Over the last 10 years or so, I have come around on this chemistry thing in sports.
Camaraderie in the locker room.Brotherhood, bonding and foxhole mentality and all that.
I tended to think just put in the work, preparation, practice time and do your job come game day would lead to wins. But as times have changed, so have the players and coaches.
The media chatter and hype results in selfishness, the all-about-me syndrome and the chase for stats and accolades to the detriment of the team. Don’t get me started on the pitfalls of social media and the breakdown of personal relationships among teammates outside the white lines.
So, when first year McNeese head football coach Sterlin Gilbert began emphasizing his team mantra as “La Familia,” he wasn’t just quoting an emotional line from Vin Diesel of Fast and Furious fame. He quickly recognized the dire need to pull the Cowboys together as a team and establish bonds that would not breakdown late in fourth quarters in tough games.
There was some talk of a fractured locker room and team tension over the course of the season slump in 2018. Gilbert needed to galvanize and repair the core of the team first — the players and their internal relationships.
Circle the wagons, if you will, under the banner of La Familia … the family first.
And Gilbert was consistent with his message and motive. Early on, it seems, he worked in La Familia in every answer to a media question. But he knew he wasn’t just selling this to the administration or fan base. Gilbert knew he had to get a complete buy-in from his players, who he barely knew at the time.
The new head coach from San Angelo, Texas, by way of South Florida, Texas, Tulsa, Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois, struck the right chord.
When you get grizzled veteran players transformed and preaching family and team, then the rest of the outfit will follow in tow.
It was critical that Gilbert and his Pokes get out of the gate fast, with the long-awaited matchup against Southern University and all the trappings. It did not disappoint. Thanks to a huge outpouring of Southern fans, a new single game attendance record was set, and the Cowboys hung on for a 34-28 season opening win.
“That first game was pivotal. We had some proof to the pudding that what we were doing was going to work,” Gilbert says.
After an expected 56-14 loss to FBS Power Five Oklahoma State, the Cowboys returned home to face their second SWAC opponent in three weeks. A common theme came to life again, as McNeese built a 17-0 lead but saw the Braves battle back to within 3 late in the game before the Pokes notched the 17-14 win.
Finishing and closing out games quickly began the team’s call-out and challenge. The Alcorn game was the initial glimpse, then came the loss at Abilene Christian, where the Cowboys rallied to tie it, but a muffed punt allowed the Wildcats to score late for a 17-10 road loss. It was a streak away from home that extended back to Sept. 8, 2018.
That road losing slump was ended with a 23-point win at Stephen F. Austin on Oct. 26. And with the season-ending win at Lamar, the Cowboys finished 2-4 away from home. That fact is not lost on Gilbert, who said “identifying what we need to do to be successful on the road” was a major step forward this season.
I would put the seesaw, hard fought 38-34 decision over Southeastern Louisiana as McNeese’s signature win of 2019. It came against a Lions defense led by former Cowboys head coach Lance Guidry, who is now Southeastern’s defensive coordinator. The Lions came in red hot at 3-1 and had already dismantled then-No. 6 ranked Jacksonville State.
Gilbert doesn’t dismiss the stepping stone that was the Southeastern win, but leans on the Southern game and how the Cowboys persevered against the rallying Jaguars as what propelled his Pokes over the Lions. “Both wins are really close, but I don’t think you have those latter wins unless the Southern win happens. I think it really gave us an opportunity to roll as the season went on. I think it (the Southern victory) was a huge part of that and a huge part of getting the Southeastern win.”
That elusive momentum swung McNeese’s way in the second half of the season, as they won four of five games heading into the Nicholls State game after an open date. Taking down the Southland-leading Colonels on the road would be a formidable task, as it should be. It was one that would have put the Cowboys in serious consideration for an at-large playoff bid.
The magnitude of the challenge was evident early, as the SLC’s top quarterback veteran Chase Fourcade began to toy with the Cowboys’ undermanned secondary, tossing several 50 yard bombs to wide open and streaking receivers who repeatedly escaped coverage by simply racing by defenders to open spaces.
