in the land the past two seasons in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Together, the school and the athletic department are growing into a powerhouse, but one that’s comfortable in its own skin.
Like Eastern Washington, they’re fine with playing against the big boys, but don’t necessarily aspire to be one.
“We’ve looked at where we want to be,” athletic director Bobby Williams said. “The other phase was to explore FBS opportunities.
“But a lot of our fans, they were talking, and the question was: Would we have this (playoff) experience if we were in a bowl situation?
“And the answer was no.”
Williams, the school’s A.D. since 1998, instead has focused on boosting every facet of the athletic program. Williams has overseen more than $9 million in facility improvements, including a new strength center, baseball stadium, softball stadium and a golf practice facility.
Williams and his staff have increased both campus and community attendance at all Bearkats intercollegiate events and increased revenue generated from outside university sources from $600,000 to $2.4 million. This year, the department has a budget surplus of more than $1 million, which has allowed Williams to raise the salaries of head football coach Willie Fritz and his assistants.
“Football is so critical to everything you do,” said Williams, who played at Rice and also was an assistant coach at Sam Houston State before becoming an administrator.
It hasn’t hurt that in the last three years enrollment has increased from 16,000 to 20,000. At the same time, Fritz has improved the product on the field; the Bearkats are 25-5 in the past two seasons after years of inconsistency.
Next up is a$22-million project that includes a new press box with suites and coaches boxes. That contrasts with Eastern’s ambitious Gateway Project, which is an all-in-one solution to Eastern’s rebuilding efforts.
“Right now we’re drawing well, but there’s no reason to overbuild,” said Williams, who also must find funding to improve office space for an athletic department staff that has tripled, to almost 100, during his tenure.
Success at Sam Houston State has come despite competition in Texas from every sport in every direction, from high school up to the pros.
“I think football is revered at a level that’s probably the highest in the country,” said Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves, who earlier in his career was an assistant at Baylor.
Despite the different approaches in capital improvements, everyone agrees on one thing: Neither school would be a national power without a strong head coach and staff.
“That may be the biggest common denominator,” said Chaves, who hired Beau Baldwin in 2007. “It starts with hiring the right person at the top.”
In the case of Sam Houston State, Fritz and his staff have won the same way as Baldwin: by outrecruiting the competition. “He has a great eye for talent,” Williams said.
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