Jerome Souers remembers when the lighting in the Walkup Skydome was jaundiced and indistinct. He remembers the outdated coaching offices and the less than stellar weight room. Souers remembers when he first became a head coach, he did not have the resources to pay for his players to go to summer school.
Over the last 18 years as the head coach at Northern Arizona, Souers has seen the landscape of the Big Sky Conference change. A handful of teams have caught and surpassed the University of Montana, once the unrivaled power in the league. The population out West has continued to grow. And slowly but surely, Northern Arizona has kept pace.
In 2010 and 2011, Souers’ 13th and 14th years at NAU, the Walkup Skydome underwent a massive $26 million renovation. The 39-year-old dome installed new turf and upgraded its lighting. The venue added a new press box while remodeling the bathrooms, concourse, offices, suites and locker rooms. The athletic training and equipment facilities received a major facelift.
The upgrades have helped the Lumberjacks keep pace in the Big Sky arms race. Since Souers took over in 1998, Phoenix has grown by nearly two million people in the greater metropolitan area. The upgrade in facilities has helped Souers compile more than half of his roster with in-state products.
The result has been a strong span for NAU since the Big Sky expanded in four seasons ago. NAU is 18-7 against league competition since the beginning of 2012, including a 7-1 league campaign in 2013 as NAU qualified for the FCS playoffs for the fourth time under Souers. Since the stadium expansion, the Lumberjacks are 30-20 entering Saturday’s matchup against Montana State. The Bobcats have not played at Walkup since 2010.
“I promised a vision that we’d have consistent success, sustainable success and it’s been a long haul getting everything set up and organized, I mean really a long haul. Getting the stadium rebuilt takes a lot of time and you need help,” Souers said on Tuesday. “We weren’t getting it early but we are getting it now. That makes a difference in our ability to recruit, to develop kids with strength and conditioning, the summer school program, all stuff we’ve never had until the last three or four years. All these create a great experience for the student athlete.
“Our facilities, our recruiting budget, our staff salaries, the way we treat our players, it’s night and day compared to when I got here in 1998. Dr. Lisa Campos, our vice president in charge of athletics, has made a lot of things happen. She’s done a great job supporting the program. The way Montana, Montana State and Eastern are performing, you have to be able to recruit quality kids, you have to recruit strong coaches and your facilities have to be good enough to recruit guys who want to be here. We’ve seen it become more of a destination place than ‘I’ll go to NAU because I don’t have anywhere else to go.’”
The renovation of the Skydome goes hand in hand with the hiring of Campos, one of the youngest female senior administrators in college sports. After her hiring in 2012, Campos helped the Lumberjacks earn the prestigious Presidents’ Cup — given to the athletic department for overall excellence in competition and in the classroom — two years in a row. During the 2013-14 year, the Lumberjacks swept the Big Sky’s men’s and women’s All-Sports Trophies, becoming the first school this century to do so. The men repeated winning the all-sports trophy last year.
“We got a new athletic director and the attitude and the culture and the environment around the town changed,” NAU senior captain cornerback Marcus Alford said at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. “Now it’s like winning is the standard in every sport. We are not surprised when we win. That’s what we expect to do. We want to win the Big Sky and we expect to do that. This year, we are as confident as we have ever been.”
Over the past two years, the Lumberjacks have captured 52 total Big Sky championships. Last calendar year, six teams — men’s cross country and men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track & field all captured Big Sky Championships while women’s swimming & diving won its first Western Athletic Conference Championships – and 19 student-athletes combined for 24 individual titles between cross country and track & field in the Big Sky and swimming & diving in the WAC. The school produced 183 all-conference honorees and 13 student-athletes that combined for 18 All-American honors.
Jason Murrietta led the Lumberjacks to a share of the only Big Sky title during the Souers era in 2003. Between 2004 and 2011, the ‘Jacks posted a 40-48 record.
Since then, NAU has been alive in the Big Sky title race late into the season. Souers posted seven wins in a season just twice between 1998 and 2011. Northern Arizona has won eight, nine and seven games over the last three seasons.
