On one thing they agree: Both Northern Arizona head football coach Jerome Souers and Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Lisa Campos acknowledge the two were in discussions over the summer about the possible nonrenewal of Souers’ contract -- well before the announcement two weeks into the season.
But Souers tells the Arizona Daily Sun he preferred to have any announcement of a nonrenewal delayed until the end of this season.
Campos said she wanted to make the announcement during the bye week, three weeks into the season, regardless of the team’s record then or now.
That decision by Campos has led to an awkward situation for the athletics department. The Lumberjacks, led by a lame-duck coach of 20 years, are in contention to win the Big Sky championship and host a first-round playoff game over the Thanksgiving weekend.
And Campos herself could soon be a lame duck if she is offered the job of athletic director at Texas-El Paso, with her interview in Texas set for this week, as well as a new report she is interviewing for the Texas-San Antonio job as well. That would leave it up to her successor, or Northern Arizona President Rita Cheng herself, to find a replacement for a veteran coach who has been sacked despite leading his team into playoff contention.
Souers contends a major difference between this year’s winning record and the losing record of last year was the absence of quarterback Case Cookus, the 2015 STATS FCS Freshman of the Year who missed more than half of 2016 due to injury.
“Last year could have helped us in a lot of ways and it didn’t,” Souers said, referring to the initial strong start under a healthy Cookus. "In college football, it is really what have you done for us lately, and I understand that. We set out what we thought we needed to do to win a championship this year and the kids have worked extremely hard in the offseason. I thought between the two years, we had a good plan.”
Campos said last season’s 5-6 record wasn’t specifically the reason behind her decision to make 2017 Souers’ last year with Northern Arizona.
“We always have conversations with all of our coaches about what the expectations are,” Campos said. “It’s not just the wins and losses, it’s everything that goes into being a head coach. You are constantly evaluating that.”
Campos said that instead of announcing the nonrenewal at the end of the season, she wanted to honor Souers this year with fans in the stands.
She said the timing this fall allowed the school to celebrate the longtime head coach, with video packages shown before home games since the announcement and culminating in an extended video shown on the screens ahead of last Saturday’s Senior Day. Comments from former players thanking Souers for his influence on them filled the tape.
“Had we waited until the end of the season to make the announcement -- again, there’s no good time, but you miss that whole opportunity to celebrate and he deserves it,” Campos said. “He’s been here for a long time and we wanted to roll that out, and honor him and the years that he’s given to NAU.”
Additionally, Campos said she hadn’t felt there was much pushback externally to the timing of the announcement, adding that any choice is hard to make.
‘TOUGH BREAKS’ IN 2016
Finishing his 20th season as the Lumberjacks head coach, Souers has Northern Arizona in a three-way tie with Southern Utah and Weber State for the Big Sky lead. Tied for the seventh-longest tenure among FCS coaches, Souers is seeking the Lumberjacks' first FCS playoffs bid since 2013 and first Big Sky title since 2003.
Picked to finish third in the conference by both the coaches and media, Northern Arizona’s lone conference loss came without its All-American quarterback on the field for more than three quarters. Ejected for a targeting call, Cookus went to the locker room two weeks ago. While he sat and watched, the Lumberjacks fell to the Montana Grizzlies, 17-15, in Missoula.
The result, with Cookus sidelined, mirrored 2016, with the quarterback out for much of the season following a broken collarbone in the Big Sky opener. With Cookus knocked out of the game against Eastern Washington trailing 36-28 late in the third quarter, Northern Arizona went on to lose, 50-35.
Dropping the following week’s game at Northern Colorado 21-18, Northern Arizona fell out of contention for the Big Sky title after entering the year as the preseason favorite. With his contract set to expire following the 2017 season, the 2016 result did no favors for Souers as he potentially sought a contract extension.
Sitting at 5-4 entering the final two weeks of last season, Northern Arizona nearly knocked off top-12-ranked and eventual Big Sky co-champion North Dakota in Grand Forks. Leading 31-10 midway through the third quarter, the Lumberjacks saw the Fighting Hawks roll off 28 straight points culminating in a go-ahead pick-six of Cookus’ replacement, Blake Kemp, with just 2:43 remaining. The fifth loss of the season effectively eliminated Northern Arizona from consideration for an at-large berth into the FCS playoffs and a loss a week later to Southern Utah dropped Northern Arizona to its first losing record since 2011.
