“I remember after the Lindenwood victory, everyone was dancing, and there was Coach Higgins leading the dance.”
When the Hornets football team hoisted the Kanza Bowl trophy in the air after their 45-38 championship victory over Texas A&M – Kingsville on Sunday, not only were they celebrating an unforgettable season, but also their first double-digit winning season since 1989.
The last time Emporia State had a double-digit winning record, Head Coach Garin Higgins was on the other side of the field – he was quarterback for the 1989 11-2 Hornet football team.
“The last time we won at least 10 games was back when I was playing,” Higgins said. “That is a very long time, (and) I was very excited to experience Sunday.”
But a lot has changed since Higgins was quarterbacking for the team he now coaches.
After four years of being a student athlete from 1987-1990, Higgins began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Northeastern State in 1992.
He moved up the ranks from quarterback coach for Northwestern Oklahoma State in 1994, to offensive coordinator in 1997, until he finally began his head coaching career in 2000.
He compiled a 51-9 record as a head coach over a five year span. Then, he landed annual offensive coordinator jobs at Minnesota State and Northeastern State before landing a spot as the 21st head coach at his alma mater in 2006.
“Any coach wants to have the opportunity to be the head coach at his alma mater, and I was fortunate to get this job,” Higgins said.
But his return to ESU didn’t start out the way he hoped. The Hornets went 3-8, 4-7 and 2-9 in the first three years under Higgins.
“I knew coming in this was the best conference in sports, that we were going to have to be patient, but it was tough because it was my alma mater, and it dug deeper,” Higgins said. “I’ve always been a believer that you can’t quickly fix anything, especially in football.”
Things got better with what Higgins described as his first real recruiting class led by this year’s offensive line, including senior quarterback Tyler Eckenrode, senior tight end Adam Schiltz and senior wide receiver Shjaun Richardson.
“I knew he was a great coach,” Richardson, recreation major, said. “One of my teammates played here – that’s why I came to Emporia State.”
This recruiting class entered their final year with their careers on the line, looking for what Higgins promised them back when they were just freshman.
“He always preached to me that we will get to 10 wins…we just had to stick to it, and he delivered on his promises,” Eckenrode, management information systems major, said.
This year’s team was led by 22 seniors and a coach who not only barked orders on the football field, but also busted a few moves off of it.
“I remember after the Lindenwood victory everyone was dancing, and there was Coach Higgins leading the dance,” said Ben Carlson, business administration major and senior linebacker. “It was great to see the joy on his face.”
Higgins and his team danced their way to a 10-2 season.
“It’s well-deserved because of the time and effort he puts into it with film and practice,” Schiltz, health promotions major, said. “It is very rewarding to get to 10-2 for this guy.”