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Stephen F. Austin Football

Like a Byrd: SFA must win or face the cruel end of an era

August 4, 2018
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When I sat inside CC's Smokehouse in the middle of November as a fill-in radio host for the Clint Conque Coaches Show, the feelings of optimism in the Stephen F. Austin football program's direction hadn't escaped me.

I was positioned across from the namesake of the show, a couple days before a blowout loss in the season finale at Northwestern State. I lobbed softball questions—it was his show, after all—and visited with both coordinators, Jeff Byrd and Gary Crowton, on the air.

We neared the end of the last week in another lost season and fans were probably more interested in the basketball team's bout with an NAIA team across town—but the mood was upbeat.

Mine too. Despite the growing "Fire Conque" movement, I knew where the program really was, I thought.

My well documented defense of former head coach Clint Conque was difficult to justify sometimes. Under his leadership, the Lumberjacks hadn't enjoyed a winning season since his debut season in Nacogdoches. SFA wasn't terrible—in the minds of fans, they were something worse, perhaps: mediocre.

But, like the Houston Astros went from laughing stock of the American League to World Series champions with a little bit of foundation, a dramatic youth movement, and lots of talent development, the foresight Conque had for the SFA program kept me believing.

His vision was specific, measureable, and real.

"All I can do is show you what we're trying to build," he told me before the 2016 season. "I've always believed that if you do it the right way, the results will follow."

And show me he did. The relationship I had with the Lumberjacks former leader was the kind sports writers dream of. Our conversations—whether in the bowels of Gerald J. Ford Stadium at SMU, his office past the north endzone of Homer Bryce Stadium, a little corner at the Southland Conference media days, a bench outside the field house, and even a practice field, once, where his son was finishing a final workout before jumping on a plane to join the New York Jets—ranged from football to life in general.

Nothing was off limits in those talks. Occasionally, "off the record" was firmly planted before an answer, but Conque believed if someone could see below the surface into the true character of his team—the good and the bad—they'd walk away believing in what he was constructing. He asked in return only that I tell his team's story.

For three years, I did.

For three years, I knew I would get the unfiltered truth, even in the lowest moments.

"Knowing what you know now about the state of the program," I asked him once after a particularly gutting loss, "do you still take this job?"

"I do," he said without hesitation. "I needed a new challenge and I know where we're headed."

Even when he felt it necessary to dismiss Crowton, his former mentor, he still made time to talk to me about it.

I always pushed for details. Most of the time, I got them.

Most. The only text I sent to Conque left unanswered was the last. It was one, on June 18th of this year, where I asked if there was anything he could tell me about what led to his suspension. It was the day his run in Nacogdoches ended.

Whether the youth movement he orchestrated over the past years proves successful or not, it will happen sans Conque and the vindication he craved from fans.

And Jeff Byrd, a veteran defensive coordinator, "just a country boy from Mississippi," as he introduced himself during a live broadcast of our Purple Lights Podcast last summer, a humble character whose hire last year was certainly one of the bright spots of the Conque era, will enter a tumultuous 2018 season as the new flag bearer for its product.

The lone carryover, whose quiet demeanor inexplicably commands respect, may just be the perfect candidate to lead this group through this inarguably difficult period.

If he manages to find the kind of success in 2018 that eluded his predecessor, the interim head coach may remove the asterisk from his title and keep the ship headed in the same direction.

If he crashes and burns, few will blame him. No team is prepared for the kind of late turnover forced upon this squad. 

But if the latter outcome becomes reality, the growing pains of a rebuilding program these past years should be considered the new normal for at least a few more. To say a lot is riding on 2018 would be a colossal understatement.

Between a wide open league and a host of talented young players on SFA's roster who have been waiting years for this coming-of-age season, there is more than enough reason to still believe. But as Lumberjacks football enters fall camp, uncertainty is the only thing certain.

That evening in CC's, a short eight months ago, now feels like an eternity past. "He really outkicked his coverage, didn't he?" Conque asked my football-oblivious wife of me when he met her that night ("he thinks you're hotter than me," I translated for her later).

The smiling and laughing that night, in spite of a difficult season, has long since faded. Of the three leaders of the program present, only Byrd remains today.

But the lone carryover, whose quiet demeanor inexplicably commands respect, may just be the perfect candidate to lead this group through this inarguably difficult period.

The Lumberjacks are probably a few bad losses away from blowing up the whole thing and starting over. With new athletic director Ryan Ivey leading the charge, they may even be closer to the reset button than that.

"We're going to have a football team we can be proud of," Ivey told me during an evening phone call last month. "We're going to find a great coach."

But, depending on what happens over the next few months, that button may still not be pressed.

"Who knows?" Ivey continued. "It might be Jeff Byrd."

Like a Byrd: SFA must win or face the cruel end of an era

nacluth
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Yeah, a new piece! We've missed you Isaac.

