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Coach can't wait to launch Houston Baptist's program
Eleven months into his new job as the first football coach in Houston Baptist University’s history, Vic Shealy is well ahead of where he thought he’d be for a man starting from absolute scratch.
Although his small, tidy office on the second floor of the school’s fitness center by the Southwest Freeway still has a just-occupied feel - the memorabilia Shealy will decorate with remains in storage, awaiting a sorting out once the family’s new home in Katy is finished - that’s just details.
The 50-year-old Shealy is on adrenalin overdrive after landing a better-than-expected haul of high school players to go with the 40-plus walk-ons and a sprinkling of scholarship transfers who begin spring drills in nine days. While he won’t see his incoming freshmen until summer, knowing he has 15 on-the-field practices ahead makes him feel like a real coach again after a hiatus of almost a year and a half.
“You become so intently single-tasked with the recruiting part when you’re trying to find players to fill every position,” Shealy said. “But it went well, very well for us. One of the interesting things about this generation is they’re less drawn into tradition and trophies. They’re looking for anything they see to be fresh and upward moving. The other schools don’t have what we have. A young man we sign can tell himself, ‘I’m moving upwards from day one.’ Other schools’ negative recruiting (about HBU’s blank slate) helped us.
“This is a sophisticated state when it comes to football. You can’t blow smoke … I was very open with the families. I told them, ‘If you’re looking for a place that has the tradition and the trophies, we’re not for you. But if you’re looking for a place where you can go be a part of history, leaving a legacy, then you have no choice but to listen to what we’re saying about HBU.’ ”
Twenty-two young men liked what they heard and signed on. Perhaps more significantly, Shealy points out how the Huskies recruits’ combined high school winning percentage for 2012 was close to 70 percent. He landed two players, quarterback Ka’Darius Baker from Navasota and receiver Ethan Fry from Cedar Park, who played integral roles for state championship teams. Members of nine district championship teams also will be part of his inaugural freshman class.
“No one wants to feel like you’re in a well, climbing out,” Shealy said. “You think about how fast you can get competitive so you’re not conceding games. One of the hardest things to develop is a culture of winning. To be able to sit here and piggyback off the success many of our kids have had will be an advantage. They already understand, for example, that it matters how hard you practice.”
To take advantage of the speed the Huskies landed and to compensate for their lack of size, Shealy plans to utilize a wide-open offense.
“Which offenses are creating the most problems? The high-tempo teams that snap the ball quick,” Shealy said. “We all see the same trend. You’re going to face it, so you might as well help your defense by having them practice against it every day. An athletic perimeter guy with the ball in his hands in space makes your offensive line a little less significant. Guys are having to chase the ball so much that defenses are hurt by the fatigue factor. It’s not all about size and girth anymore. You’re looking for power, those long, lean strong guys as opposed to the swole-up-big guys.
“I’m confident we’ll have the players and a system to create problems for other teams. There are a lot more ways to lose a football game than to win one, and most of the difference is talent-driven. But now it’s up to us as coaches to give them a scheme advantage to help them be successful.”
The Huskies will play an abbreviated “developmental” schedule of eight games this fall rather than throw themselves into the Southland Conference cauldron straight away. Joining the SLC is equal parts blessing and curse. It’s arguably the deepest Football Championship Subdivision conference in the country, so there’s a certain recruiting cachet - “kids know the top two teams will go to the playoffs and compete for a national championship every year,” Shealy noted - but the high caliber of competition creates a daunting task for a start-up.
Several silver linings
Sam Houston State, just up the road in Huntsville, has played in consecutive national championship games, and Central Arkansas has been to the playoffs the last two seasons.
Neither of those schools, nor any of the others in the SLC, have HBU’s academic standards. Many of the best prospects may not have the grades or test scores to become Huskies.
But Shealy also hopes to turn that into a subtle advantage.
“I know it’s a very tough league,” Shealy said, “but we have the benefit of being located in the most athletic city in Texas - and probably the nation - that combines tradition, talent and expectations. So maybe you talk to a kid who could go somewhere else in our conference or to ABC University in Conference USA, but he says, ‘I want to major in pre-med, and HBU has one of the top pre-med programs in the state. I can stay home and play in front of my parents. I’m going to at least go visit HBU.’
“If we can get one out of five of those kinds of kids, we’ll have a strong core. And they’ll be playing here out of love of the game, not to play in front of 80,000 people.”
HBU is planning to build a 10,000-seat stadium, but even that modest facility will take a couple seasons to complete. The Huskies intend to play four “home” games in the fall with nearby Strake Jesuit High School’s stadium one likely venue. Athletic director Steve Moniaci plans to announce the 2013 schedule and game sites about the time spring drills start.
The sooner, the better
A couple of years ago, before HBU was on Shealy’s radar screen, he took his family to San Antonio for a spring break vacation “to get out of the Kansas cold.” (He was the Jayhawks’ defensive coordinator/secondary coach at the time.) While there, he dropped in on Larry Coker’s practices at UTSA, then visited with Coker afterward.
Those conversations proved invaluable for Shealy once he made his way to Houston. Coker had built his program from the ground up, too, not so many years after coaching Miami to a BCS national championship.
One thing Coker, 4-6 and 8-4 in the Roadrunners’ first two years, mentioned was how he later second-guessed himself for going the entire 2010 season at UTSA without playing any games. It was hard on the players’ morale, Coker concluded, harder than suffering a few losses would have been.
Moniaci also pointed out that convincing transfers to come aboard “is pretty hard when they know they won’t be able to play immediately.”
“The way we’re doing it,” said Shealy, who won an NAIA title at Azusa Pacific in 1998, his last season as a head coach. “We won’t burn a year of eligibility, and they’ll get live competition. Sure, as a ball coach, you always go out there with the idea of winning every game. But I’ve got to set what victory means for us.
“When they win a one-on-one situation, or play harder than their opponent and what we teach them in practice, they’re able to execute - that’s how were going to judge them this fall. But I expect to be very competitive in the conference in 2014.”
Finding ‘bounce backs’
By 2015, HBU will have a true senior class with, Shealy hopes, some “BCS-level” players from the Houston area who come for a variety of reasons.
They already have landed Darian Lazard, formerly a receiver at the University of Houston. Shealy called Lazard a “blessed athlete who needed a fresh start. (UH coach) Tony Levine gave him a wonderful recommendation. Tony told me were getting a very special young man.”
“You try to define a prospect by what he looks like in your program,” Shealy said. “Toughness, competitiveness and character are, I think, measurable talents. So are heart and passion. You take the football evaluation out of it when you look at transfers (from BCS schools) because they’re all going to look appealing. Instead, you look at the things I just mentioned.
“I’m all for taking every kid who wants to come back home to Houston, if he’s the right fit for us. If you infuse two or three ‘bounce backs’ into your program every year, you’ve got a huge opportunity to find difference-makers.”
By Dale Robertson, Houston Chronicle