Rising to the top certainly has been a challenge.
Staying at the top is going to be even tougher.
Doing it on a consistent basis in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association? That will be nothing short of amazing.
Rise or fall, though, one thing is certain for members of the Fort Hays State University football team. The Tigers are going to do it as a family.
In his seventh year at the helm of a longtime mediocre Tiger program he inherited, that’s the mantra Chris Brown and his staff have preached since Day 1. It’s a philosophy now seemingly fully ingrained in the program, from the fifth-year seniors to the redshirt freshmen.
“Everyone’s like a brother here,” said Harley Hazlett, a sophomore from Abilene who spent one year at Garden City Community College. “When you come from a juco, it’s a little different because players come in and go so fast. There are players here that have been here four or five years. …They look out for everyone, no one’s left out.”
The Tigers work together on the field, in the weight room, in the film room and even spend a great deal of time together away from the game.
And now, Brown’s “Tiger family” — for the time being — is reaping the rewards of all its labor. Still, the important thing is they’re doing it together.
“You have to love one another. It’s a genuine thing,” said offensive lineman Travis Talley, a senior from Colorado Springs in his fifth year with the program. “We are a family. We really do care for one another as brothers.”
And playing for one another under the guidance of Brown, the Tigers enter their homecoming game — Saturday’s 7 p.m. contest against in-state rival Pittsburg State at Lewis Field Stadium — in the midst of what they are hoping is yet another historic run.
The last six years, FHSU has continued its improvement, made the program’s first postseason appearance, then won the school’s first postseason game. And at 5-0 thus far in 2017, FHSU continues its climb in its first appearance in the existence of the AFCA NCAA Division II poll.
It’s right where Brown imagined his club would be when he took over the program after spending nine years as a coordinator at Washburn University. Some might think it’s quick, some might say it’s taken too long.
“It wasn’t going to be overnight,” Brown said, recalling his interview with FHSU Athletic Director Curtis Hammeke. “It was just kind of a jumbled mess, and a lot of pieces were not in the right place.”
Turns out, Hammeke said, Brown was a missing piece that brought it all together. His record speaks for itself — four, five, six, seven, eight and eight wins in six seasons.
“Chris is a really good fit not only in our department, but in our community,” Hammeke said. “He’s put his stamp on this program. This is Chris Brown’s football team.”
Considering the challenge the MIAA presents year in and year out, the Tigers might be ahead of schedule.
The MIAA continually puts at least two teams in the NCAA Division II playoffs each season, along with playing in a pair of postseason bowl games. Also, the year before Brown took over, there were two non-conference games. That’s not the case in a 12-team league. Each week is a war just to get whatever you can in a tough slate.
“It’s happened about the way I thought it was going to happen,” Brown said. “About Year 7 is when you start making those strides.”
Still, while the Tigers are enjoying a great run to the top, they understand there still are six games left in 2017. But they’ve bought into each other and seem confident there will be more than six games remaining this season.
“When your teammates have faith in you and we all have faith in each other, we feel like we can get the job done — no matter what,” said senior running back Kenneth Iheme.
Those remaining games come against some teams that already have been at the top and have enjoyed many seasons there. Key for the Tigers will be not allowing themselves to become another flash-in-the-pan fluke of a team. Staying there is what separates teams such as Northwest Missouri State University, a program with six national championships that automatically is considered a measuring stick for all other programs.
For FHSU to get close to that point?
“Just continuing to win, finishing in the top of the conference, then do it on a consistent basis,” Brown said.
The Tigers have done what they’ve needed to do up to this point.
The Tigers know this season they should be beating teams like Pittsburg State (2-3), which happens to be Brown’s alma mater. He made 43 starts as a three-time All-American for the Gorillas. It also happens to be one of two teams Brown’s Tigers have not been able to beat at Lewis Field Stadium since he got here — along with Northwest Missouri State. In fact, FHSU hasn’t beaten Pitt State in Hays since 1978.
“Now we need to be a contender for the conference championship. We need to get into the playoffs every year. If you can do that, people will talk about you,” Brown said.
It might be a safe assumption that with Brown at the helm of a rising program, people already are talking.
“Since I’ve got here, we’ve been trying to climb that ladder, get up there and be one of the big dogs in this conference,” Talley said. “The last two years, especially this year, we’re starting to prove ourselves more and more.”
And that’s what Brown knows his Tigers need to do. They have to continue to have confidence in themselves. They know if things don’t exactly go according to plan, the “Tiger family” will be there to back them up.