Explosive, big-yardage chunk plays demoralized McNeese’s defense, which was one of the conference’s best against the rush but near the bottom of the league in defending against the pass. The opposition’s best receivers continually burned the Cowboys’ downfield coverage. Gilbert is quick to explain why.
Injuries took away McNeese’s top two cornerbacks (Colby Burton and Colby Richardson). The team was forced to move redshirt freshman Andre Sam from his natural safety position to corner, where he struggled at times, learning on the job. Those injuries and position changes didn’t help secondary communication and busted coverages either.
“That’s one area (secondary coverage) that we know and we’ve addressed, so going forward, we will be better on that side,” Gilbert says.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom back there.
Junior corner Darion Dunn from Oakdale earned All SLC first team with his penchant for interceptions (four total) and safeties Jovon Burriss and Cory McCoy forced turnovers and played well.
The fact that both Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls notched opening-round playoff wins over Villanova and North Dakota respectively bolsters McNeese’s progress, as it beomes evident that the Cowboys clawed their way into the upper tier of the SLC race late in the season.
Senior defensive end Chris Livings was surely one of the bright spots of 2019.
The former Barbe High star missed breaking the school’s all-time sack record by one and a half, topping out with 29 for second on the list. Livings was honored as the SLC Defensive Player of the Year as he led the Pokes with 9.5 sacks, and probably did more by leading the team with his character, work ethic and dedication.
He leaves the program destined to be thought of as one of the top defensive players in McNeese history.
Gilbert promised an up-tempo, spread offense that would score points and “keep those cannons firing in the Hole.”
Well, there were games when the cannons were silent and the offense sputtered. The offensive line, mostly healthy minus the center position, had trouble with pass protection, while the Cowboys, at one point, were averaging a scant 2 yards per carry on the ground.
The offense turned and made gigantic strides, ironically, against Lance Guidry’s defense in the Southeastern victory. Running back Elijah Mack busted for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Cody Orgeron began his run at a string of 250-yard passing games.
Cyron Sutton and Trevor Begue were quickly becoming a dynamic duo at wide receiver.
Sutton would go on to set a new single-season school record with 67 receptions to go with his 9 touchdowns. Begue hauled in an impressive 55 catches to go with his team-high 10 touchdown passes, creating his own chemistry with Orgeron that grew with each game.
Both will return for what promises to be productive senior seasons in 2020.
I couldn’t figure out the helter skelter running game, as it was hard to keep up with which of the endless stream of running backs were healthy and available on any given week. It seemed like a running back du jour every Saturday, based maybe on the defensive schemes, matchups or whim of the head coach.
The depth chart started with Justin Pratt, followed by J’Cobi Skinner and then Elijah Mack. Throw in D’Andre Hicks and Carlos Williams. Of the top four, each started at various times until Gilbert simply went with the hot hand, which more times than not was either Pratt or Mack.
Pratt finished his McNeese career strong, rushing for more than 100 yards several times on the back end of the season. He ran for a career-best 200 yards in his final game against Lamar.
Next season, Gilbert will probably shorten his running options to Mack and Skinner, but who knows.
What we do know is Orgeron deserves some type of quarterback award exemplifying the leaps and bounds he made during his first year as a starter.
This former Louisiana high school tennis champion, who played only one year of prep quarterback, used every ounce of his natural athletic ability, toughness, leadership, endless work ethic, desire to improve and learn, plus the DNA he got from dad Ed Orgeron, to develop into one damn fine college quarterback by season’s end.
There were the proverbial ups and downs and learning curves of any young quarterback. But Orgeron, all 6 feet, 1 inch, 180 pounds of him, had the deck stacked against him more than most.
Yes, he lacked high school snaps and experienced limited reps in college. But throw in the fact that as a first year starter, he had to learn a whole new offensive system and playbook — and all from a new head coach with pretty high standards. Remember, Gilbert was an offensive coordinator at Texas and South Florida — programs not short on top level FBS talent. And Gilbert also coached current San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback and NFL darling Jimmy Garoppolo while both were youngsters at Eastern Illinois.
