There is a sleeping giant hibernating within the athletic department at Sacramento State.
It’s the Hornets football program, waiting to be nurtured and unleashed.
Fielding its first team in 1954, Sac State has shown sprinkles of gridiron promise over the decades, but has mostly been mired in mediocrity or misery.
The Hornets have won four conference championships, the first in 1964 under coach Ray Clemons, the last in 1995 under John Volek. The last playoff berth was in 1988 under Bob Mattos, the only coach in program history to produce a winning record, going 84-73-2 from 1978-92.
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Jody Sears last week was relieved of his coaching duties after two winning marks over five otherwise frustrating seasons. A year ago, first-year athletic director Mark Orr extended Sears with a multi-year extension after Sears won seven games.
It was a bold move, but the right move. And it was also a bold move to let Sears go. This is all on Orr now.
The Sacramento native embraces the task. He understands that a successful football program signifies a major boost for any campus. A successful football program can be a revenue generator, a social hub for students and alums.
Though the facility resources may not be as grand as those from other Big Sky Conference programs, enough is in place at Sac State to draw a good coach, build a program, and achieve.
“I’m sure we’ll get a lot of interest because it is a good job,” Orr said. “We should be able to compete for conference championships and the playoffs.”
Sac State is conducting a national search for a coach, but may not have to go far to find the right one.
Two names of note have deep Hornets ties. None of the names I list here spoke to me about the job, but the sense is they would take a call from Orr. It’s good business to listen.
Jon Osterhout is the coach at American River College, having elevated a good program into a nationally ranked one. He was Volek’s first scholarship signee, out of Oakmont High School, and he became an All-American lineman in the late 1990s.
Osterhout was an assistant coach at Sac State for several seasons, so he understands the nuances of recruiting and program building.
Angus McClure was an offensive lineman for Sac State in the late 1980s under Mattos, coached with the Hornets for several seasons, logged 11 seasons as an assistant at UCLA and is now the assistant head coach at Nevada.
His son, Hammich, is a freshman quarterback at Sac State.
Like Osterhout, McClure brims with personality, commands a presence in a room and understands the most vital part of the college game – recruiting. If you cannot land players, you cannot succeed.
Local is the way to go here. Sac State’s best football coaches had regional ties – Ray Clemons and, later, son Mike, Volek, Marshall Sperbeck or even Mattos, who prided himself for being “a pig farmer from Newman.”
Ray Clemons, Mattos, Volek and Sperbeck produced the Hornets’ best seasons, and Sears out of Washington state gave the Hornets a boost last fall. But the momentum stalled during an injury-ravaged 2018 campaign. Sac State went 2-8 and 0-7 in the Big Sky.
Sears is a good coach, a good man, but he was ultimately not a good long-term fit.
UC Davis went local before last season, naming Dan Hawkins as coach. The former Aggies fullback has been a home-run hire, and he leads UCD into its first Division I playoff on Saturday. He’ll be an Aggies lifer.
Orr is not interested in someone who wants to use Sac State as a stepping stone for a bigger job. He wants a lifer.
Troy Taylor would be worth a call, too. He is the offensive coordinator at Utah, the Utes playing Washington on Friday night for the Pac-12 Conference championship. Taylor was a prep star at Cordova in 1985, and his offensive wizardry as a co-coach with Kris Richardson at Folsom High much of this decade transformed the Bulldogs into a powerhouse.
But if Taylor wants to become a Pac-12 head coach, it seems wise to remain coaching in the Pac-12. What’s more, leaving Utah for Sac State might result in a significant pay cut.
Darren Arbet is an intriguing name, too.
He played for Mattos at Sac State, coached San Jose to Arena Football League titles and is now the head coach at Cabrillo College in Aptos.
What about Richardson at Folsom and his offensive coordinator Bobby Fresques, the one-time Sac State quarterback?
It’s rare that programs of Sac State’s size go after high school coaches, but Folsom is a short drive for Orr to pay a visit.
Richardson is basking in his element these days. Folsom is competing for another Sac-Joaquin Section championship on Saturday (at Sac State, of all places). He has also enjoyed watching son Kooper start at right tackle for UCD.
This much we do know: It would be grand if Sac State and UCD both were to have win-loss success in the same season. The last time the programs made the playoffs in the same season was 1988.
Sac State football can roar into a new era, but it starts with a coach.