THIS WAS supposed to be more of a rebuilding kind of season at Sam Houston State. Someone forgot to tell first-year coach K.C. Keeler, the transplanted Yankee who succeeded Willie Fritz after he moved on to FBS newcomer Georgia Southern. Keeler still thought the Bearkats could do something, even after they lost three of their first four. That's the way he's wired. And DNA doesn't change.
"I'm a competitor," Keeler said, emphatically. "Right now, our kids don't think they can lose."
His kids are 10-4 and back in the FCS quarterfinals for the third time in 4 years. Tomorrow afternoon, they'll play Villanova (11-2) on the Main Line. The same Villanova that Keeler coached against from 2002-11 when he was at Delaware.
"I've had some pretty good success in my time," said Keeler, who's 36-10 in the postseason, having made it to five Division III national-title games at Rowan, then three FCS finals with the Blue Hens, where he won it all in 2003. "There's only a handful of guys who have a winning record against me. And [Villanova coach] Andy [Talley] is one of them.
"I'm conscious of that."
Keeler's record against the Wildcats is 4-7, after taking three of the first four. That includes two losses when Joe Flacco was his quarterback. But he was 3-2 as the visitor if you count the 2011 meeting at Chester's PPL Park.
"He's one of those guys who's really such a character," Talley said. "He's hard to dislike. He's got a way about him that's just fun.
"I would love to have that kind of relationship with all the coaches. Some let you get closer than others."
When Keeler was out of the profession a year ago and working with NFL Films and ESPN, he spent some time at Villanova with Talley, observing and absorbing.
"He knows how to handle people, and he has a great respect for the game," Keeler said. "He was one of the first to call me [when he was let go in Newark]. That meant a lot. You find out who the quality people are. I have no problem learning from anybody. I've learned a lot from him."
Keeler said he didn't even realize Villanova was on his side of the bracket until everyone started texting him.
"They were going, 'Hope to see you in Philly,' " he said. "I can't tell you how many came from family and friends. That's when I figured it out. We don't even have brackets here. It's all about if we win, we'll find out if we play another game. So I wasn't even paying attention.
"But when we were flying back from Jacksonville [Ala.] State [where they won last week], I looked at my wife and we were, like, 'How crazy is this?' It'll be fun. We're kind of on a mission. We're blasting the 'Rocky' theme and 'Philadelphia Freedom' at practice. Last week, we started off with 'Sweet Home Alabama.' They've been busting my stuff. That's not what they usually hear."
Who knew? Maybe Talley could even come out wearing Keeler's trademark wraparound sunglasses.
"He'd definitely laugh," Talley acknowledged.
As long as Talley doesn't find a way to get the last one.