Russell reflects on first season as head coach
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
GRAYSON, Ky. – The scoreboard still shouted the final score of the final game of Kentucky Christian University’s 2021 football season.
Reinhardt University, ranked seventh in the NAIA, had overcome a 9-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Knights 49-15, and finish the regular season at 9-2 and 6-0 in the Mid-South Conference Appalachian Division. The No. 6 seed in the NAIA playoffs, Reinhardt will host Keiser, the MSC Sun Division champ, in the playoff opener Saturday, Nov. 20.
Meanwhile, KCU finished the season officially at 3-8, although one of the losses – to Lawrence Technological University – was a forfeit related to COVID-19 protocols.
Yet, as the KCU players and coaches were milling around on the Knights’ home turf, there were smiles. And, of course, there were good-bye hugs. While there are still some classes to attend, the reality is that Saturday’s game was the last time this group of Knights would ever play football together again.
And another reality is that those who took off the shoulder pads for the final time Saturday have great memories of their time in Grayson and, they believe, a solid foundation for their lives ahead.
“I am majoring in Business Administration but I have been majoring in football all of my life,” KCU’s senior quarterback, Riley Cooper, said with a chuckle. “It will be tough finding my way, but the transitioning from the game to real life, I will figure it out.”
A native of Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, Cooper played a year at Ohio Wesleyan University before giving up football and enrolling at Ohio State “just as a student. Then I got bored and put the pads back on and came to KCU.”
Cooper waited until midway through his senior year to get his chance when injuries sidelined those playing in front of him. The big moment came against Point University on October 23. Entering the game with 2:11 to play and the Knights trailing 22-17, Cooper went 4-for-4 in what turned out to be the game-winning drive.
His first play was a 36-yard completion to Jaylen Fortune on fourth-and-11. He found Diego Soto for the game-winner from 18 yards out with 46 seconds to play. For the season, Cooper completed 51.7 percent of his passes for 637 yards and 5 touchdowns but was picked off 6 times. On Tuesday, he was named to the Mid-South Conference Champions of Character team.
“When you are at a big school like Ohio State with 65,000 kids, it’s so hard to meet people and build relationships and those kinds of things,” he said. “But at KCU (about 500 students), you know, my team, my teachers, my faculty, we feel like a family here. It’s not very big but you build those relationships that will last forever and that means a lot.”
And that’s why senior receiver Demontez Coleman chose KCU right out of Dickson (Tenn.) High School. “This resembles home,” he said. “I am from a small place. I wanted to get far enough from home, but I wanted to be close at the same time.”
According to Google Maps, Grayson is a bit over 5 hours from Coleman’s hometown just west of Nashville.
“I wanted to further my being a Christian and things like that. You go to small places and you build relationships and those are the relationships you are going to have the rest of your life…. Those are the guys you are going to care for and love for. The rest of the seniors, I love them all. That goes for anybody I played with. They all know they can text me or call me whatever relationship we had, it will always be there 30 years down the line.”
KCU coach Jake Russell can fully relate to the sentiments of Cooper, Coleman and countless other small college athletes. An all-state quarterback at Anderson County High School, Russell played both at Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky before finding a home at Campbellsville University. There he was an NAIA All-American and drew the attention of some NFL scouts.
In an earlier interview with 110forChrist, Russell recounted how he learned to better share his faith while at Campbellsville. He decided to make football coaching a ministry of equipping young men with an active faith.
“Oh, that’s very important because it gets guys to step out of their comfort zone,” Coleman said of Russell’s practice of team devotions and discussions of their faith. “A lot of times, young men like us come to a Christian school just listening. This makes us actually go through the Bible and speak in front of people. It gets people out of their comfort zone which I think is very important. I am glad Coach Russell put that in because we weren’t doing anything like that.”
Part of the evangelistic outreach Russell has implemented at KCU is dividing his team into groups based on books of the Bible. “My book is the book of I Samuel,” Cooper said. “Every week we will meet and discuss how it relates to the team and what we get out of it that week.”
