ARLINGTON, Texas — As Chris Cosh spoke with the media during a press conference leading up to the Cotton Bowl on Monday, a computer projected his picture and a list of his accomplishments on a giant screen behind him.
It was essentially a billboard, and it was impossible to miss.
Cosh, who is in his third season as Kansas State's defensive coordinator, tried his best to avoid the display. But he had to look at some point. When he finally did, he tilted his head and laughed. There he was on the big screen, awkwardly throwing a football.
"Boy," Cosh said with a chuckle, "I need to lose some weight."
For now, Cosh's problems are no different from the rest of us. That's quite a relief. It feels good to be normal. Coming into this season, his life was anything but.
His son, Billy, decided to transfer from K-State for a shot at the starting quarterback job at James Madison. Then his mother died, and his wife hurt her knee. Fresh off a dreadful year of defensive football, in which K-State allowed 231 rushing yards per game and ranked 11th in the Big 12 in total defense, those mounting disappointments were even tougher to handle.
Wildcats fans viewed the defense he oversaw as the team's weak link. Some of them clamored for a change.
He tried to stay positive through it all. Though he doesn't get many opportunities to speak with the media because of K-State coach Bill Snyder's policy not to allow his assistants to talk publicly during the regular season, he predicted big things out of his defense in his lone preseason news conference.
"I could feel these guys could be a good team," Cosh said, thinking back to that moment. "Their togetherness, their unselfishness, their pride in wanting to be good.... They wanted to be coached. They like practice. You don't hear that much nowadays. 'Hey can we run that again there, coach?' OK.
"These guys like ball like a coach likes ball. I feel like we're learning leadership both vocally and by example, a combination of the two. That was special to me. I knew we had it. I knew we were going to grow."
Ten wins later, he has been proven right.
"People were doubting him last year pretty bad," senior defensive end Jordan Voelker said. "I'm just glad we could help establish him as a coach and maybe help him get some recognition."
If K-State handed out a most-improved award to members of its coaching staff, Cosh would most certainly win. Under his guidance, the Wildcats went from a team that struggled to defend a simple draw play to a defense few teams try to run against. After ranking 119th out of 120 FBS teams against the run last season, K-State now allows 131.4 rushing yards per game and ranks 39th nationally, third in the Big 12.
K-State ranks fifth in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 398.8 yards and 27.8 points per game.
K-State's passing defense could still use work, but it finds ways to get by. K-State's 26 takeaways rank third nationally, and make it one of the most opportunistic defenses around. Though it allowed 30 or more points five times, it also regularly closed out games with defensive stops.
Who could forget Tre Walker tackling Miami quarterback Jacory Harris at the 1 with the game on the line, or Arthur Brown intercepting a pass, and later running down, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III late in a win over Baylor?
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for them," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "They know how to win games.... Look at all their wins and everything they have done to win games. They have had stops on fourth and one, they have had stops on fourth and four, they have had stops on two-point plays. We have to be really on the money."
When Cosh talks about K-State's progress on defense, he gives all the credit to his players. He likes to say this is the best group he has ever coached.
They like hearing that, mostly because they know his words are genuine. Back when K-State defensice players were still trying to find their identity, they were motivated by a coach who did more than scream about how badly they needed to improve.
Voelker appreciated how straightforward and willing to change he was in the face of poor play.
"I didn't used to get along with him that well, but coming into this season I realized he really does care about the whole defense and the team in general," Voelker said. "Some of the things he says after games, you can tell are really heartfelt. He helped convince us that even though we might not be the biggest or most talented defense around, we can make a lot of plays."
Junior linebacker Arthur Brown, who led the team with 95 tackles after two disappointing seasons at Miami, will stick up for Cosh in front of anyone. Cosh tutored him for a year on the scout team, and along with Snyder, helped Brown break out of his comfort zone and become a more vocal leader.
"I have a lot of respect and a lot of love for coach," Brown said. "He took me in like a child and developed me through my character and my game play. My success is a tribute to him as a coach. I'm grateful I get the chance to play for him."
To Cosh, the feeling is mutual. His outlook has changed in the past few months, and he has his players to thank for that. The longer he spends around them on the field, the more confident he becomes.
He wasn't sure how they would handle the buildup to a major bowl game after all they accomplished in the regular season. But when they lined up for practice Sunday at Cowboys Stadium as motivated and energetic as they did in November, he quickly realized he could go back to worrying about other things.
"It makes my day to come out and see those guys," Cosh said."... We've been through some tough times. Those guys rally, but they don't flinch. They keep competing and they keep fighting. That's why they're here."