(Photo courtesy of Scott Walstrom, NIU Photography)

I wasn't the most naturally gifted player growing up in rural Kansas, but I played well enough to earn a spot on the Southwestern College football team in Winfield, a small town about 40 miles southeast of Wichita. That opened the door for me to become a coach. My first head coaching position was at Webb City High School in Missouri, which came in between two stops as offensive and defensive coordinator at Division II Pittsburg State in Kansas. I coached at Saginaw Valley State and Emporia State before getting my big break at Southern Illinois. Or at least I thought it was.

I was making the jump from Division II to Division I, but you would have never been able to tell that by the facilities. The locker room didn't have enough space to hold all the players, and the rusty, old stadium was so bad we couldn’t even show it to recruits during the daytime. It was no surprise that the team hadn't recorded a winning season in years, and things were so bad that the year before I got there, the University had considered dropping the entire football program.

It might have seemed like a desperate situation, but I decided to roll the dice and take a chance with a great group of assistant coaches. I never doubted the abilities the good Lord gave me as a coach, even after we went 1-10 our first season.

 
 

(Photo courtesy of Southern Illinois Athletics)

Two things helped change our program around - the first was that we were able to recruit better players. People give too much credit to coaches, including myself, because it was those players who actually made the plays on the field. But the second reason we improved as a program was because of our coaches and their loyalty. Our staff didn't point the finger at each other, didn't blame each other when things went wrong, and we were going to figure things out together as a unit. That's why we improved to 4-8 my second year, then 10-2 my third year, and why we won 50 games in my last five years. And that's also why that staff came with me to Northern Illinois and eventually to Minnesota.

I don't know why it all happened the way it did, but I believe the good Lord works in mysterious ways. Even though going through cancer was awful, it did bring us closer together as a family, and it strengthened my faith. I eventually beat the cancer, but as it turned out, it wouldn't be the last health scare I would have.

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Thomas Hager