With Russell, it’s very apparent that the wins and losses are important, but secondary to ministry. “Hopefully, we impact a young man’s life and impact their faith,” he said. “We have had some young men share their testimonies and talk about their faith. We have had conversations individually and as a group about their faith. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
Saturday, 22 members of the Knights’ team went through Senior Day. Because of NAIA-sanctioned COVID-19 relief measures, some may return for a free year of eligibility while others move on with their lives. Either way, their eventual success won’t be determined by the 3-8 record of 2021 or the 6-2 mark of 2020, played in the spring of 2021.
Instead it’s about making a difference in the real world. And some might even give back on the gridiron.
“I will have a degree in Business,” Coleman said. “I want to stay around the game of football or basketball or any sport,” Coleman says.
Cooper adds, “Being around the game, the last 17 years, it’s pretty much all I know, so coaching is not out of the equation.”
Wherever they go in life, they have a foundation to make a Christian difference.
RUSSELL ENJOYS FIRST YEAR, ALREADY LOOKING AHEAD
Russell says he and his family have enjoyed their first year in Grayson as he seeks to develop Christian leaders through the Knight football program.
But his job title is head football coach and Russell knows there are expectations. He believes the Knights are laying a strong foundation for future success and can develop a consistently strong program.
“Football wise, we were competitive in nine of the 10 games,” said Russell, who had been the offensive coordinator at Union College before moving to Kentucky Christian. “In nine straight games we had the lead or in the fourth quarter we had the ball with a chance to win. I think there is really a good foundation here for the future.”
Saturday, the Knights led seventh-ranked Reinhardt, 9-0, at the half but things snowballed in the second half. Russell says that is a matter of building the program.
“We dominated the first half against one of the best football programs in the country, so you see we are not that far away from being a Top 10 team. I believe it can be done here. This is a program that, even when I was playing (at Campbellsville) was kind of a doormat and somebody you just chalked up as a win on your schedule. Every team we play now knows it’s not going to be like that. We have a great staff and have some great young guys. We are recruiting our butts off and I think the future is very bright here.”
Earlier in the year, the Knights led another perennial power, Keiser, 16-3, at the half but fell 24-16.
“Reinhardt, they know how to win those games. Keiser knows how to win those games. Those are teams that are in the (NAIA) playoffs every single year. They have won conference championships. Reinhardt has been to the national championship game (in 2017). When they face adversity, they don’t fall through. They don’t stress. For us, when we faced adversity, as you said, it snowballed. That’s just maturity and culture. We want to do something here so that the next time we are faced with an opportunity to win one of those games, we are able to win it.”
Russell was not hired at KCU until June and didn’t have a full staff in place just before fall camp started, forcing a lag in recruiting. It should pick up greatly in 2022 and Russell won’t be afraid to share his own story of finding a home at a small Christian university.
The quality of football in the NAIA is often overlooked, but Russell says the NFL is very aware. ”I played against four guys in the two years that I played NAIA football that made NFL rosters,” he said. “As for myself, I was able to sign with an agent and go through the process and talk to NFL teams and play a year of pro football.”
Russell says he’s looking for high school kids or college-age players who have not found their home. In the NAIA, “eligibility rules are different (than the NCAA). The time clock is different. You get bounce backs. You get guys who are underrecruited. You get guys that their clock ran out at the NCAA level so they come here. We have some of those on our team this year. It’s a great strategy in recruiting, especially with the transfer portal today.
“A lot of kids don’t know what the NAIA is. After playing in it and now coaching, it is a great way to get an athletic scholarship and play football.”
And in being prepared for life after football, Russell believes KCU and schools like it are gems. “This is a great university,” Russell said of KCU. “The place I graduated from, Campbellsville University, is a great university.The teams we play every week are really strong universities. It goes a lot farther than football. I am biased toward it because this is where I live and I am coaching in it but a small Christian school is a great experience for a young man. It can do a lot for their lives.”