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K.C. Keeler faces Texas-size rebuild at Sam Houston State

Thu., Aug. 21, 2014

Fired by Delaware, K.C. Keeler landed at Sam Houston State. (Associated Press)
Fired by Delaware, K.C. Keeler landed at Sam Houston State. (Associated Press)

K.C. Keeler is a Texan now.

He hasn’t just accepted the stereotypes, he’s embraced them, from his wife’s first trip to a gun club to his own growing midsection.

“They sure know how to feed you down here – I’ve had more red meat in the last seven months than in the previous 10 years,” said Keeler, the former Delaware football coach who now runs the program at national power Sam Houston State.

The clincher was a trip to the DMV. “When I got my new license plates, I was just so proud to be a Texan,” gushed Keeler, although he still spoke the words with an East Coast accent.

Keeler is best known to Eastern Washington fans as the foil in the 2010 FCS national title game, when the Eagles climbed out of a 19-point hole to knock off his Blue Hens 20-19.

“That was tough on me because of the seniors,” said Keeler, who earlier led Delaware to two other title game appearances and won a championship in 2003. “That team had a great desire to win a national championship, but they had to move on.”

Two years later so did Keeler, who was fired by his alma mater after going 6-5 in 2012.

One of the first people to offer condolences was Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, his opponent on Saturday. “I really appreciated that,” Keeler said.

He landed seamlessly into the studios of ESPN and NFL Films, working next door to Ron Jaworski and staying close to the game.

Not close enough. His wife, Janice, could sense that he wasn’t satisfied, that he missed the coaches and the players – “the family we created on our staff at Delaware,” Keeler said.

But as exile threatened to stretch into another season, Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz took the job at FBS newcomer Georgia Southern.

“Things just worked out,” said the 55-year-old Keeler, who on Jan. 23 was named the Bearkats’ 15th head coach.

That gave him exactly 10 days until national letter-of-intent day, a week and a half to begin the rebuilding process at a program that lost heavily to graduation.

“You just don’t want to reach for a high school kid you’re not sure about,” said Keeler, who responded by signing 15 FBS and junior college transfers and starting a new era both in personnel and formations: the option offense is gone, replaced by an up-tempo spread.

“All our quarterbacks’ arms got pretty sore in the spring – they weren’t used to throwing it much,” said Keeler, who still likes to establish the run.

Establishing a new system will take time; the Bearkats return just seven starters on both sides of the ball, and only five of them figure to start on Saturday.

“The problem won’t be our talent, but we have to get the moving parts going in the right direction,” Keeler said.

“We’ve put together a team that’s pretty young, but for the next two or three years we could have a pretty good run.”

That will play well at Sam Houston State, where expectations are always high. The Bearkats reached the FCS title game in 2011 and 2012 but fell in the second round last year at Southeastern Louisiana, 30-29.

“The culture here is that football is very important,” said Keeler, always eager to embrace another Texas stereotype.

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