I, for one, will be among the most curious of observers at Friday’s KCAC Football Media Day in Wichita, always one of my highlight events of the year.
I am beginning my 37th year of covering KCAC football, during which time the conference has improved by light-years. When I came aboard, it was Bethany and Southwestern that ruled the roost, with everybody else giving chase. Things started to change when Ottawa returned to the KCAC in 1981 and then other schools started to put more resources into their programs.
The typical squad size, other than Bethany, in the late 1970s and early 1980s was about 55 to 65. Now the majority of schools begin fall practice with anywhere from 90 to 120, though schools that have undergone a coaching change generally experience a fall-off for the first year or two before the numbers are rebuilt.
That’s why this year is such a curiosity. It’s been a while since the KCAC has experienced such an overhaul of coaches. McPherson College, Bethany College, Bethel and Southwestern all have new program pilots.
One of those new coaches is Paul Mierkiewicz at Mac and he comes in with impressive credentials, having once coached at Hastings College of Nebraska for 10 years, where he was 65-41 with two national playoff appearances. His 2004 team went 9-2 and the Broncos were 9-3 in 2009.
I haven’t talked much with the busy Mierkiewicz, who has been relentlessly recruiting since the Bulldogs’ roster took a big hit after last season. Mac was 5-6, but due to a variety of reasons there’s not expected to be many returnees. When I saw the first roster that was released Wednesday, there are only about 20 players off last year's team back though that number could increase by a few.
From my brief conversations with him, he’s a no-nonsense guy and wants things done the right way, including the classroom where his Hastings teams were exemplary. His track record would indicate he knows how to win, but recruiting to Mac is considered far more difficult than recruiting to Hastings in football-crazy Nebraska.
He told me he’s earned 60 new commits for this season (47 of them freshmen), but is cautionary in that it will be interesting to see how many of those actually show up for the first day of practice. I’ll guarantee you at Friday’s Media Day that line will be uttered by every coach at the podium at it’s a stock answer — “I’ll let you know my squad size when we get them on campus,” will be the common refrain.
I really hope that Mierkiewicz is a guy who not only will be successful, but will stick around as there's been quite a coaching carousel at Mac in recent years. You look at the KCAC’s most successful programs year-in and year-out and they’re the ones with coaches who have decided this is the level they’re comfortable at — Kent Kessinger at Ottawa, Mike Gardner at Tabor, Andy Lambert at Sterling and Monty Lewis at Friends come to mind.
I was hoping that Brian Ward would be the guy at Mac when he returned to his alma mater. It didn’t take long for him to build the program into a national playoff team, but it was clear he was on the fast track for bigger and better things. He’s now the defensive coordinator at Bowling Green University and don’t be surprised if someday he isn’t an NCAA Division I or II head coach.
Joe Bettasso, Ward’s defensive coordinator, took over and his first year resulted in the most dominating Bulldog season in the modern era. That 2010 Mac team tore through the KCAC undefeated and the Bulldogs hosted a national playoff game.
But Bettasso didn’t really like overseeing an entire program and left after the Bulldogs fell off to 5-6 in 2011. That brought aboard Pete Sterbick, whose two years produced 4-5 and 5-6 records. In his stead came Steve Fox, Sterbick’s defensive coordinator, and he was 5-6 last year (after receiving a forfeit from Bacone), but he, too, seemed more comfortable as an assistant. Ironicially, Bettasso, Sterbick and Fox are all assistant college coaches now.
Ward proved that McPherson College, even though it doesn’t have the resources of say Friends and Ottawa, can be a winner. He was a terrific recruiter, as he had the contacts to bring in junior college standouts, but also unearthed some small-school gems, such as Andy Skinner, an 8-man player in high school at South Gray who went on to become one of the best receivers in the nation.
To be successful in the KCAC, I think you have to comb the jucos for the skill-position players and then build your lines with high school players who develop through the system. It will be interesting Friday to see the number of transfers each team has on its roster this year. Former Kansas Wesleyan coach Dave Dallas was a transfer maven, while Kessinger always has a former juco or four-year transfer at quarterback for Ottawa, not to mention the backfield and at receiver.
In my conversations with Mierkiewicz, I think he’s going to go more for high school players at least at the start and sprinkle in with transfers. The first year may be very rough, but I like what I’ve seen so far.