Good writing as usual. Definitely a sad turn of events for the football squad. I hope that Byrd has success, but, honestly, breaking .500 is a tough ask this year. Thanks for reviving hope that there will at least be good coverage whatever comes.
Ryan
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edstile
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Good to have you back, Issac! Hope your "dual career path" is working out well.

Yes, it will be an interesting season for sure. So many unknowns. How will the team respond to the sudden changes at the top? How will the offense perform under a different set of offensive coaches? Who will emerge as the #1 QB or will a tandem system be used? Can the offensive line hold its own after being pushed around by just about everyone last year? Will the defense be as good as some of us think it will? Can we finally have a year with a minimal number of injuries?

Maybe we can just go ahead and flip a coin or rub a crystal ball and see how it will all play out. But I think we'll have a much better gauge by the end of Game 3.
SFA_03
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edstile said:

Good to have you back, Issac! Hope your "dual career path" is working out well.

Yes, it will be an interesting season for sure. So many unknowns. How will the team respond to the sudden changes at the top? How will the offense perform under a different set of offensive coaches? Who will emerge as the #1 QB or will a tandem system be used? Can the offensive line hold its own after being pushed around by just about everyone last year? Will the defense be as good as some of us think it will? Can we finally have a year with a minimal number of injuries?

Maybe we can just go ahead and flip a coin or rub a crystal ball and see how it will all play out. But I think we'll have a much better gauge by the end of Game 3.


Honestly I think we won't know where we are until we play McNeese. Our first challenge of the year. Abilene Christian may be good because they'll want revenge in Nac but I feel they're still a couple years from being contenders.
When we play a playoff team on the road, we'll see what this team is made of.
BigJack85
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Isaac.... as usual top flight. Makes me proud to be a Lumberjack! You nailed it What a skill/gift. My guess is that much of it is hard work but frankly you have a real gift. You can communicate in the written word with great ease.
TallTexan
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Wait, did I miss something? Did we officially fire Conque?
INiedrauer
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Staff
TallTexan said:

Wait, did I miss something? Did we officially fire Conque?


Not officially. But...
-
Isaac Niedrauer
@INiedrauer


Jacks4460
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TallTexan said:

Wait, did I miss something? Did we officially fire Conque?
I tried to tell yall back in feb. or so that he put his house up on the market... He GONE.. University doing their due diligence then will make announcement.. This has probally been known for a while I am guessing.. I just want to win this year and I am pretty JaCked up about it... Clint ran his course... Coaching staff under him was known to be lazy on the recruiting trail... This coming from many many many THSC.. It would piss me off and I confronted a couple people on staff and was told how recruiting was handled.. In a nut shell everything went through Crowton..I am sure that is because of his NFL credentials and higher profile jobs.
Jacks4460
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Isaac... man you sure do awesome writing.. miss not reading as much from you..
TallTexan
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INiedrauer said:

TallTexan said:

Wait, did I miss something? Did we officially fire Conque?


Not officially. But...


Gotcha. I figured it was unofficially official, was just hoping we could officially officially put it behind us.
tangerito
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I think Byrd will surprise a lot of folks. The kids love him and that goes a long way.
BigJack85
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I sure hope your right. We need to get a couple of good bounces for a change.
HitSomeBody
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Great read... It is good to see an article with style.

I can without a doubt let everyone know the players are on board with Byrd. They respect him, they like the new beginning, and they want to play for him.

Direct quote I have heard when I asked about coach Byrd, "Coach Byrd, we love coach. When he stood up in front of us and said I am not the Interim I AM YOUR COACH... the meeting room almost collapsed with every player going crazy. Coach told us everyone is going to count us out but I tell you men together in the end we can all get our fingers measured for the ring."

I know SFA has had some disappointing years, maybe the talent is not where it needs to be just yet. I have been through what all Lumberjacks are going through seeing bad results and wanting so much more from your team.

Now I'm a Lumberjack and give my upmost support to the kids. Support our boys, encourage them to be mature and be leaders in a difficult time. Step up and lead is what I tell my son and his friends. Life will always throw bad stuff at you or leave you in a place you do not want to be so don't waddle in your circumstances pick up and lead your way out and bring others with you.

I will be at every game 100% belief the boys can win and if I am the loudest most obnoxious purple fan in the stands I will never stop showing them that they can be the best.
nacluth
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Good stuff HSB. I'll be at a lot more games this year for sure. Hope they hit the season with a lot of steam.
Ryan
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SFAJack_76
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nacluth
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Probably a decent way to save some face and the university money. One less thing over Byrd's head.
Ryan
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randybass
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Thankful Conque is GONE! He should not have been hired in the first place! We could have retained Harper and achieved more success (and some stability for the program!) The merry-go-round of head coaches at SFA in football is getting annoying and is setting us further and further back! The administration has fumbled the football multiple times since I graduated in 1999. Thank You to the administration for finally pushing Conque out!! Hopefully we can step up THIS TIME and hire a real coach! If Sam Houston can afford it, we can too!!
TheRevSFA
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Conque gets no pity from me.

