Jody Sears grew up with common Western attire: boots, leather vest, cowboy hat, a rope in his hands and open land to explore and conquer.
He lived to be a cowboy and he attacks every day with similar Wild West abandon as Sacramento State’s football coach. Sears isn’t seizing cattle like his youth in the Palouse amid the plains of the Pacific Northwest, but he is attempting to seize the moment.
He cherishes the 41-21 home win over Idaho State on Saturday to even the Hornets’ record at 3-3, and he relishes the opportunity to court and secure a commitment from a local recruit while defying any image of one who ignores his own fertile recruiting back yard.
This is a man who cares deeply about what he does, where he is from, who he is and where he is headed. Sears is every bit John Wayne resolve in that he is not afraid to get in the dirt, and he won’t go down without a fight.
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Sears gets mantra from his 78-year-old father, Orvil, a fixture on ranches for decades in Washington and, in recent years, on the Sac State sideline with a cowboy hat.
“My dad was a ranch-raised cowboy, and I grew up on 20 acres, on the back of a horse,” Sears said. “If Dad wasn’t working at Washington State in the horse program, he was shoeing horses at home. Or we’d be taking care of the ranch, boarding horses, roping steers and calves.
“That was my first love, roping steers. All because of my old man.”
Sears’ career passion is coaching. He has had good seasons and frustrating ones, much like a rancher compares horse and cattle hauls. The Hornets went 7-5 in 2014 and then endured two-win seasons in each of the past two campaigns, undone by injuries, young skill players and opponents ready to pounce and devour in a revved-up Big Sky Conference.
Sears is in the final year of a four-year contract. A good many Hornets alums want a new coach to kick-start a new era. First-year athletic director Mark Orr is monitoring progress closely, but the more Sears and the Hornets win, the more difficult it will be to cut ties.
Sears burdens all of it. He feels more for the security of his assistant coaches, all of whom high-fived and bear-hugged after Saturday’s victory, than he does himself. No one hurts more over the last two seasons than Sears, a kindly 50-year-old soul and the father of five.
Does Sears want an extension?
“Yes, sir, and Lord willing, it happens,” Sears said. “There’s nothing more my family and our coaching staff wants than to stay right here and coach. We want to be here. I am not working for my next gig. The big time is where my feet are right now. I love this place, and I want these kids in our locker room to enjoy success, a championship, something this community and our university to lavish.
“We know it’s a cut-throat business. What I’ve learned in this profession is you focus on the process and the culture and the controllables. As a young coach, I thought I had all the answers. A wise coach told me to get good people around you, and we have them here, and don’t go chasing jobs and don’t go chasing pay checks. If you do, you end up disgruntled, probably divorced and probably having a bad relationship with your kids. That stuck with me.”
Sears continued, “I’m a family person. I can’t be a different person. I’m still trying to be the best me. We all want to do well but it’s not always easy.”
Sears talks of championships, just like all of the coaches before him. But those are difficult to come by for Sac State, which started its football program in 1954.
The Hornets have won four conference titles: in 1964 and ’66 under Ray Clemons, in 1986 under Bob Mattos and in 1995 under John Volek, who is back in the Hornets mix as an athletics adviser to Orr and Sac State president Robert S. Nelsen.
Only Mattos bowed out with a winning record, going 84-73-2 from 1978-82.
In a business of results and of change, coaching is directly tied to recruiting: land good players and reap good rewards.
Sears has been skewered in public circles for not recruiting the region hard enough, though no coaches wanted to go on the record to vent. That’s not an accurate assessment. Scores of area players are offered scholarships by the Hornets, but not all accept. And there are misconceptions.
Sac State isn’t obligated to only recruit locally, tossing out free rides as if it were Halloween candy. Sac State has between 16-22 scholarships to offer as it recruits throughout California. It does not have 65 rides to offer, as many an astonished parents comes to find out every season when they reach out to me for clarification.
Sac State has a distinct local flavor again this season, including five starters on defense with Bee All-Metro roots: linebackers Immanuel Anderson of Elk Grove and Malcolm Thomas of Woodcreek, cornerbacks Ernest Jenkins of Burbank and Dre Terrell of Pleasant Grove and strong safety Mister Harriel of Antelope.
The area’s best running back last season – Elijah Dotson of Antelope – signed with the Hornets. The anchor of the team is five returning starters on the offensive line, all California products, including three from Northern California. Tight end Stone Sander is from Placer.
Sac State sports information director Brian Berger hears the rumblings, too.
“If Jonah Williams and Jake Browning want to come here, we’ll take them,” Berger said.
Of course, the Hornets cannot land them all, and it is a waste of time and resources to pursue prospects clearly headed to bigger programs. Williams starts at left tackle for Alabama, while Browning is the quarterback for Washington. Both attended Folsom High School.
Scores of area prospects who field Sac State offers wind up attending programs out of town, and scores of out-of-towners jump at the chance to head to Sacramento for a change of pace.
“We want to take care of our back yard,” Sears said of recruiting. “When I was an assistant coach at Washington State and when I coached at Weber State, I’d hear that: Sac State doesn’t recruit hard enough locally. What does that mean? Even now, I’m bewildered by that thinking, and I’m living it.
“Last May, we visited 76 area schools. We covered the town. We have 32 guys on our roster that are from this (Sac-Joaquin) section. We have a list of players we’re recruiting, and if our top prospect goes to a Mountain West program, the next guy on our list at that position might be from the Inland Empire or the Valley or somewhere else. And he has the same measurables, same skill set, and might even be a little better.
“We can court and court and court a local player, but if he doesn’t commit here, we have to move on. We can’t be left holding the bag. Here we are, arms wide open, and sometimes it’s not a good fit.”
Sears said he enjoys recruiting, selling the benefit of education, of a football brotherhood. And he vows to recruit right to the end, regardless of whether or not he returns next season.
“I absolutely love recruiting,” Sears said. “I like getting to know folks. I love the interaction, going into a home, hearing stories, the different scenarios. And with mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles and more, you have to be on point. As my dad would say, dealing with people is my wheelhouse.”