A Molder of Men: Inside the Success of Sam Houston Head Coach K.C. Keeler

K.C. Keeler is one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history but the Sam Houston head coach's on-field success goes beyond the Xs and Os.

Kurt Charles “K.C.” Keeler is the only head coach in FCS history to win national championships at multiple schools, surpassing 250 career victories in 2021. He became the fifth fastest and ninth youngest head coach to reach that remarkable milestone. He boasts a laundry list of coaching accolades, ranging from his first in 1993 to being named one of the top 150 college coaches of all time.

In many respects, Keeler is the dictionary definition of college football coaching success. Yet, his impact is determined by so much more than statistics; it is determined by something more powerful than numbers in a record book. A passionate philanthropist, the Sam Houston head coach has interwoven on- and off-field mentalities and attitudes to inspire and achieve greatness.

Inside the Success of Sam Houston Head Coach K.C. Keeler

“My wife says I’m more mentor and teacher than I am football coach,” Keeler says early in a thoroughly engaging sit-down interview with College Football Network that began with a focus on his community endeavors but quickly becomes apparent that those and football success aren’t mutually exclusive. “I think that’s the nature of how I developed this program.”

The 2023 college football campaign—Sam Houston’s first in the FBS—will be Keeler’s 30th as a head coach. Like the program he leads, it will be his first experience coaching at the highest level of the sport. However, everything about the last 30 years would suggest that the former Delaware linebacker and tight end can ensure a seamless transition for the Bearkats.

Whether chosen deliberately or not, the word “developed” is particularly apt for Keeler’s influence and impact on Sam Houston football. While he inherited a program that had gone 40-15 under previous head coach Willie Fritz, the 2016 Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year took the Bearkats to heights they’d never reached before, landing their first national title in 2021.

MORE: Molded by Adversity, Ja’Mion Franklin Strives for Greatness 

It’s also apt for his impact on every program he’s led. At Rowan, the NCAA DIII program where he got his coaching break before becoming head coach in 1993, he developed the football team into a consistent presence in the DIII playoffs, taking the team to five national titles while compiling an 88-21-1 record.

At Delaware, his alma mater, Keeler developed a Blue Hens team that would contest three FCS Championship Games during his 11-year stint as head coach, emerging victorious in 2003 as he delivered a national title in just his second season in charge. As a result, he’s the only head coach in NCAA history to take three different programs to a national title game.

Those are the tangible results of his ability to develop a program. Yet, there’s more to being a successful head coach—particularly of the magnitude of Keeler’s success—than simply winning a game of football. There’s more to being a successful leader of a program than studying Xs and Os. That is almost a by-product of his role as a mentor, teacher, and molder of men.

Keeler’s Community Impact

Born in July 1959 in a small town in Pennsylvania, Keeler was the son of a multi-sport coach who impacted the lives of more than just his own children through his role as a mentor in the local community. Before he set foot on a field as a player and long before he took his first coaching role at Rowan, the now-Sam Houston head coach knew he wanted to make a similar impact.

As he embarked on his successful coaching career, Keeler found that he had a platform to realize that ambition. In 2008, while the head coach at Delaware, K.C. and Janice Keeler raised almost a million dollars for the Boys and Girls Club of Delaware through community initiatives such as selling “K.C.’s Cobb Salad” and embracing a new role as a “celebrity chef.”

In 2022, Keeler’s work with the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation saw the Sam Houston head coach recognized as their “Man of the Year.” The foundation—an official partner of Be The Match—has been responsible for more than 300 stem cell/bone marrow transplants while bolstering the donor registry by over 71,000 people since its inception.

Andy Talley is a phenomenal human being,” Keeler says of one of the inspirations behind his own philanthropic endeavors. “How many people are Hall of Fame coaches like Andy is, but are going to be known for a lot more for what he did off the field than on the field?”

“I think that’s one of the great tributes any coach can have is to be known for the things that he did off the field even more than the great accomplishments they did on the field. He was a great mentor in terms of how to engage and how to get involved with this. I’ve been blessed to have some really good mentors when it comes to back to giving back to the community.”