“It’s been amazing, everything is completely different than when I first got here,” NAU senior running back Casey Jahn said on Tuesday. “Some of the things we have been able to get, the locker rooms have changed completely, the football offices are so nice, all the perks we are allowed to have as football players has been just amazing. Coach Souers and everyone else in the football program has really done a great job of helping it grow.
“It’s really helping our team being able to perform better and focus on football. NAU is really growing and becoming one of the top schools in the Big Sky.”
Saturday’s showdown will be the a big step in proving that notion true. NAU posted a 6-2 record in 2012, narrowly missing the playoffs and a share of the league title. The Lumberjacks did not play co-champion Montana State or Eastern Washington that season and lost their final two games (to Southern Utah and co-league champion Cal Poly) to dash their post-season hopes.
In 2013, NAU defeated Montana in Flagstaff for the first time under Souers — he served 12 seasons as an assistant at Montana, including as the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator from 1989 until 1997 — en route to a 9-2 regular-season that included seven league wins. The lone loss came to MSU in Bozeman, 36-7. NAU did not play undisputed champion Eastern Washington. The ‘Jacks lost 26-7 to South Dakota State in the first round of the FCS playoffs
Last season, NAU broke into the Top 25 with a 7-3 start but back-to-back losses to North Dakota and Southern Utah cost NAU a playoff spot.
This season, Northern Arizona has already played Montana (a 23-14 loss last week) and will travel to EWU in November. On Saturday, the Lumberjacks have a chance to take on the No. 11 team in the FCS at home for the first time in half a decade.
“We haven’t played the ‘Cats in forever it seems like down here,” Souers said. “I’m hoping that has some advantages that we haven’t had when we go up to Bozeman and play.”
As Souers creeps toward completing his second decade in the league, his squad continues to evolve. In the off-season, the Lumberjacks installed a new spread offense, scrapping the tight end-heavy West Coast pro-style offense employed for most of Souers’ time. The ‘Jacks have a pair of electrifying young playmakers with potential in true freshman quarterback Case Cookus and 6-foot-3, 215-pound specimen true sophomore wide receiver Emmanuel Butler.
Souers and Mike Kramer are tied as the longest tenured coaches in Big Sky Conference history. Kramer is in his fifth season at Idaho State and his 18th in the Big Sky overall, a run that has included stops at Eastern Washington (1994-1999) and Montana State (2000-2006). Souers has 102 head coaching wins, nine behind longtime Nevada head coach Chris Ault for the all-time Big Sky lead. Souers has won 67 Big Sky games; his next Big Sky victory will tie him with Ault for the most ever in the league.
The slow but steady progress at Northern Arizona has been a key factor in keeping Souers in Flagstaff. Mick Dennehy, his boss for his last two seasons at Montana, jumped to the FBS at Utah State. Jim McElwain, the offensive coordinator at Montana State when Souers was at UM, is now the head coach of the Florida Gators. He has seen contemporaries like Steve Mooshagian (Sac State head coach) get a shot in the NFL coaching receivers with the Cincinnati Bengals. Rival Big Sky head coaches like Joe Glenn (Wyoming), Bobby Hauck (UNLV) and Paul Wulff (Washington State) have all earned shots in the FBS.
As much as NAU has changed, the one thing that has remained the same is Souers.
“I see my contemporaries. You look at what Jim McElwain did, he and I were struggling coaches back then (in the 1990s) just barely making it and what he’s done with all his means, he’s at the highest level of football.
“My experience, I don’t consider it any less because I’ve had a chance to work with cycles of kids, to see them succeed. I’m not a coach who coaches for two years and leaves and never see my kids back. I’ve seen quite a few cycles of kids graduate both at Montana and here at Northern Arizona. That’s pretty neat. And I love the conference. I love the Big Sky Conference too much to leave.”
Photos courtesy of Northern Arizona athletics. All Rights Reserved.