LAKE CHARLES — Sterlin Gilbert rode into town promising to turn McNeese State back into a national football power on the FCS level.
He will leave long before doing that, taking what now seems like the first train out of Lake Charles.
Saturday Gilbert was expected to resign as McNeese’s head football coach after just one season, taking the position of offensive coordinator and QBs coach at Syracuse University.
No formal announcement has been made, but McNeese officials were expecting Gilbert’s resignation letter as early as Saturday evening.
Attempts by the Daily Iberian to reach Gilbert or McNeese Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill were unsuccessful. According to sources, Gilbert will owe McNeese $100,000 to buy out the remaining two years of his contract.
“Life changes, things change,” said McNeese State President Daryl Burckel. “He (Gilbert) took another opportunity and now we have the same chance.
“We will look for the best fit for McNeese, for somebody who wants to be here.”
Just 13 months ago Gilbert had promised to change the culture of McNeese after the team had lost four of its last five and the firing of Lance Guidry left the program on shaky ground, missing the playoffs in all three years under the last regime.
McNeese did improve under Gilbert, winning five of their last six games last fall and finishing 7-5. Players gave him credit for not only changing the way things were done on the field but also off it.
“Coach cared about everything we did, not just the games,” said senior defensive lineman Chris Livings during the season. “He talked to us about being part of the campus and the community and he was always talking about how we acted and keeping on us about school work.”
Livings was named to the FCS academic all-America team just this week.
Ironically, Livings’ news came just a month after the Cowboys were ruled academically ineligible for postseason play in 2020 as a result of a low Academic Progress Rate (APR) over the last four years.
In 2012 the NCAA added the APR to postseason competition requirements. Teams lose postseason eligibility the first time they drop below a 930 APR average score over a four-year stretch.
McNeese’s last two years APR scores were an identical 892, dropping the average for four years to 918.5. However, that seems to have been turning around under Gilbert, who vowed he would clean up all the program’s warts. At the time of that announcement Gilbert sounded nothing like a man looking for a new job.
“We have talked to our players and let them know every step along the way,” said Gilbert, who himself understood the situation before taking the McNeese job. “It’s disappointing for those kids, especially our seniors, but I’m here and I have started to fix it.
“What we have started here and what our expectations are have not changed. We are excited going forward.”
Gilbert’s move to Syracuse reunites him with Dino Babers, who he worked for both at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green in the same position. Gilbert also served two years as South Florida’s offensive coordinator and one year in the same spot at Texas, all under the direction of Charlie Strong.
This also puts Gilbert back in college football’s top division and back in a Power Five conference.
Burckel gave credit to Gilbert despite his disappointment.
“He left us better than he found us,” Burckel said. “That’s really all we can hope for.”
McNeese has had problems keeping quality coaches, mainly because of salaries. However, the school has tried under Hemphill and Burckel to improve both the numbers and facilities. Still, good coaches will always be looking to move up both financially and into bigger conferences.
“That’s part of it,” said Burckel. “We understand that. We just want to do what is best for McNeese State and our student athletes.”
Gilbert’s departure puts an end to a strange 15 months within the McNeese program. It was at the midway point of the 2018 season when the Cowboys, then 5-1 and ranked in the top 10 in both national FCS polls, were considered the favorites to win the Southland crown.
However, four losses in the last five games left the team out of the playoffs for a third straight year and making a national search for a head coach. Add another national search now to go along with the academic woes and McNeese is struggling to find itself let alone return to glory.
The Cowboys haven’t been to the playoffs since 2015 and haven’t won a postseason game since 2002.
Finding the right fit both football wise and academic wise will be the key. Burckel said the search will begin quickly as the school hopes to find the right guy for the job as “quickly as we can.”