In Delaware and in Huntsville, Keeler has been active in the local community, whether raising money or just raising awareness of the causes he believes in. Contributing to groups like the Boys and Girls Club of Delaware has helped him realize his long-held desire to positively impact the next generation. Yet, they’ve also allowed him to build and develop successful football programs.

“I use community service as part of building a team,” Keeler explains. “Every position coach decides what endeavor they’re going to take on in the town. Something where they as a group decide “hey, this is something we want to do” and then the coach goes with them and the players get to see their position coach more than as a coach, but as a man in the community.”

“We also do endeavors that are team-wide. It’s something that’s always been a part of our responsibility when you’re in a community. Also, I’ve found a way to extend this to my players because when they leave the program, I want them to be able to take that where they go.”

Keeler as a Culture Builder

There is perhaps nothing more humbling for a person than participating in projects, causes, and endeavors with people who are less fortunate than oneself.

Alongside his use of community service for the betterment of his players as they transition into young men, Keeler has tapped into a team-first philosophy where football success comes from understanding that no one person is greater than the sum of the parts.

“I’m a big culture builder. I think the reason I’ve had the success that I’ve had — I’ve had a lot of great players, I’ve had a lot of amazing coaches — but also building a culture and that’s what I think I specialize in, and a big part of that is the players interacting.”

“My quarterbacks know my defensive coordinator. My safeties know my offensive line coach. We really work hard on integrating with each other, and coming back to the community service, its one of the things we do is integrate a lot of crossover with the players and coaches so that we’re all in this thing together.”

In much the same way that he’s had philanthropic mentors who have shaped his desire to make an impact on the field, Keeler has had influences throughout his football journey that have shaped his philosophies on building successful programs. These programs rely on the molding of men and the alignment of a football program as one single unit rather than 105 individual players.

MORE: Navy Offensive Lineman Lirion Murtezi Epitomizes the American Dream 

He may be entering his 30th year of coaching, but as a result of those influences — and the success of his approach both on and off the field — Keeler’s methods are the same as he prepares for the 2023 college football season as they were when he first took the reins at Rowan in 1993. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

“A lot of things have changed how college football is,” Keeler reflects. “But in so many ways, the same foundations that I had at Rowan University are the same foundations that I have right now. To me, it was always about family. To me, it was always about being in this thing together.”

“I played for a legendary coach, Tubby Raymond, 300 wins, three national championships, invented an offense called the Wing T. I can remember the very first time I walked on Delaware’s campus and they took me in the locker room and they had “Home of the National Champions” across a banner and it always captivated me. It was always about being the best.”

“However, the one thing I struggled with Tubby was that when you lost, it was like you as a player lost. It wasn’t like we as a team lost. I’ve always made that a real priority of mine that our players understand that we’re in this thing together. When we lose, we lose. When we win, we win.”

That’s not to say that the foundations he set at Rowan haven’t had to be revisited, restructured, and solidified as Keeler applies his experiences and wisdom to transitioning Sam Houston from a modern-day powerhouse of FCS football into a contender in Conference USA for the 2023 college football campaign.

Football is Family

His success has been shaped by the mentoring of others, from understanding how to do things a little differently from what he experienced as a player, but also learning from the things that could have had a detrimental impact on his future.

Family is at the forefront of everything that makes the Sam Houston football program tick, for that exact reason.

“Their family is as important as my family is to me,” Keeler explains about a policy that ensures family is a priority throughout the program. “Part of that stems from my experience at Rowan. I was the head coach, the offensive coordinator, the quarterback coach, the recruiting coordinator, the strength coach. I recruited every player and got them their housing.”

“I was that guy at three in the morning where the campus police would come in and say “hey coach, go home.” I saw what that did to my family, I’m blessed to still have them. I vowed that I would never do that to anyone else’s family. The experiences I had growing up as a coach has formed my belief system and work ethic. All those things help bring that family atmosphere.”

As a molder of young men, that attention to family is particularly important. Lost in our fascination and idolization of student-athletes as sporting heroes is the fact that they are people, scrutinized beyond measure at a time when they’re developing and discovering who they are—often hundreds or thousands of miles from home.

