HICKORY — Almost three years ago, Mike Houston stood in front of a packed room at Shuford Gymnasium much like he did Tuesday, and proclaimed to those gathered that as the football program’s new coach his goal was to win a conference championship.
Some in the room laughed.
After all, Lenoir-Rhyne had a rich football tradition, but that was in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, the program had drifted largely into obscurity.
No one is laughing now.
Now in his third season as coach, Houston and the Bears have won 13 consecutive games this season and on Saturday will play for the NCAA Division II national championship, facing Northwest Missouri State in Florence, Ala.
“On Saturday, we’re playing for a national championship. There was a time when Lenoir-Rhyne regularly competed at this level,” said Houston, who is 29-7 as the Bears’ coach.
“There are many alums who played on those teams back then who so badly wanted to see this program return to that level. I there is fulfillment, not only for me as a coach, but for the university and the alums of the football program that has been a long time coming.”
Houston was jokingly asked if he would like to name those who laughed at that press conference three years ago.
“I know exactly who did. They’ve been told,” Houston said.
The Bears depart for Alabama on Wednesday morning complete with a send-off celebration. Homemade signs of support not only dot the school’s campus but can aslo be found on homes and businesses in the town.
“There’s been a lot of excitement. It’s been overwhelming the support we’ve had from the community,” said Houston, who was a former coach at T.C. Roberson High in Asheville and joined Lenoir-Rhyne as an assistant in 2007.
“It still hasn’t sunk in. It’s a great thing for our program, for Lenoir-Rhyne and the city of Hickory. I’ve caught myself more than once this week saying, ‘We’re playing for the national championship this weekend.’”
Lenoir-Rhyne will be attempting to win its first Division II national championship and would become the first school from the South Atlantic Conference to do so. The Bears did win the 1960 NAIA championship, making three appearances in the title game (1959, 1960, 1962).
In Houston’s first season as head coach, 2011, the Bears finished 7-3 and won their first league championship since 1994. Last season, Lenoir-Rhyne repeated as conference champions and won its first Division II playoff game.
Lenoir-Rhyne may be smaller in size than many of its opponents but Houston said no team works harder, starting from the first minute of spring practice.
“I do think teams take on the character traits of their coaches. I think they are a reflection of their coaches,” Houston said. “We have not only great coaches but good people. We all understand that each of us have a role and each of us has to pitch in.
“I know this: We’ll get up on Saturday morning. I’ll have a bunch that is fired up and ready to go. We have a big challenge in front of us but I know exactly how our team is going to play.”
And this season that’s no laughing matter.
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.