Here is what I know and don’t know about the hiring of McNeese’s new head football coach.
I know Sterlin Gilbert is completely void of any McNeese history or ties or connections to the school and its football program.
That’s what the men who run the athletic department and the university as a whole wanted. “We wanted to make sure that there was no ceiling or that you had to have a certain connection to the school or someone had to have a tie here or to Louisiana. We wanted the very best coach we could find,” said university president Dr. Daryl Burckel.
I know Gilbert is an offensive coach; his entire coaching experience, from high school to college, includes stints as an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach.
The eight-member McNeese search committee reviewed more than 100 candidates. They knew what was wanted by the men who would ultimately make the final decision, and that was an offensive coach. Burckel, a former Cowboys linebacker himself, says the game is “more 7 on 7 now, and if you don’t have a good offense, you don’t win games anymore.”
I know the 40-year-old Gilbert has had a good inside view of a successful college football program, with time spent at FBS schools Bowling Green, Tulsa, Houston and South Florida.
Burckel and McNeese athletic director Bruce Hemphill were convinced McNeese had enough of a “national brand” that the job could attract what they wanted, which was someone with FBS experience. Former McNeese head coach Bobby Keasler was a key man on that search committee, and he admitted that “where (Gilbert has) been, Texas and South Florida; and who he has coached against — like Notre Dame … that kind of moved him up a notch with me.”
I know Gilbert has a history, short as it may be in coaching tenure, of offensive player development — something that has clearly been lacking with the Cowboys of late.
In just six years, Gilbert has held positions with five FBS teams and coached the likes of current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, CFL quarterback Dane Evans, Houston Texans running back D’onta Foreman and former USF quarterback and current Cincinnati Bengals running back Quinton Flowers.
Over the last four to five years, a number of McNeese’s key offensive players would be all-conference stars one year and fall off the map the next year. A mainstay in player development has experienced, talented assistant coaches who can evaluate and teach. McNeese officials believe Gilbert has a large enough coaching circle to attract new position coaches and get them hired before too long.
I know Gilbert is the complete change of focus and style both Hemphill and Burckel wanted.
“We needed a change of direction,” was the only on-the-record statement given by both Hemphill and Burckel over the decision to fire Guidry. They both agreed on the decision, and I think they both saw Gilbert as the polar opposite of Guidry in personality, which can’t be discounted in this move. Compare Guidry — the fiery, loud, outspoken, down-home Cajun —to Gilbert, with his more reserved, close-to-the-vest, business-like approach — the approach of someone who measures his words carefully.
I know Gilbert will be more attentive to and place more emphasis on the players’ academic progress, team graduation rate and improvements in the NCAA’s required Annual Performance Review (APR).
Some of the reasons Guidry fell into disfavor was players’ academic shortfalls and sketchy class attendance, and a lack of academic oversight, along with a falling APR.
Burckel and Hemphill emphasized that the academic development and the total development of the student athlete, a practice and tradition at McNeese, needed to resume and be a focus of the head coach. APR is becoming more of a hammer for the NCAA to bang on non-compliant programs. “If you don’t pass the APR, you can get knocked out of the playoffs,” said Burckel. “Plus, there is money attached to it now, and if we don’t succeed in that, I don’t care how much you win on the field — you will lose everywhere else.”
What I don’t know about Gilbert is his ability and skill set as a college head coach.
This is his first head coaching job at any level of college football. For many successful coordinators at FBS mid-majors like South Florida, this is the perfect landing spot as a first-time head coach. He has three years as a high school head coach in West Texas, which helps. But don’t underestimate how difficult it is to run a college football team from the top. “He is a well-rounded coach and ready for the head coaching position,” Hemphill says.
I don’t know how good Gilbert is at recruiting and overseeing a program’s recruiting process. No one will know until Gilbert gets a few recruiting classes under his belt and we see how well the players develop on the field come game day.
His FBS resume, and his connection to NFL players like Garoppolo, Flowers, Foreman and Green Bay Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, will help Gilbert sell himself to recruits. He admits the early signing period in December is not as important on the FCS level, because he believes if you over-sign early, you won’t have any scholarships to offer when seven or eight good players fall in your lap, say, in January and February.
“Recruiting is about evaluation,” says Gilbert. “So go find that guy that maybe you have to tweak something here or there. There are good football coaches in this southern region who coach good players.”
His knowledge, connections and relationships in Texas high schools should help him with a quick recruiting turnaround this year. But Gilbert will have to start from scratch in Southwest Louisiana and across the Bayou State.
I don’t know how good a coaching staff Gilbert can assemble before his stated timeline goal of early January.
