The Millennials are taking over the Emporia State football team, and they are doing so with an unlikely champion.
He is 46-year-old coach Garin Higgins, the middle-aged son of a tough-as-nails Oklahoma high school football coach and a former ESU quarterback under the legendary Larry Kramer, a man who employed a rigorous form of tough love.
“I don’t think (Kramer) ever called me by my first name in the first couple of years,” Higgins said, laughing. “Not sure I always liked him then, but I love him now.”
It’s now Higgins’ way of doing things that has resurrected the moribund progam — and it’s a decidly new-school approach. After going 19-36 over his first five seasons, the Hornets are 19-4 in the last two years, with back-to-back runnerup finishes in the MIAA and a NCAA Division II playoff berth last season.
“I think Coach Higgs is a better dancer than anybody on this team,” ESU cornerback Deveon Dinwiddie said. “I would put money on that. He’s got some moves. Not an uptight coach.”
“It’s his livelihood, so it’s do-or-die ... but it’s not, you know?” ESU offensive lineman Jarrett Stastny said. “He keeps things in perspective, always.”
“If I need anything, I know I can trust him,” ESU quarterback Brent Wilson said. “He’s been like a father figure to me.”
And so it goes at Emporia State these days, where no one blinks an eye when practice ends with a surprise water-balloon fight or when the coaching staff gets together to recreate the popular “Evolution of Dance” YouTube video on the 50-yard line.
This is Higgins’ way. And it’s fun.
“I think when I was younger, actually, I was a bit of a yeller and a screamer as a coach,” Higgins said. “But as I’ve gotten older I’ve backed off that. There’s a time and a place for getting after somebody, but as a coach you need to adapt. Kids are different nowadays, it’s a different generation with a lot more outside variables influencing them.
“One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that they still want to work hard. They’re still competitive.”
The changes that have occurred at ESU over the last two seasons trace back to the end of the 2011 season, when ESU went 5-6 for the second straight year but won three of four games to end the season.
“Those two years we were kind of knocking on the door,” ESU athletic director Kent Weiser said. “(Higgins) never made excuses, never blamed anybody when they lost ... and he was surrounding himself with the kind of student-athletes and assistant coaches that we wanted. You could just see it all coming into place.
“It wasn’t going to happen overnight. As a coach, you’ve got to lay the groundwork and continually not compromise your principles. We saw that happening and had the feeling that he was the guy we wanted to stick with, he was the kind of guy we wanted.”
The Hornets finished 10-2 in 2012, and then 9-2 last season when their only losses were to eventual NCAA Division II champion Northwest Missouri State and to Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the national playoffs. That was a game they played without Wilson, a second-team All-MIAA pick as a sophomore who threw for 2,985 yards, 33 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first year as a starter. Wilson missed the playoff game with a broken collarbone.
Higgins spotted Wilson at Ponca City (Okla.) High as smaller Division I schools were circling him.
“I think, to his credit, he understood the difference between what they thought he could be and what we thought he could be,” Higgins said. “He saw, in us, a place where we had a plan for him and for his future, a place where he could really grow as a player and as a person.”
After redshirting in 2012, Stastny exploded on the MIAA scene last season as the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder was the only freshman on the All-MIAA first team. Wide receiver Austin Willis (second team), offensive tackle Aaron Blount (third team) and running back Antonio Brown, the MIAA Offensive Freshman of the Year, also return.
“I just had to learn the system, learn the offense and what I was supposed to do ... which was what the redshirt year was perfect for,” Stastny said. “And I got a lot stronger, lost some fat and leaned down. I have a lot of faith in myself and my coaches, so once I had a good base I went from there.”
Dinwiddie and his younger brother, ESU linebacker DeShawn Dinwiddie, both former Hutchinson High stars, transferred from North Dakota State and are two of the seven returning starters on defense. The Hornets open the season Sept. 4 against Missouri Southern in Emporia.
“I feel good about the situation we’re in, with having the starting quarterback returning and so many guys back on defense,” Deveon said. “And I thought our coaches did an amazing job recruiting the defensive line. The environment around here is really great, there’s always someone trying to help you get better.”
It’s all part of the culture Higgins has created.
“I’ve been guilty, like a lot of other coaches, of being obsessed with this profession, of letting it consume me at different times,” Higgins said. “Now, I think we’ve struck the perfect balance. I understand that winning is what puts food on my kids’ table, no doubt, but I think I’ve done a better job, as I got older, of surrounding myself with the right people. That’s why my coaching staff is so good.
“We have our problems, just like everybody else, but for the most part, this thing is working.”