Jody Sears can count, can work the percentages, can speak from experience.
This is no rookie. He heard the questions before the season started and heard the same questions Saturday after Sacramento State defeated UC Davis in a wild and crazy Causeway Classic.
Was he a lame duck or a Hornet with a future? Did new athletic director Mark Orr come in with an agenda or with an open mind? What would it take to secure a new contract and continue what he started four years ago?
And the answer is ...
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Let’s just say that Sears would be a hard guy to fire. After consecutive seasons of 2-9 records, he directed the Hornets to their most successful season in the Division I era, punctuated by a couple of historic firsts – seven victories over D-I opponents, a 6-2 record against Big Sky Conference opponents and at least a prayer of an FCS playoff berth when the selections are announced Sunday morning.
“I think they’re probably the hottest team in the Big Sky and they deserve to be in the national playoff,” said Sears, lobbying for his Hornets after they hung on to beat the rival Aggies 52-47 at Hornet Stadium. “The (records are) something that has never happened here, ever, and it’s all because of these kids. I really, truly believe they deserve a shot.”
Regardless of whether a playoff spot materializes, Sears has orchestrated one hell of a bounce-back season, with an overall record of 7-4 and maybe more to come. These Hornets are young and talented and local – with local recruiting increasingly a priority – and presumably set up for the long run.
Junior quarterback Kevin Thomson, who burned the Aggies with three touchdowns and throws a beautiful deep ball, expects to gain an additional year of eligibility because of a previous season-ending injury. Explosive running backs Elijah Dotson and BJ Perkinson, who combined for 175 yards, are only freshmen. Defensively, a unit that a year ago ranked near the bottom in several statistical categories finished among the conference leaders in sacks, rushing defense and interceptions, and returns all but two starters.
Again, this dramatic transformation is a bit of a head-scratcher. No one saw this coming.
“When you build a program, you’ve got to go through the muck,” Sears said, “and we did, these last two years. And everybody was crying, throwing their hats in the air, pointing fingers. ‘Sears can’t win. We don’t have a quarterback. You’re 2-9 and 2-9. What’s the difference gonna be?’ But we have a set of core standards and we stuck to them. They (players) trust the teaching, the culture, and now we get to reap the benefits.”
Orr was noncommittal when asked whether he planned to re-sign Sears, who was hired well before he was named AD last April. But he says he has eyes wide open and an open mind, and likes what he sees and hears. The red-hot Hornets won five of their last six games, and Saturday’s victory over the Aggies, of course, transfers beaucoup bonus points into the account.
“Whenever the final whistle blows, once we know (playoff status), we’ll sit down and go through everything,” Orr said. “This is a high-profile sport and we need football to be successful for all our sports. ‘What do we do to make this program better?’ It’s an evaluation, not something I’ll do on a whim. But it’s been a great year. I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into the season, but to be sitting here at 7-4, I couldn’t be prouder of the effort.”
Not only did the Hornets exceed expectations – they were picked in preseason polls to finish 12th of the conference’s 13 teams – but Sears appears to have checked most of the boxes in the evaluation form. Were any of his players disciplined for behavior incidents? No. Were any lost to academic ineligibility? No. Did his players buy into the program and enjoy playing for him? Sure sounded like it, as the players celebrated inside the locker room, cheering, chanting, even singing the school fight song.
“I love Coach Sears,” said Thomson, a transfer from UNLV. “Personally, I think he does a great job. They gave me an opportunity after my surgery, so I’m very thankful for them and for this opportunity to be here. And I’m glad I became a Hornet.”
Sears? Him too.
Asked whether he has done enough to stick around, he said, firmly, “I would think so.”