Four or five years ago, playing in a bowl game was considered a stepping stone for the Fort Hays State football team.
But after winning MIAA titles and reaching the playoffs in 2017 and '18, Tiger coach Chris Brown is making it clear that bowl games are no longer in line with the raised expectations of the program.
Brown told his team this week that the Tigers (7-3) will not be participating in a bowl game even if they receive invitations. FHSU will close out the season by playing Northeastern State at 2 p.m. on Saturday in Tahlequah, Okla.
"Our goal and our expectation this year was to get to the playoffs and win in the playoffs," Brown said. "A bowl was not going to be an option for us. We would not take a bowl game or play in a bowl game because that's not who we are right now. Our expectations are playoffs and winning conference championships.
"I told our kids (Monday) that this was going to be our last game. I'm going to stick to my word, and I think they agree with me and they were OK with it."
Fort Hays was ranked No. 10 in the Super Region Rankings last week but fell out of playoff contention after dropping a 36-33 double-overtime decision against Northwest Missouri State last Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium.
After starting the season 0-2 with losses to Central Missouri and Missouri Western, the Tigers reeled off seven straight wins before seeing the streak snapped by the Bearcats, who are ranked No. 6 in the region and in position for a 16th straight trip to the playoffs.
"I want to be the Northwest, but I want to do it here at Fort Hays State University," Brown said. "They've done it (15) years in row in the playoffs, maybe (16) now. That's a lot of years, and that's what I want us to be.
"I didn't want to really give our kids — I don't know how to say this in a nice way — a fruit snack and a juice box for a consolation prize of playing in a bowl game. I'm not saying it's bad (to play in a bowl), but I just think we're past that right now."
While Brown was building up the program, the Tigers made an appearance in the Mineral Water Bowl in 2015 and won the Heart of Texas Bowl in 2016. The Tigers then notched back-to-back playoff seasons, going 11-1 and claiming an outright MIAA title in 2017 before going 9-3 in 2018 and sharing the conference title with Northwest.
"When we first started building this and we went to two bowl games, it was great because we were still trying to build a championship tradition," Brown said. "We've done that. I just don't think we deserve the opportunity to play another game because we didn't take care of business in the regular season."
Brown said he wants his returning players to use this season as motivation and strive for more.
"This senior group played very, very well this year," Brown said. "I think it was some of the younger guys that didn't step up to the plate like we needed them to. Hopefully they learn from that and make themselves better football players and become more committed.
"This senior class was very committed with summer weights, seven-on-sevens and everything they did, day in and day out, the whole time that they were here. I think where we lacked was our younger guys didn't follow suit, and I didn't want to reward them for not following suit. I hate not being able to reward our seniors, but I think it says something to our underclassmen that it wasn't good and you've got to get better."
Northeastern State will enter the regular season finale 0-10.
"We still got to prepare and we got to go win this ball game; that's all there is to it," Brown said. "We've got to come to work this week in practice and get the job done in practice and finish strong.
"Eight and three is still not a terrible season, especially in this conference. It's not good enough for us, just because of where our expectations are right now. We're going to learn from this and we're going to grow from this. I want to see what I can do better as a coach to make sure this never happens again. Hopefully the players do the same thing: What are we going to do to make sure this never happens again?"