“There would have been more momentum within the program, but we have to deal with the reality of what actually happened,” Souers said of last season’s disappointment. “To waste any more energy on what could've been doesn't serve our time very well, so I’ll say it was a tough break losing Case Cookus. I was really proud of Blake Kemp -- he came in and really lifted the team, put them on his shoulders and took us as far as he could.
"There was nobody happy about how last season finished.”
News of 2017 being Souers' final year trickled out to sources in Phoenix on Sept. 11, and Northern Arizona officially announced the decision later that afternoon. With the Lumberjacks on a bye week, and the next game at Cal Poly not until 12 days later, the timing came as the best-case scenario, according to Campos.
Confirming that she and Souers had serious conversations about his status during the summer, Campos said the original plan had been to make the announcement before the season opener at Arizona but “time just got away from us.”
After considering making the announcement after the Arizona loss, Campos said the two agreed the bye week would be more ideal.
“As I said in the press conference, we both came to the agreement that this would be his last year -- win or lose, win a national championship, whatever that would look like -- that it was just time for a change and we both came to that agreement,” Campos said. ”... Initially the announcement was going to happen before the start of the season, but again time just got away, so we picked the next logical opportunity, which was the bye week.”
Souers confirmed the two had conversations about the timing of the announcement, as any coach and athletic director do, but he preferred to wait until after the season, a choice schools generally make.
Northern Arizona will play for at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title Saturday against Southern Utah in Cedar City while in the midst of a search for Souers’ replacement. Northern Arizona retained Parker Executive Search, based out of Atlanta, to aid in the hiring, the same group that conducted the search for men’s basketball coach Jack Murphy as well as Campos herself.
“We are starting the process. Obviously we’re not talking about that out of a ton of respect for Jerome, but right now people don’t understand the amount of research, phone calls and evaluation that goes into hiring any head coach,” Campos said in an interview on Nov. 1. “So we are definitely in that stage right now.”
Now having won at least seven games for the fifth time in the past six years, Northern Arizona’s football program should be attractive to potential head coach candidates.
“It’s a unique situation,” Campos said. “Typically, when there’s a coaching change, the next person has to come in and do a rebuild, where here obviously we are having some success. I think regardless NAU and this NAU football program have been very well-respected. Jerome has done a phenomenal job here at NAU and has brought national attention to the program. I think regardless of wins and losses, it’s a very respected program, so there’s always going to be a lot of interest.”
How much more input Campos will have in the new hire could also be up in the air, as she was reported to be one of three finalists for the athletic director position at UTEP, where she previously served as a senior associate athletic director prior to her March 30, 2012, hire by Northern Arizona.
With the interview process reportedly beginning this week at UTEP, and with an additional interview at UTSA possible as well, Campos had no additional comment on her potential interest at UTEP when news broke last Wednesday.
“You know the news (media), they just want to stir up conversation. Obviously we love NAU, we love working for President (Rita) Cheng,” Campos said on Nov. 1. “We are so focused right now on this season whether it’s football or cross country or volleyball, that’s definitely where my focus is right now. Obviously there’s some connections to UTEP, but my complete focus is on NAU right now and we have so much to do, there’s a lot to do here at NAU.”
The timing of Souers' announcement presented the potential for players to look elsewhere, as well as put a halt on offering scholarships to players outside the program.
Celebrating his Senior Day last Saturday, Emmanuel Butler could potentially earn an extra season of eligibility through a medical redshirt after injuring his shoulder just two games into this season. Additionally, any players in their junior year who redshirted in the past could theoretically graduate transfer following the year and become eligible to play immediately next season.
Also among that group would be Cookus, whose single year as a greyshirt at Ventura College coupled with three years at Northern Arizona puts him in position to play two years as a graduate student.
Campos said players will look for what's best for them, whether a coaching change happens at the beginning or end of a season.
“That’s going to happen whenever you make an announcement," Campos said. "I think Jerome and his coaching staff have kept that team very, very focused on each game and what the season could look like.”