Glad he's gone. He should have been gone last year but we supported mediocrity
beaubrad46
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Hallelujah!
Lawsuit pending PurpleOut.
SFA_03
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It's really a shame that one of the winningest coaches in conference history had to have it end this way. I agree with Isaac that Clint was a great coach, and it's a shame to see him go.
BigJack85
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randybass said:

Thankful Conque is GONE! He should not have been hired in the first place! We could have retained Harper and achieved more success (and some stability for the program!) The merry-go-round of head coaches at SFA in football is getting annoying and is setting us further and further back! The administration has fumbled the football multiple times since I graduated in 1999. Thank You to the administration for finally pushing Conque out!! Hopefully we can step up THIS TIME and hire a real coach! If Sam Houston can afford it, we can too!!


Our focus on basketball is making it harder for us to pay top dollar for a head coach. I hope Byrd is part of the solution.
PurpleOut
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Staff
SFA_03 said:

It's really a shame that one of the winningest coaches in conference history had to have it end this way. I agree with Isaac that Clint was a great coach, and it's a shame to see him go.
Sort of, but this is on him. This wasn't his first incident. He had a similar situation at UCA in 2010. Should have been a red flag in my opinion. I won't say he was a bad coach, because UCA was great when he was there, but he did nothing here but go the other direction. Winning and losing is one thing, but what he did to get suspended and out of here is inexcusable in my opinion.
INiedrauer
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Staff
Yeah, I'm not celebrating or happy. Debate his coaching, that's fine. But he was universally respected by his peers and was at one point one of the most forward thinking offensive assistants in college football. Whether the sport evolved beyond him is a legitimate argument but it's nothing to celebrate.

Regardless of mistakes, he's someone I respect and I wish all the best for him and his family - who, by the way, deserve none of this.
-
Isaac Niedrauer
@INiedrauer


BigJack85
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When it does come out .... and it surely will, judgement of Conque will be partially influenced by what the team that Conque left Byrd does on the field. It must have crossed one or two lines. I've been in corporate environments where the VP that gets fired is not to blame, but they are the easiest to cut loose.
TallTexan
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INiedrauer said:

Yeah, I'm not celebrating or happy. Debate his coaching, that's fine. But he was universally respected by his peers and was at one point one of the most forward thinking offensive assistants in college football. Whether the sport evolved beyond him is a legitimate argument but it's nothing to celebrate.

Regardless of mistakes, he's someone I respect and I wish all the best for him and his family - who, by the way, deserve none of this.
I'm glad this chapter is resolved, but never happy to see a coach get let go for off the field stuff. It reflects poorly on the University for whatever they did to deserve getting canned.

That said, his on the field results just aren't what I'd have expected after watching his UCA teams. No matter though, we've got a 3 month tryout for Byrd and 3 months to woo Jeff Traylor if we need to.
TallTexan
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BigJack85 said:

randybass said:

Thankful Conque is GONE! He should not have been hired in the first place! We could have retained Harper and achieved more success (and some stability for the program!) The merry-go-round of head coaches at SFA in football is getting annoying and is setting us further and further back! The administration has fumbled the football multiple times since I graduated in 1999. Thank You to the administration for finally pushing Conque out!! Hopefully we can step up THIS TIME and hire a real coach! If Sam Houston can afford it, we can too!!


Our focus on basketball is making it harder for us to pay top dollar for a head coach. I hope Byrd is part of the solution.
I'd bet the TAMU-Commerce coach is pretty affordable. And it'll be interesting to see where Ivey heads with this hire if Byrd isn't the replacement long term. He's stated he wants to our teams to win championships & this would seem to be our biggest area for relevance outside of basketball.

I'd rather fully focus on Basketball, it's the path to national relevance, but Ivey may be able to find a larger salary for a head coach like Jeff Traylor or Curtis Luper or someone to get SFA football back to winning.

While I'm all in on basketball, in today's conference environment it may be necessary to keep the football team, so we might as well win.
TheRevSFA
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TallTexan said:

BigJack85 said:

randybass said:

Thankful Conque is GONE! He should not have been hired in the first place! We could have retained Harper and achieved more success (and some stability for the program!) The merry-go-round of head coaches at SFA in football is getting annoying and is setting us further and further back! The administration has fumbled the football multiple times since I graduated in 1999. Thank You to the administration for finally pushing Conque out!! Hopefully we can step up THIS TIME and hire a real coach! If Sam Houston can afford it, we can too!!


