Brown a perfect fit for FHSU football program

FHSU University Relations and Marketing

By Diane Gasper-O’Brien

Hays, Kan. — Chris Brown chuckles when he talks about his first face-to-face encounter with Curtis Hammeke back in 2011.

Brown was visiting relatives in Wichita on the day before Thanksgiving when he got a call from the Fort Hays State University athletic director to come to Hays on Friday to interview for the Tiger head football coaching job. Unprepared for a business engagement, Brown borrowed a suit from his brother-in-law.

The clothes, he said, weren’t such a good fit. But the new coach has turned out to be a perfect fit for Fort Hays State.

“Definitely,” Hammeke said. “A great fit.”

Now in his fifth year at the Tiger helm, Brown has his team preparing for a bowl game. Considering the program’s history, as well as the conference in which FHSU plays, that’s no small task.

FHSU football is 0-3 in post-season action, and the Tigers play in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association, arguably the best football conference in NCAA Division II.

After recording their eighth victory of the season — which tied a school record for most wins in a season — in their regular-season finale, the Tigers were invited to play in the Mineral Water Bowl Dec. 5. Game time is noon in Excelsior Springs, Mo. More information on the game, including where to purchase tickets, can be found here, FHSU Bowl Bound.

Receiving invitations to the historic Mineral Water Bowl are teams from the MIAA and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. The top finishing teams from those two conferences that do not qualify for the D-II playoffs receive bids for the Mineral Water Bowl.

Fort Hays State recorded its best-ever finish in the MIAA this fall, tying for third with the University of Central Missouri, the team the Tigers beat in their final game.

Now, Brown and his troops are preparing for a post-season game, something an FHSU football team hasn’t done for 20 years. A Tiger win over their opponent, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, would set a new FHSU school record for most wins in a season.

“Chris has done a great job elevating the program to this level,” Hammeke said.

The Tigers have improved by one win every year since Brown took over, going from 4-7 his first season to 5-6 in 2012, 6-5 in 2013 and 7-4 a year ago.

Now, the FHSU program is getting more than just a glance from top recruits.

“The first one or two years of success, you aren’t on the radar screen,” Hammeke said. “Then you get your name out there and get a little more respect. Getting the program to this point and building a solid foundation for the future is what this coaching staff has done a good job of accomplishing.”

Brown, who enjoyed success in all his previous coaching stints and as an All-American safety during his playing days at Pittsburg State University, knew it would take a while to rebuild the Tiger program. He just hoped people would be patient.

“People were telling me you couldn’t win football games in Hays,” said Brown, a Liberal native who was finishing his ninth year as an assistant at Washburn University in Topeka when the Tiger head job came open.

Washburn won two bowl games while Brown was an assistant coach there.

“I looked at the Fort Hays State job as a challenge,” he said, “something I wanted to try to change.”

Has he ever.

The steady improvement began almost immediately.

“We kind of put them through the grindstone that first spring,” Brown said. “We wanted to find kids who wanted to work, and we pushed them pretty hard. We set the standard of what we’re going to do as a team, what we want to do in the future.”

That future is now, and a major reason for that success is Brown, who built a solid redshirt program to develop incoming high school graduates for a year before taking the field.

“We could have gone the junior college route and got a lot of juco kids and won some games right away,” he said. “But I wanted to build a solid program, get kids who wanted to take ownership in this program and have pride in it for the long haul.”

Brown is quick to give credit to a lot of people — players, coaches, administration, fans. But one player who did not redshirt in Brown’s first year and played immediately said that the guy wearing the black visor and headset on the sidelines is the kingpin of the resurgence of Tiger football.
“Coach Brown recruits players of high character who are good football players,” said Jesse Trent, who played all 44 games during his four-year career from 2011-14.

Trent, who was chasing the Division I dream after a successful career at Dodge City High School, said he was impressed with Brown’s honesty when he recruited him to play at Fort Hays State.

“Coach said ‘I’m not going to promise you we are going to play for a national championship or even win a league championship while you’re here, but I guarantee you we’ll have the program moving in the right direction by the time you graduate.’,” Trent said.

“Hats off to him,” said Trent, who used up his eligibility last year and continued to follow the team this year as a fifth-year senior. “He’s turned the program around by doing the right things, and he’s instilled those ideas into each and every one of us.”

Trent, who plans to attend the bowl game, is on track to graduate with a degree in cellular and molecular biology in December and is applying for medical school. He was a three-time CoSIDA Academic All-American as a defensive lineman, the only individual to ever earn the honor three times in FHSU history. He said some of his favorite memories of his days at Fort Hays State will be his time spent with the football team.

Brown said that Trent is just one example of players he has had the pleasure to mentor.

“They’ve improved each year, and the guys who contributed those first couple of years were a big part of that,” Brown said.

While his title is head football coach, Brown said he feels he has a lot more important job as a mentor for many young men.

“It’s great to watch them grow, not only on the football field but as people,” he said.
“These guys will have great jobs and be great husbands and great fathers someday. I ask them, ‘How do you want to be remembered? How do you want to leave your imprint on something?’ We definitely want to leave our mark on this program.”

They already have, although Brown said, “we can’t be satisfied with where we are.”

Immediately after the bowl game, Brown and his staff will hit the recruiting trails hard.
But for now, Brown wants the team to enjoy the ride.

“This is an exciting time,” Brown said. “The Monday after Thanksgiving we’re going to hit it hard, and we’re going to prepare to win a football game. Right now, I’m just wanting them to enjoy every minute. I told the kids to enjoy this time. It doesn’t happen very often.”

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