Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler was pulled away to do an on-field TV interview shortly after his unbeaten Bearkats eked out a late win over South Dakota State in the FCS national championship game this past spring.

He gave a glance back to the opponents he held in such high regard, so wanting to shake their hands.

Sure enough, when Keeler later watched the game on tape, he saw SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier had sought out various Sam Houston players for congratulations.   

“I’m not a guy who goes into other teams’ locker room,” Keeler said. “If I was, I would have gone in their locker room because we were one play better than them that day. One play better than them that day.”

Keeler knows the difference between winning a national title and being the runner-up as well as any coach. He’s the only one in history to guide two different FCS schools to the national championship – his first at Delaware in 2003 – but including his Division III days at Rowan, he’s been on the losing end of the title game seven times. He still regularly texts players on his 2010 Delaware team, feeling they missed out on so much with their late loss, similar to SDSU’s experience in mid-May.

As college football seeks a return to normalcy this fall, Sam Houston enters the season with a rightful No. 1 preseason ranking. While Keeler still considers North Dakota State and James Madison to be the standard in the FCS, with South Dakota State in the mix, his talented Bearkats are there as well, capable of a repeat.

That’s a word that’s been a great motivator in the short offseason, but it was basically washed from the Bearkats’ vocabulary during the preseason practices that have led up to a 10-game regular season, beginning Thursday night at Northern Arizona.

“It’s hard enough to win one; it’s even harder to win two because you are the hunted,” Keeler said.

“I’ve got the whole team back. There will be a lot of pressure on us. I think it’s awesome. I think our kids will just eat that up. We are very conscious of the fact that in 10 (spring) games, we won five in the last drive of the game basically. To go along with that, it shows a lot of character, it shows a lot of perseverance, that shows a lot of guys not panicking. But it shows that there’s a lot of people out there that are just as good as we are.”

The Bearkats’ challenge includes a move from the Southland Conference to the Western Athletic Conference. Although for this season, their new conference has combined with the ASUN in a joint league alignment, which includes preseason No. 10 Jacksonville State and No. 14 Central Arkansas.

The offense again boasts clutch quarterback Eric Schmid and wide receiver Jequez Ezzard. On defense, the line, featuring tackle Joseph Wallace and end Jahari Kay, is the best in the FCS, and cornerback Zyon McCollum is an NFL prospect.

Former Memphis linebacker Tim Hart figures to be an impact grad transfer and the offensive line is bolstered by Texas State grad transfer Reece Jordan and the return of Peyton Fifield from injury.

It feels nearly impossible to spot a weakness.

“Having everybody coming back, a lot of people have a lot of experience, so I think that plays a big part in this upcoming season,” junior linebacker Trevor Williams said. “Playing those (playoff) games, playing those certain teams, it’s a big battle-test. I think we handled it pretty well. This year, we’ll attack it even more.”

Said Keeler: “This team is so far ahead of any team that I’ve maybe ever had in terms of chemistry and leadership and those types of things.”

From moments in the locker room to the team parade in June to a ring presentation last month, Keeler appreciates the difference that Schmid’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Ife Adeyi with 16 seconds left against South Dakota State meant between ecstasy and agony.

Moving forward, he says the Bearkats can’t stay the same this season – they have to evolve to something even better.  He’s been where South Dakota State has been, and as often as he thinks about holding up the FCS championship trophy, he also thinks about John Stiegelmeier humbly accepting the Bearkats were one play better that day.

“You talk about class and great pedigree,” Keeler said. “They will be a team that I will root for the rest of my life because they get it. I’m hoping they see us the same way, I’m hoping that they see that we’re a team that tries to do it the right way. We want to win, but at the same time, we’re going to make sure that we shake your hand if we lose. I think that’s a mark of a great program.”