J.J. Eckert has NSU on a new path

Byron Beers | Daily Press

Northeastern State head football coach J.J. Eckert instructs players during a spring practice in March at Doc Wadley Stadium.

Winning runs deep in the Eckert family.

J.J. Eckert knew nothing other than winning during his days as both a player and coach at Northeastern State over two decades ago.

He was a member of NSU’s 1994 NAIA National Championship team, a member of the 1995 runner-up team and then was the quarterbacks and wide receivers coach on the 1998 and 1999 teams that combined to go 18-6 — each of those years under his father and head coach, Tom Eckert, who compiled a 104-68-3 mark over 16 seasons.

It’s been difficult for J.J. to watch the RiverHawks hit rock bottom since joining the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association in 2012 — a period that has seen the program win just 12 of its 76 games. In the last two years, NSU has gone 1-21.

J.J. was named Northeastern State’s 20th head coach last December, replacing Rob Robinson, who went 6-49 in five seasons.

“It’s a tough deal,” J.J. said Wednesday. “You know how things are and you know how tough of a league this is as well. When you grow up around a program, I can take you through a lot of successes. I can tell you about a lot of games and a lot of history. There was a lot of games that were won during that period. It’s tough to obviously see things the way they’ve been recently, but there were some things that went along with it that you kind of realized that those things made it very challenging.”

The challenge continues.

“We’re still in the same boat,” he said. “We’ve got some things today that we’ve got to overcome that are no different than what’s been out there in the past.”

J.J., who in his final season as head coach at Kilgore (Texas) College in 2018 led the Rangers to a 10-2 record and No. 4 ranking in the final NJCAA poll, also knows there’s more to it in returning to his hometown.

“Hopefully it’s just something that when you look at it you realize that when you come back to a place you grew up at it makes it a little bit different from a personal standpoint. There’s not too many times that I can walk into a place and not know somebody. When you get to that point it kind of changes things. They’re either going to say, ‘What happened?’ or they’re going to say, ‘Good job, you guys played really well.’ It’s a double-edged sword. Those are things that are obviously fuel.

“You always find ways to motivate yourself as a coach, and as a coaching staff we’ve talked about a lot of things that we feel like we’re going to have to try to create in 2019 as a staff and as a football team. When you get down to it, it’s one of those things that the past is the past and we try to believe that’s water under the bridge and hopefully we can turn a new chapter.”

J.J.’s vision for a different path started during spring practice, the first time he had the chance to see his new team on the field.

“When you get down to the big picture of it, you go through the spring and kind of think you have an idea where you’re at but you don’t really know where you’re at until you get a chance to see it,” he said. “I feel really fortunate that we were able to see 15 practices during the spring and getting an evaluation and being able to now begin assessing what we need to be able to find, what we need to be able to recruit and what we’re trying to look for.”

There were three things he told his players over the spring — make sure we’re a great team, make sure we’re a great family and make sure we’ve got leadership.

“If we’ve got those three things we’ve got an opportunity to be competitive like we would like to be competitive,” he said. “Knowing how to be a great team. Knowing how to be a great family. Having some great mental toughness that can help you play through some things. Having great leadership. Those are things that you’re trying to figure out more than anything else going through the spring and even the spring practices. We made some headway in some areas that were very critical that I felt like we needed to be able to get done.”

“They’re hungry to taste success, and anytime you can have someone that’s hungry to taste success I think you’ll find someone doing a little bit more to make that a reality,” J.J. added. “You can talk about it but you have to be about it too. I think that’s the thing that excites me the most is that you know that they want to see the results and they’re willing to work to see the results as well. Being early July, that’s something that’s encouraging. It’s been fun to talk to players that are here in town and players that are obviously back home. It’s been fun to kind of hear that excitement in their voice.”

The RiverHawks will report on Aug. 8 and begin fall practice Aug. 9 at Doc Wadley Stadium. The 2019 season opener is on the road against Emporia State in a 7 p.m. kickoff on Sept. 5.