Southwest Baptist University football coach Robert Clardy jogs out onto the field at SBU’s Plaster Stadium, a portable speaker slung over his shoulder blaring pop hits.
Players warming up on the field turn their attention and their smiles to the head coach, a former Bearcat himself, who yells out that it’s time to get started.
SBU’s practices are like this, Clardy says, a serious environment, perforated by jokes — discipline, but not without fun. Culture is capital.
The Bearcats went winless last year and have framed the 2019 season as a revenge tour, Clardy says. The phrase is on team gear and at the top of everyone’s mind as SBU readies itself for kickoff against William Jewell College at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, in Liberty.
“Nobody’s going to give us respect,” Clardy says. “We have to earn it.”
Last year’s 0-10 record came as a shock, he says. Two years before, in 2016, SBU set records, finishing 10-2 with a first-ever Great Lakes Valley Conference championship and a trip to the postseason.
“We went from all that stuff to not winning a game last year,” Clardy says. “A lot of those same guys are still here. The same coaches are still here.”
The coaching staff fought back hard against the team’s issues, he says.
“The biggest thing we attacked was our team’s culture,” he says. “The leaders that we have in place have stepped up. We had a great fall camp, and our culture is completely different now in terms of discipline in practice.”
The proof, Clardy says, is in his own handwriting. In preparing for this season, he says he went back over his notes from last year’s practices.
“I saw things like, ‘We didn’t finish well today,’ or, ‘We didn’t finish practice. Practice started great, but it didn't end great,’” Clardy says.
Those issues came out on the gridiron during games, he says, with the team running several opponents into overtime but struggling to finish with the win.
“So the guys have been finishing practice this year,” he says. “This year, my notes are completely different.”
Among the leaders leading the charge in the team’s culture war is junior quarterback Dylan Mountain, Clardy says. A versatile athlete from Skyline High School, Mountain actually started several games as wide receiver for the Bearcats last year to help plug offensive holes on the young team.
The program is behind him under center, Clardy says.
“He’s had a great offseason and has kind of taken over the role of being our starting quarterback,” he says. “He just makes good decisions with the football and gives us the best chance to win the game.”
This year, Clardy says those receiver spots are filled by starters Jarvis Funk of Neosho and Jarrett Massie of Mount Vernon. Funk will run routes as a slot receiver, Clardy says.
“He’s one of our leaders of our offense,” he says. “He’s one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had in our program. He works his tail off and does everything we ask him to do.”
Massie saw several snaps last year as a freshman, Clardy says, and will play the outside position.
The team’s running back corps remains its deepest on the bench, he says. Sophomores Eric Knight of Mesquite, Texas, and Bryce Cabrera of Owasso, Oklahoma, will handle starting rushing duties, and the duo is backed up by three returning seniors also jostling for the position, he says.
Freshman Chance Pillar of Houston, Texas, has also caught the coach’s eye.
“He’s very, very good,” Clardy says. “He’s going to see a lot of playing time as a wide receiver and a kick returner. We’re going to do everything we can to get this guy on the field.”
While the Bearcats remain young offensively, their defense returns a group of athletes from last year, he says.
“We’re really excited about our defense,” Clardy says. “We return 10 guys that have started for us. A couple of those guys we spent last season without due to injuries.”
Senior cornerback Cory Hanger returns after earning all-region honors and leading the country in passes defended two years ago, Clardy says.
Hanger, who graduated from South Callaway High School in Mokane is an athletic force for the team, Clardy says.
“Anytime he steps on the field he’s going to be one of the best athletes,” he says.
Defensive back Asa Carter of Carson City, Nevada, and linebacker Taylor Jones-Morgan of St. Louis are also expected to step up and make plays, he says.
Jones-Morgan is a defensive leader on the team and received the most votes when the Bearcats were electing captains, he says.
Freshman defensive back Jeremiah Scroggins of West Palm Beach, Florida, is also on Clardy’s radar, he says.
“He’s a big, long kid who is just flying around, making a lot of plays, so we’re looking for him to do some things for us,” he says.
The Bearcats’ special teams are mostly new, he says, excluding junior punter Jackson Bagley of Ash Grove.
With a new attitude and a better set of practices under their belts, Clardy says the Bearcats will line up against William Jewell Saturday a changed team.
“We’re ready to get back out there and start the revenge tour,” he says.
Though the Cardinals are a conference foe, SBU first faces them in a non-conference matchup. The two teams play again at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12. The Cardinals won the last game 14-10.
SBU also plays non-conference opponent Central Washington University Saturday, Nov. 9. The game requires the team to fly into Washington before taking a bus the rest of the way to Ellensburg, Washington, Clardy says.
According to previous BH-FP coverage, SBU’s football team spent the past four seasons as part of the Strategic Conference Football Scheduling Alliance, formed in 2013 between the GLVC and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
Until this year, SBU and Lincoln University of Jefferson City were the two MIAA schools playing football only in the GLVC but in the MIAA for all remaining sports.
This year, all of SBU’s sports teams are full-time members of the GLVC.
According to previous coverage, traveling will be a big part of the Bearcats’ new conference, since the 16-member GLVC is spread out with schools in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Previous coverage states the GLVC is one of the largest college conferences in the country, with 15 schools and 22 sports played between their members. The conference was established in 1978 with schools from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio before expanding west to Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin.
The Bearcats’ home opener is against Central State University at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, in Bolivar. SBU won 54-34 the last time the two teams played in 2016.
Associate editor Jill Way contributed to this article.