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Winning mind games a start for Northern Colorado Bears in 2012
Often in sports, the phrase “learn how to win” is applied to mean getting over the hump from competitiveness to something more, perhaps to championships. Yet it also is arguable that a downtrodden team needs to “learn not to lose,” getting past that feeling that something is about to go wrong at the crucial moments.
Last year, the Northern Colorado Bears lost their season opener to NCAA Division II Lindenwood on a last-second field goal, and the Bears’ season never got any better after that. UNC went 0-11 in its first season under coach Earnest Collins Jr. — a returned former UNC player and assistant coach — and again was last in the Football Championship Subdivision’s Big Sky Conference.
That can leave scars on the collective psyche.
So as the Bears go through their preseason practices on the Greeley campus, they are working on building that self-esteem as much as getting down the timing on the pass routes. They have an Aug. 30 “paycheck” opener at Utah before facing Division II Colorado Mesa at home Sept. 8, then jump into Big Sky play — where little is expected of the Bears again. The bright side is that UNC and Charleston Southern, also 0-11, are the only FCS teams in the nation who need only a single win to improve over a year ago.
Collins played for the Bears from 1991-94, when they were a prominent Division II program, and served two stints as a UNC assistant.
“I think the kids came back in good shape and ready to get the nasty taste out of their mouths after the 0-11 season,” Collins said recently. “They’re tired of losing. I think mentally, they’re in a good place. … We had the ability to win games last year. It was just the mental focus. If you tell a kid over and over again that he’s stupid, eventually, he’s going to believe it. They’ve been told they were bad since ‘04, so when you hear that for the first, six, seven years, when things go wrong in a game, you revert back to, ‘Oh, we just can’t do it.’ “
Quarterback Seth Lobato, from Eaton, threw for 2,448 yards as a sophomore last season.
“It’s tough for anybody to put in the amount of effort we continually put in and come up short so often,” Lobato said. “But last year, what we went through, our resiliency and persistence, has helped prepare us for this season coming up.”
The Bears’ returning starting tailback is junior Quentin Hildreth from Denver East.
“I think we have a lot more talent this year to go with the experience a lot of the young guys go through playing last year,” Hildreth said. “Including me, including Seth. We’re a lot more confident. A lot of things didn’t go our way, but through thick and thin, we all stuck together.”
Junior middle linebacker Clarence Bumpas, a second-team all-Big Sky selection a year ago, is from Sierra High School in Colorado Springs and transferred to UNC after starting his career at Kansas State. He laughed when asked about the impact of the Bears’ second-year coach, who likes to watch practice from behind the defense.
“Basically, it’s work, work, work, work, get it right, do the little things,” Bumpas said. “Whether it’s getting the locker room clean or getting drills done the right way, it’s the little things.”
So far, UNC has failed to take advantage of being the only FCS program in the state and has been a perennial Big Sky doormat, which isn’t what school officials had in mind for football when making the jump from Division II in 2003 and then to the Big Sky for 2006.
“I expect us to get back on top, at this FCS level, and we’ll make our own place in this state,” Collins said. “You don’t get into this game not wanting to be at the top-of-the-national level. Every coach I have worked under previously has built programs up.”
Collins noted that Mel Tjeerdsma went 0-11 in his first season as Northwest Missouri State’s head coach in 1994, then won Division II national titles in 1998 and 1999 — with Collins as an assistant.
“I talked to him last year, of course I did,” Collins said, smiling. “He said, ‘Coach, you have to keep plugging, keep recruiting, and it will come together.’ “
First up this season, though, is that road game at Utah.
“If I had my druthers, I would never do it, but when you’re at a school at our level and you need to raise money, you have to go take the game,” Collins said. “At the same time, trust me when I tell you, every kid on this football team is going in there with the mind-set that we’re going to beat Utah. It’s been done before, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
By Terry Frei, Denver Post