Quarterback is the hardest position in all of sports, so there was a lot being thrown at and put on the slim shoulders of young Orgeron. The growing pains and slow progress were easy to see early on. But the junior from Mandeville, La., stayed the course. Kept getting up after each sack. Shook off each bad pass, fumble or interception (only nine total for the year) and just kept working his tail off.
There was no clear ah ha moment or pivotal game. Orgeron just kept improving and gaining visible confidence with every throw, series and game.
If there was a coming out type of game, it might have been in week seven with his 400 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in that 40-31 road loss at Central Arkansas. Most young players learn more in defeat than with a victory.
His numbers as a first-year starter are solid: 2,628 passing yards, with 24 touchdown passes to go with nearly 500 yards rushing and another three scores with his legs.
“The guy has a high ceiling. Has not played a bunch of football (despite being the son of LSU coach Ed Oregron). Every rep he took in practice, (he) was getting better. Every game rep he took, he continued to grow as the season went on. The things he did with his legs to extend plays. His confidence grew and it just came down to playing,” Gilbert gushes about his returning quarterback.
“The one thing Cody didn’t have, and you can’t go buy on eBay, is experience. Just (with) every practice and game rep he got better. And there is no substitute for experience.”
You can rest assured the 41-year-old Gilbert is not satisfied with a 7-5 record (7-4 if you take out that expected loss at Power 5 Oklahoma State) after his first season as head coach. There were accomplishments that he is proud of, namely running McNeese’s streak of winning seasons to 15, which is the longest in the FCS.
Gilbert admits fans don’t want to hear about the time it takes to rebuild a program, but he says time is a factor. Changing the culture from the ground up; installing a new staff of coaches with new offensive and defensive systems; getting to know the personalities of the players and learning who they are as young men — not only as football players — doesn’t happen overnight.
Gilbert walks by those 14 Southland Conference championship trophies every day as he goes to his office in the fieldhouse. He is acutely aware of the winning traditions and high expectations.
But the simple fact is what the Cowboys have been doing over the last 15 or so years has not gotten them a playoff victory — they are 0-6 in post-season record since 2003; a return to the FCS championship game — the last title game appearance took place in 2002; or truly back on the national stage.
The pot needed to be stirred with a new recipe in place.
“There are a lot of heavy traditions here and things on display a long time. But with change comes change. There are different ways things are being done across the country, and we have to do that at McNeese. We have to do those things that will make us competitive on a national level as we did 12 years ago, because things have changed since then,” Gilbert correctly points out.
Just in McNeese’s backyard, see how much the SLC has changed.
There are new coaches, new styles of football, new facilities, broader recruiting and, of course, the acceptance of using transfer players.
Don’t get me wrong — McNeese has worked diligently to keep up with, or even set the standard on, all those fronts.
It starts with a culture of discipline and accountability. Then there’s the matter of trusting the system and process and having the patience for them to work. And it ends with high character and highly skilled talent on the field that is recruiting.
Gilbert and his staff better get their Christmas shopping done early, because they won’t have much downtime in December. Recruiting is in full force as they work toward the early signing week of Dec. 18.
Gilbert says the team’s goal is to sign “one or more players for every position” due to the large senior class that is departing. He added that the “NCAA transfer portal is crazy,” but admits he looks every day at the available players, seeking a transfer and a new team … “Anything we can do to make our team better.”
Not all available scholarships will be filled during this early signing phase. Gilbert notes he will leave some spots open for transfers and junior college player options.
The season wasn’t a glossy, pretty picture from start to finish. But 7-5 was a very good building block. But I am a stark realist about what it takes to win in today’s ultra-competitive college game.
One or two players in key positions can make the difference.
One or two calls or critical plays can decide a win or loss. The line between the two is very thin sometimes.
That’s why it’s important to have a family that has your back during good or bad times.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.