Willis is the man for Newberry
Friday, September 24, 2004 | by by Ron Morris, The State Sports Columnist

Coach has Indians off to 3-0 start for 9th time in history

NEWBERRY, S.C. - THE MEETING DID not last long. Mitchell Zais, the Newberry College president, was using his background as an Army infantry general to get a read on his prospective football coach.

Andy Carter, Newberry's athletics director, proposed one of the opening questions for young Zak Willis, 35 at the time and fresh off a three-year stint as the first head football coach at tiny Pikeville (Ky.) College.

"Zak, you know our facilities are not up to par with the rest of our conference competition," Zais remembers Carter saying to Willis.

"You know, kids don't play for facilities or bricks and mortar," Zais recalls Willis replying. "They play for a coach who loves them and cares about them. They play for their teammates with whom they have bonded, and they play for an institution whose values we believe in.

"We can be successful without the facilities, and then the facilities will follow."

Willis was Newberry's man, the perfect fit for a football program that has rarely been anything but down and out.

With 770 students, it remains the smallest NCAA Division II school playing football. Over the past 86 seasons of football, only two Newberry coaches have posted winning records, and each of them managed one more win than losses.

"I wanted to make sure they were going to make a commitment because I had a lot of people tell me, 'Don't take the job. This is a graveyard,'" Willis says. "I kind of thought, if I can win at Newberry, I can win anywhere."

It helps that no challenge appears too big for Willis, whose club is off to only the ninth 3-0 start in the school's 91-year football history. His first challenge in football was to land an NCAA Division I-A coaching job. So, while coaching at Greenville (Ill.) College, Willis wrote a weekly letter to Brad Scott, then the head coach at South Carolina. Willis saw his involvement with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as a connection to Scott.

The letters continued for nearly one year until Willis and Scott crossed paths at a junior college all-star game in Mississippi. Scott remembered the letters and offered Willis a 'job' as a volunteer at USC, if he would also coach at Hammond School.

"I don't care if I have to empty trash cans and clear toilets," Willis says he told Scott and accepted the offer. In return, Scott gave Willis the title of 'in-house recruiting coordinator,' which translated meant go-for boy.

When Scott was fired at USC, Lou Holtz retained Willis for one season, and that proved to be a break.

Pikeville College could hardly turn down a candidate for its head coaching position who carried the endorsements of Holtz and Scott.

Then came his next challenge. Pikeville played at the club level in its first season. The locker room for home football games was a hallway where Willis and his coaching staff drove nails into the concrete so players could hang their clothes. The lack of facilities did not prevent Willis and Pikeville from defeating the Kentucky freshman team that season.

A 6-4 season followed a 3-7 record, and Willis thought he never again would see a challenge quite like Pikeville presented ... until he was hired at Newberry, where the Indians simply were not competitive in the South Atlantic Conference.

Newberry's losing streak against SAC opponents reached 17 games in Willis' first season. But, frankly, Willis had bigger concerns. A fresh coat of paint applied by the coaching staff and a $20,000 donation from an alum made Newberry's weight room respectable, but still not on par with those at most high schools in the state.

Willis found that Newberry had been working a shoe deal with an area sporting goods company under which the Indians essentially got second-hand cleats or leftovers from schools such as USC. He immediately arranged a shoe contract with adidas, one of only two such deals for Division II schools in the country.

"Everything was bare bones," says Willis, who found 15-year-old shoulder pads in use. "They were the absolute cheapest of everything."

That quickly changed with the backing of Zais and Carter. They recognized the financial value to the school by bringing in more football players each year. Newberry's roster grew from 80 to 140. With each additional student generating $12,900 in tuition, board and fees, the school increased its revenue from football by $774,000 in each of Willis' first two seasons.

Newberry's football budget increased from $600,000 three years ago to $1.12 million in 2003. That figure remains the lowest in the conference, but it is high enough to ensure that Newberry can now compete.

To improve the team's talent level, Willis began accepting transfers from Division I-AA and Division I-A schools. His roster includes transfers from Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Furman, S.C. State, Appalachian State and East Tennessee State.

This season, wins against Concord and North Greenville were expected before Saturday's stunning upset of Division I-AA Coastal Carolina. Willis and Carter said grown men were crying tears of joy in the stands where longtime alums have witnessed two winning seasons since 1985.

Newberry fans remained in the Setzler Field stands long afterward exchanging handshakes and hugs. Setzler, where Newberry has played for 91 seasons, is the oldest college stadium in the state. There is a certain charm to the place, although Willis recognizes that there probably are many Class 2A high school programs with better stadiums.

"You know, kids don't play for facilities or bricks and mortar ... ," Willis says.