The Northern Arizona football team generally gets third billing in this state when it comes to media attention and attracting fans to its games, ceding the spotlight to Arizona and ASU.
But the school’s decision to extend Jerome Souers‘ contract as head coach should get center stage and perhaps serve as an example to others when it comes to evaluating the worth of its leaders.
Souers has been at the helm of the Lumberjacks’ program for the past 13 years and won the Big Sky conference title in 2003 – for the first time in a quarter of a century – when it compiled a 9-4 record. He was the Big Sky Coach of the Year in 1999.
But the Division I FCS program has been on a slide in recent years, and his contract was ready to expire after this season. The ‘Jacks finished 6-5 and in sixth place in conference, following two years when they had been stuck at a .500 mark and fifth-place Big Sky finish.
This year, they won their season opener and their conference opener and even had a shot at a playoff berth, but couldn’t win both of their final two games to get into post-season play.
Not the kind of results that provide job security at a lot of colleges.
But the NAU administration decided to extend Souers’ contract for three more years, calling the 52-year-old “much more than a football coach” at the university and citing his players’ success in the classroom and off the field as a significant part of the reason for the extension.
The athletic director, Jim Fallis, credited Souers with building a good foundation for the program and said, “I believe we are where we need to be academically, socially, and competitively.”
That kind of support creates better programs and sends a signal to the community that NAU values the importance of a well-rounded college experience, just as it does a successful sports program.
Will NAU continue to keep Souers on board if the program doesn’t get back to posting winning seasons? Probably not. But it’s shown a willingness to give him the time he needs to accomplish that task, while also giving more than just lip service to his value as an educator and the importance of the student-athlete experience.
Actually, this might also serve as an example to high school administrations in this state that have let their sports programs spiral out of control.
Think about the recent firing of Tom Joseph, the football coach at Mountain View HS in Mesa who took the school to three state championship games, a state title in 2002, and posted a 92-27 record there.
The Toros have had a few down years and this year experienced the first losing season in school history, so Joseph got the boot the day after losing in the playoffs.
And last year, there was a spate of firings and forced resignations.
Doug Harris, the boys basketball coach at Desert Vista HS in Phoenix, was dismissed after running the program for seven years and winning a state title just two years ago. But the Thunder went 11-15 last season and 8-17 the year before, and Harris found himself out of a job. The school gave the old “looking to move in a different direction” excuse.
Curt LeBlanc took Queen Creek HS to the state football playoffs in seven of his nine years there, but was asked to resign to make way for a coach that was viewed as more popular with the school administrators.
Jim Jones ran one of the best football programs in the state for 22 years at Red Mountain High School, winning two 5A state championships, but was also asked to resign last year.
The list goes on and on.
So that’s what makes the decision by Northern Arizona to recognize the efforts of a coach like Jerome Souers who, by all accounts, has assured that his athletes are not only solid players, but good students as well.
Under his watch, the football program has a demonstrated record of improvement in its Academic Progress Rate (APR), scoring a multi-year rate of 937 for second in the Big Sky. Souers is scheduled to graduate 19 of his 20 seniors this season.
Sure, it’s different in the win-at-all-costs world of Division I BCS football, with boosters breathing down the necks of the administration, leveraging their big dollars for winning seasons.
Maybe that’s what’s nice about football at the lower levels. There’s still an opportunity to run a college program that makes room for academic achievement.
And maybe this shows that that lofty goal is still alive in Flagstaff.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)