By BEN JOHNSON
Rob Robinson stood behind an aged wooden podium and did what new coaches are supposed to do at introductory press conferences.
He smiled. He spoke glowingly of Northeastern State. He talked about why he left Washburn to take over the RiverHawks. He posed for photos. He shook hands with his boss, Tony Duckworth, NSU’s director of athletics.
But perhaps most importantly, he offered up snippets of how he desires NSU to return to the Redmen days — the years when winning was a staple and playoff berths weren’t so far-fetched. Those seasons of success also coincided with a fan base that yearned for NSU football.
Nowadays, fans just yawn about NSU football.
Need examples? I have them:
• When it was announced that Robinson was taking over as the RiverHawks’ 19th head coach in school history, I posted a question on the newspaper’s Facebook page. I asked for people to give me their thoughts on the new hire. I was inundated with a startling amount of apathy. Not a single person offered up his/her opinion. NONE!
• I posed the same question to my Twitter followers. At least some responded — but still less than a handful. The ones that opined felt good about the hire and that they’re excited to see what the future holds for the football program.
The lack of reaction on both social media sites was quite alarming. It tells the tale of where the green and white faithful are at.
Sure, there are some die-hards that still exist, but let’s not kid ourselves, the vast majority often doesn’t even know what time kickoff is at. And here’s a disturbing question I hear quite often: who is NSU playing this weekend?
I mean, seriously? This isn’t baseball with 10 games a week. This is football and the RiverHawks play once every seven days. Keeping track of a football schedule isn’t arithmetic. The schedule is posted online. There’s a preview in the paper.
That speaks to where the fan base is at with NSU football. The casual fan has lost interest.
That ought to be No. 1 on Robinson’s to-do list: rejuvenate the fan base. Well, his top priority after the holidays will undoubtedly be recruiting, but after that is when the PR campaign to bring the fans back ought to commence.
Robinson seems like a likable guy, so that shouldn’t be too absurdly difficult. The problem he’ll face is that NSU’s fan base won’t flip the switch overnight. It’ll take time.
Sadly, the Northeastern State fans likely won’t return in full force until the RiverHawks start winning in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. It’s no secret — in any sporting realm: college or professional, major league or minor league — winning is the best promotion. Clubs that win don’t often need gimmicky schemes to draw people to the stands. Winning breeds boastful fan bases.
Hoping for examples? I have them:
• Northeastern State and Central Oklahoma entered the final week of the regular season with a combined three victories in 19 games. Both seasons had been toast for quite some time. Yet, two rivals were playing for the President’s Cup. The weather was pleasant for mid November. The attendance: a lackluster 1,564.
• Northwest Missouri State wrapped up the NCAA Division II national championship this past weekend with a 43-28 victory over Lenoir-Rhyne. Leading up to the title game, the Bearcats played nine games at home in Maryville, Mo., with an average attendance of 6,082. That doesn’t even include the Bearcats’ neutral-site contest at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., against Pittsburg State, where 17,369 filled into the home venue of the Chiefs.
• Speaking of Pittsburg State, the fans of Gorilla Nation continued to show why they’re some of the best in Division II football. With five home games in southeast Kansas, an average of 10,030 showed up to Carnie Smith Stadium on Saturdays, including 10,374 when Northeastern State rolled into town for the season opener in September.
I was there. I witnessed what a true Division II fan base is like. Seemingly every business in town had a banner in the window proclaiming their fandom on game day. Driving through Pittsburg, Kan., there was a sense that people were excited for football.
It’s easy to identify it when you don’t see it in Tahlequah.
Now, I’m not saying NSU needs to get to the level of Pittsburg State. Few in the nation can match the passion that fans have for the Gorillas. They are in a level all their own.
But keeping ticket-takers at the gates at Doc Wadley Stadium busy would be a start.
Some will argue that NSU should have gone with an alum or an up-and-coming high school coach to “bring back” the NSU fan base. Pish posh. The RiverHawk fans wouldn’t have come streaming back any quicker if Butch Davis walked through the door.
Like any fan base, NSU faithful want to see victories. They want playoff appearances. They want a reason to believe.
Robinson seems confident that he can do all of that. When he does, there’s a chance he will have won back all those who have disappeared.