Our focus on basketball is making it harder for us to pay top dollar for a head coach. I hope Byrd is part of the solution.
I'd bet the TAMU-Commerce coach is pretty affordable. And it'll be interesting to see where Ivey heads with this hire if Byrd isn't the replacement long term. He's stated he wants to our teams to win championships & this would seem to be our biggest area for relevance outside of basketball.

I'd rather fully focus on Basketball, it's the path to national relevance, but Ivey may be able to find a larger salary for a head coach like Jeff Traylor or Curtis Luper or someone to get SFA football back to winning.

While I'm all in on basketball, in today's conference environment it may be necessary to keep the football team, so we might as well win.
If we were to ever consider scrapping football, it would be need to be as a ploy to move MBB to a higher mid-major.
cboothe09
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The last number I saw for Carthel was $122,000 at A&M Commerce...His contract was just extended, so I'm sure that number went up, but I don't think it went up too terribly much...
randybass
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I live in Huntsville. Sam Houston has invested in Football, and it has paid major dividends in name recognition and enrollment! Enrollment at SH has increased significantly since Willie Fritz got the football program on a consistent winning path. I love basketball, but it does not have the reach or respect that Football has. It is imperative that we fully invest in Football and win every year. As SH has demonstrated, winning starts with a quality head coach!! (Not another Conque from the Southland!)
TallTexan
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cboothe09 said:

The last number I saw for Carthel was $122,000 at A&M Commerce...His contract was just extended, so I'm sure that number went up, but I don't think it went up too terribly much...
I couldn't imagine it being above 150k.
TallTexan
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randybass said:

I live in Huntsville. Sam Houston has invested in Football, and it has paid major dividends in name recognition and enrollment! Enrollment at SH has increased significantly since Willie Fritz got the football program on a consistent winning path. I love basketball, but it does not have the reach or respect that Football has. It is imperative that we fully invest in Football and win every year. As SH has demonstrated, winning starts with a quality head coach!! (Not another Conque from the Southland!)
I'd disagree with that slightly. It's obvious that their investment in football is paying off on the field, but I'm not sure that can be extended to the correlation with the enrollment growth. My Aunt is a prof over there & I think it's much more to do with a growing Houston area & proximity to that than football.

Overall, Basketball has a much greater national reach than FCS football.

That said, the cost of fielding a team vs the cost of fielding a winning team is negligible in my opinion, so we should hire a coach who can get us back to winning & winning big. I think we'd be surprised what the options for conferences look like if we develop into an at-large bid on the basketball side while fielding a competitive football team.


PurpleOut
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Staff
Yeah sorry randybass, but none of that is accurate.

Sam Houston has done a lot as a University to increase enrollment, and the majority of it doesn't have anything to do with athletics. They were our size in the early 2000s, and have gradually increased each year to just over 20,000 now, nothing that drastic. And only a slight increase since Fritz started. Not really any coloration there.

And nothing personal, but the "basketball doesn't have the reach or respect" that football has is the old way of thinking that we need to somewhat get rid of. I get it. Football is huge in Texas, I've been to hundreds of college football games around the state and will always love the sport. But it's not the same as it used to be. Especially FCS football. I wouldn't trade Sam's last 10 years or whatever of FCS playoff football for 1 of our NCAA tournament wins.
BigJack85
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PurpleOut said:

Yeah sorry randybass, but none of that is accurate.

Sam Houston has done a lot as a University to increase enrollment, and the majority of it doesn't have anything to do with athletics. They were our size in the early 2000s, and have gradually increased each year to just over 20,000 now, nothing that drastic. And only a slight increase since Fritz started. Not really any coloration there.

And nothing personal, but the "basketball doesn't have the reach or respect" that football has is the old way of thinking that we need to somewhat get rid of. I get it. Football is huge in Texas, I've been to hundreds of college football games around the state and will always love the sport. But it's not the same as it used to be. Especially FCS football. I wouldn't trade Sam's last 10 years or whatever of FCS playoff football for 1 of our NCAA tournament wins.



Purple,

I have done some limited research on this and you are 100% correct. One thing that does not come out about SHSU enrollment is three things: 1) Much of there enrollment increase is largely commuters from The Woodlands and Conroe/Montgomery. They also jumped into Lone Star College and built a firm foothold while Baker was napping.
2). Despite there enrollment growth there attendance at football and basketball events are flat or down. (We had significantly better home attendance in football last year despite going 4-7). 3) Most of there growth has come in criminal justice and education.

Bottom line , we need to grow but do it at a steady respectable rate.
TallTexan
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BigJack85 said:


Bottom line , we need to grow but do it at a steady respectable rate.
That's the truth. I'm glad we've got Ivey installed, but I'd still like to see a change on the University side. I feel like Ivey sees the potential of what SFA can be, not just what it currently is or has been.

I'd love to have that on the University side.
SFAXE93
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