Nurturing in a family environment is just as important as nourishing them in a strength and conditioning program or developing their football intelligence in a film room or in playbook study. Under Keeler’s guidance, group cookouts every Wednesday and buddy systems ensure that the feeling of family and togetherness extends beyond the white lines.

Behind Every Good Man

As the saying goes: “behind every successful man there is a woman,” and there is no exception in the case of Keeler and the Sam Houston football program.

Keeler speaks passionately about the role his wife, Janice, played in several of the elements that have helped fuel his success story.

From raising the children during those late nights at Rowan to being a figurehead in their fundraising efforts for the Boys and Girls Club at Delaware, she helped integrate the family with the local community upon their arrival in Huntsville.

“My wife got involved with “Girls on the Run,” Keeler reflects on their arrival in 2014. “It’s an after-school program for girls to get active. She’s done reading programs. She was one of the key people raising money in Delaware. Having a partner like that is important.”

Having a strong female presence has also been important to Bearkat success under Keeler.

“I believe in having strong females in my operation,” Keeler explains. “I have a really strong athletic trainer who is phenomenal. I have a really strong on-campus recruiting coordinator who is phenomenal. The guys know that those woman, when they speak, that’s like the coaches speaking.”

The Measure of Success

Establishing a culture driven by community service, leading a football program that prioritizes family and thrives on the feeling of togetherness that it brings, while being emboldened by a strong, female influence in the locker room has allowed Keeler to be a molder of men and enabled him to bring sustained success to Sam Houston — and every other stop along the way.

Between the white lines, Keeler leads with an “All in, all the time” mentality that has winning the moment at its very heart. There’s such a strong singular focus on what is right in front of them that the Sam Houston head coach jokes that the manual handed out to players during spring practice has just one game on the schedule—the Bearkats’ Week 1 matchup with BYU.

It’s an approach that ultimately led to the program’s only FCS national championship, having been down three touchdowns at halftime of their FCS Championship semifinal against James Madison.

“Something that I really try to stress to my teams is when things are going your way, feed off it.” Keeler explains. “When things go against you, just go and make the next play. We always try and develop this mentality.

“We often talk about when we were down 21 points versus James Madison. The whole philosophy in that locker room at half time was “let’s get seven.” That mentality and mindset, when we did get seven, you just feel it on the sideline and then we go score 28 points in five and a half minutes and have this amazing run. A lot of it was that mentality.”

Alongside mentality, “perception to reality” is a common phrase inside a Keeler-led locker room. It centers around how a player or person perceives the coaching they receive. If they feel that a coach is being hard for the sake of it, that will be their reality. If they understand that the coach is pushing them to be a better player—and man—then that becomes their reality.

Not all players will understand that immediately; some may never understand it. When that reality hits, no matter how much further down the line, the knowledge that he’s made a genuine impact on someone under his tutelage has profound meaning to the Sam Houston head coach.

MORE: DeWayne Carter is Defined by More Than His Football Dominance at Duke 

“I had just taken over Sam Houston,” Keeler begins to tell the story of a player who he keeps nameless. “and we butted heads a little bit. Four or five years later I get this text message out of nowhere and my wife looks over to me and I’ve got the tears streaming down my face.”

“What he said to me was, ‘I’m starting my own business. I just got engaged. I now realize after all this time the impact that you made on my life, that I am in a place where I’m going to be successful because you pushed me.'”

When his career as a head coach is over, Keeler has a ready-made path to after-dinner speaking. He tells a story as successfully as he leads a football team, and with the same heartfelt enthusiasm that he puts into community service.

The Sam Houston head coach tells me about Ronald Talley, a former defensive lineman at Delaware who made a promise to Joe Biden that he’d get the Michigan vote. Talley never forgot Keeler allowing him to go back to Oak Park to cast his vote, and when Barack Obama became the first black president he never thought he’d see, the Blue Hen DT embraced his head coach.

“Those are the moments that you have with your players that you just cherish. And, it’s not about football. It’s about life.”

Two hundred and fifty-nine wins. Two national championships. A litany of college football Head Coach of the Year awards.

There are many ways of measuring the success of Sam Houston head coach Keeler. Quantifying his impact as a molder of men is a little bit more complicated—you could call it immeasurable—but his off-field commitment to excellence is a key component of every bit of on-field success.