By BEN JOHNSON
Northeastern State and Minnesota State-Mankato left Excelsior Springs, Mo., heading in two opposite directions — both literally and figuratively.
The chill of winter had already encroached upon the Central Plains on Dec. 3, 2011. That was the day Mankato polished off a 28-14 victory over Northeastern State in the Mineral Water Bowl.
The season had just wrapped up for both clubs.
The Mavericks traveled north, capping off a 9-3 season and envisioning more fruitful seasons ahead. And that’s exactly what they have enjoyed: back-to-back seasons of at least 11 wins, including a trip to the national semifinals in 2012.
And currently, Mankato is in the midst of an 11-0 season, with a first-round bye in the playoffs, and will face the winner of Henderson State and St. Cloud State in the second round of the national playoffs.
As for NSU’s journey home from the Mineral Water Bowl, that’s when things went south for the RiverHawks — literally and figuratively, again. The RiverHawks had to point the bus south on Highway 71 in Missouri, but that’s also the last time NSU enjoyed a winning season.
In 2011, the RiverHawks posted a 7-5 mark playing as an independent, while the team waited for approval to join the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association. The season before that was a 6-5 campaign in 2010, giving NSU only two winning seasons since making the NCAA playoffs in 2000.
Well, NSU was eventually granted MIAA immunity and joined the league prior the 2012 season — which ultimately began with an 0-6 start before closing the year with four straight triumphs.
Then there was this year: a 2-9 venture, which looked more like a torture crawl. Of course, one of those losses was out of conference – to old foe, Eastern New Mexico, leaving the RiverHawks sitting at 2-8 in MIAA play by year’s end.
Not nearly good enough. Thus, a change was made.
Not longer than 90 minutes after being handed the President’s Cup following a 45-38 victory over Central Oklahoma, NSU head coach Kenny Evans had a chat with Director of Athletics Tony Duckworth. Evans entered the conversation having just completed his sixth season at the helm; he exited the conversation looking for new employment.
Sunday was merely a formality, with Duckworth’s saying Evans was no longer the RiverHawks’ head coach during a press conference at the university’s new event center — merely a stone’s throw from the south end zone at Doc Wadley Stadium. In an instant, NSU had stripped itself of one of its alums while initiating a national search.
No doubt the NSU football team will take on a new look in 2014. All the pressure now shifts squarely onto Duckworth to make the right hire and ensure the next coach is one who will transform the RiverHawks into an MIAA menace.
Based on Duckworth’s track record, he’s capable of doing that.
He hired Travis Janssen as NSU’s baseball coach in 2011. Janssen took a club that went an embarrassing 6-33 in 2011 to 25-24 in 2012 and 28-23 earlier this spring in the MIAA.
How about softball? Duckworth brought on board Clay Davis, who flipped the script on RiverHawk softball. In his first season as coach, Davis went 27-24 this spring, while guiding NSU to the MIAA quarterfinals. Prior to Davis coming on board, the RiverHawks hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2008 — and even that was 24-23.
Still not satisfied? Let’s talk women’s tennis.
With Ron Cox retiring, Duckworth hired Amanda Stone, who guided NSU to a 23-4 (9-1 MIAA) mark in 2013. The RiverHawks were MIAA runners-up and Round of 16 participants in the NCAA tournament. Oh, and Stone did all of that without the benefit of a fall season in 2012, due to NCAA sanctions from the previous regime.
Duckworth’s hires have been far from slouches.
And what have all of his hires had in common? Their age. Janssen is the eldest-statesman of the bunch, since he was 37 when he left Jacksonville State (Ala.) to take over in Tahlequah.
Davis was 36 when he left his post at Berryhill High School.
Stone — an alum at NSU — returned to her old stomping grounds at 28 years young.
Toss in Cedrique Flemming, director of media relations, who was 27 when he was hired, and Duckworth has proved there’s a yearning to go young.
But don’t expect Duckworth’s football hire to be anywhere too near the legal drinking age. He wants a seasoned veteran among the college coaching ranks, and he also wants to steer clear of high school coaches.
“It would have to be a unique situation for me to pull the trigger and make that recommendation to [NSU President] Dr. [Steve] Turner to hire a high school coach,” Duckworth said. “Particularly if that individual has little to no experience at the college level.”
Beyond that, Duckworth laid out two requirements: a bachelor’s degree and at least seven years of full-time coaching experience.
Those are minimal suggestions. The ideal coach will take over on Grand Avenue with a background of winning football games at the collegiate level. It’ll also be someone who commands the respect of those around him.
So erase the notion of a high school coach from your wish list. I’ve been told by a reliable source that “it’s not going to happen.”
As a coordinator or position coach? Sure. But not as the person calling the shots on a day-to-day basis.
No, that person will have to be someone who “is going to be a visionary and systematic,” Duckworth said. “There has to be an element of charisma. It has to be someone that makes people say, ‘I can buy what that guy is selling.’”
And while Duckworth said he’s not in the market for a snake-oil salesman, he’s certainly looking for someone who will be a shark in the MIAA.
Now he just has to make the right catch.