It’s safe to say he was on the phone minutes after accepting the McNeese job, contacting possible position coaches he’s worked with or knows. Gilbert is a smart coach and knows his success as a first-year head coach will depend heavily on the skills of his assistants. He said his cell phone was loaded with texts and calls, not only from guys congratulating him, but also from people seeking employment.
“There’s a nice pool of coaches out there that want to come here and coach. I got hired here to win football games, and you win them with decisions you make on a daily basis. And during the season, you have to feel 100-percent confident with those decisions. When you get an opportunity to be in this position (head coach), you want to make sure you have the right people. There’s a trust factor there [in] getting guys who have had success.”
I don’t know if Gilbert can win quickly with his complex offensive playbook, an unknown quarterback situation and the limited talent coming back on offense.
Gilbert inherits redshirt freshman quarterback Cameron Smith to start spring drills. He could opt to sign an FBS transfer or a junior college quarterback to bolster the position. His offense is much like that West Texas-Baylor-Art Briles-inspired spread passing game, which will require a quarterback with a good arm who can pass the ball accurately.
Gilbert will need to retool the receiving group, and work fast to improve McNeese’s returning offensive line. The new coach and his incoming staff will spend many hours reviewing game film to determine exactly what kind of talent they have and what they may need to sign by way of transfers to fill big holes.
I don’t know if Gilbert will continue the defensive legacy of D.W.A. and McNeese’s dependency on a strong defense that for many years has overshadowed the offense.
Credit Lance Guidry for having a top-notch defensive mind and building stout defenses — not only at McNeese, but also at Western Kentucky. Over the last two years under Guidry, the Cowboys’ defense has been rated one of the best in the Southland Conference, and ranked nationally in several key categories.
Gilbert, who will call the offensive plays, says hiring a new defensive coordinator “is extremely important” because he will run “that side of the ball.” The Cowboys have a number of talented defensive backs and defensive linemen returning, but must replace the irreplaceable in All-American and SLC Defensive Player of the Year linebacker B.J. Blount.
I don’t know whether Gilbert’s offensive reputation or the excitement and anticipation of the new coach will be enough to appreciably improve sagging game attendance.
Gilbert said in his opening comments during his McNeese introduction a few weeks back that the cannons will be firing and the cowbells ringing in the stadium at home games because the Cowboys will be playing exciting football. During his two year stint as South Florida’s offensive coordinator, Gilbert’s offense averaged more than 500 yards and nearly 40 points a game at times. But will that be enough to get fans away from their 60-inch flat screens at home or interrupt their trips east to LSU games to fill more seats at Cowboy Stadium?
“If you win, people will show up and support it and want to be a part of it. So when you put a winning product out on the field, people will show up,” Gilbert told the media after his formal introduction.
That’s easier said than done. McNeese’s average home game attendance has fallen every year. And a crowd of, say, 10,000 has been the high water mark of late. This is a fickle fan base in the face of declining game attendance across college sports.
I don’t know whether Gilbert has the patience and desire to stay in one place at one job for the long term — whatever constitutes long term these days.
I asked Hemphill directly if he had any trepidation about Gilbert’s nomadic coaching history, with five jobs over the past six years. “None whatsoever,” was Hemphill’s response. “We were looking for the best fit, and the best fit for now. If people come calling (interest from other schools seeking to hire Gilbert away), then that means we have chosen the right person. We are going to do anything we can to retain him. So we want him here for a long time.”
Gilbert, who is unmarried and on an upward track in his coaching career, has made moves any coach would make if offered. He’s moved from FCS Eastern Illinois to FBS Bowling Green to larger Tulsa and then to Charlie Strong’s staff as offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks coach at Texas. After Strong was fired, Gilbert followed him to South Florida for two years before his move to McNeese.
Burckel confirmed the school hired Gilbert for the same $180,000 annual base package paid to Guidry, and called it “a very competitive package.”
“I’m firmly embedded in this program, and getting our program to the heights and level that is expected,” proclaimed Gilbert.
I don’t know this to be fact, but Gilbert’s long-range plans may be influenced somewhat when and if McNeese decides to move up to the FBS level. Burckel now says the university will look into the feasibility of such a decision “very strongly.”
“We are going to look at all the aspects it takes to do that. We are going to evaluate it and make a decision on whether that’s the direction we want to go with our athletic program.”
Gilbert may not have any Blue and Gold in his background or DNA, but he knew of McNeese’s football history and winning tradition.
An outsider is now a welcome member of the inner circle. Keasler said what many Cowboy football followers are hoping … “I think he has been looking for that place he can like and stay a while, and I believe he has found it.”
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.