Rich Stevens: UC, State football situations not dissimilar
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia State University football Coach Jon Anderson conjures up about as much excitement that a winless first-year mentor can muster.
Always looking ahead, Anderson speaks enthusiastically and provides his players with positive energy.
That doesn't mean his job isn't hard, and nobody knows that better than University of Charleston third-year head coach Pat Kirkland.
Kirkland's Golden Eagles lost their first five games of his first season (2011), averaging a meager 12.6 points and giving up 34.8 per contest.
Surprisingly, the Golden Eagles had no first-team All-West Virginia Conference members in 2010. Of course, State had none last year.
In 2010 under Coach Tony DeMeo, UC was 6-5 (compared to State's 2-9 record in Coach Earl Monroe's final season in 2012).
Guiding the private school's football program was the first head coaching job for Kirkland, but he had something of a head start, serving on the football staff at West Virginia University for five seasons.
Also, Kirkland's recollection of the West Virginia Conference goes to his days as an assistant at Glenville State (2000-06), so his understanding of league teams was palpable.
With this advantage came connections and inroads to recruiting.
Which brings me back to Anderson, who came almost 17 hours and nearly 1,067 miles from Sioux Falls, S.D., to take over a downtrodden program in Institute.
He came from halfway across the nation, admittedly having little to no knowledge of football in the East.
Still, there are many similarities to the situations at State and the University of Charleston.
Among the priorities is keeping players believing in the coaches, which, Kirkland said, wasn't easy to do.
"We had a good group of players that bought into what we were doing," he said. "I remember saying every night that I wish just to get a win for these guys so they get a little bit of hope and get a little bit of that experience and to show that hard work pays off."
It almost became like a broken record for Kirkland, whose team lost its first four games by an average of 26.5 points before a near miss at Fairmont State in week five.
"You try to give them that same motivation over and over and over ... 'Guys, it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen,'" he said.
"For us it was just a few plays during the game that was getting us out of it. There were times finally we just made some plays in key situations late in the game and got over the hump against Seton Hill."
That victory, a 49-35 verdict against the Griffins on Oct. 8, 2011, marked Kirkland's first career head coaching victory.
UC dropped a 38-point decision to UNC Pembroke the next week, but reeled off seven consecutive wins stretching into 2012.
"It definitely was tough in the beginning," said senior linebacker Matt Kelly, who was a sophomore on the 2011 team. "You just have to always believe in the head coach and trust the system."
Like every other game during the start of Anderson's coaching career, this one is important.
Both coaches will utilize motivational ploys to rally his team.
Undoubtedly, Kirkland will remind many of his juniors and seniors that they have been there.
"We were in the same position a couple years ago and it doesn't say you're a bad team," Kelly said. "They have a new coaching staff coming in, a new system and this is about the same time we got it clicking a couple years ago. We're not taking them lightly at all."
Anderson won't worry about who the Yellow Jackets are playing because getting that first victory is paramount no matter the opponent.
The Kanawha County rivalry hasn't really been one, with UC holding a 7-1 record in their eight meetings since the former Morris Harvey College reinstated football in 2003.
I anticipate a UC victory on Saturday, and while it won't likely be the fourth shutout for the Golden Eagles in the series, a decisive verdict is expected.
That would put State behind UC's turnaround pace of 2011. Still, I bet the Yellow Jackets' upward mobility isn't very far away.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at email@example.com or 304-348-4837.