LAKE CHARLES — Gary Goff was hired to rebuild the once-proud McNeese football program.
The Hal Mumme disciple arrived in Lake Charles with a ton of fanfare. Goff’s resume was filled with successful projects, rebuilding one program and maintaining another where he won conference titles and played for a national title. Yes, it was done on a lower level — Division II — but the handiwork checked out.
Yet, in two years of serving as the lead contractor in the massive renovation project that is Cowboy football, the program doesn’t even appear to have its foundation for future success poured yet.
Goff just completed the most dreadful season in McNeese football history, and it’s not even remotely close.
The 1-10 record is the lowest win total since the program’s very first season in 1940, and the lone victory didn’t occur on the field but courtesy of Northwestern State canceling its season.
This was supposed to be the breakout season.
After winning his final three games last season, Goff seemed to have momentum heading into his second full recruiting cycle. Yes, there was going to be an overhaul of talent as 57 new players were on the roster but the expectations were at least a foundation season.
No one believed McNeese was going to hoist its 15th conference championship and make the FCS playoffs for a 17th time, but it was at least going to take a step in the right direction.
Inexplicably, the team has gotten worse under Goff.
McNeese was actually a more efficient team on offense and more competitive under Frank Wilson, who went a combined 7-11 in the spring and fall seasons of 2021 — right after the hurricanes.
The Cowboys averaged more points (26 & 24 compared to 22 & 19), and more offensive yards per game (400 & 347 compared to 345 & 321) under Wilson. The Cowboys’ touchdown to interception was also dramatically better (24 to 6) under Wilson compared to Goff (20 to 28).
Wilson is an phenomenal recruiter but was never considered a great head coach. Nor did he have the previous head coaching success as Goff did, yet he did a better job in two seasons.
McNeese’s problems are numerous, a defense that has been awful at stopping the run, and a leaky offensive line. Not to mention the Cowboys were outscored 202 to 78 in the second half of games this season.
The biggest factor in Goff’s failed rebuild is that he doesn’t have the right tool — a suitable quarterback — to run his Air Raid offense.
Despite taking four quarterbacks out of the portal in two seasons, including two from the FBS level, none of them have worked out. Not one. Is it bad luck or is there some sort of flaw in Goff’s evaluation of quarterbacks, of not only how they can lead his offense but if they are truly committed to the program? Those are both legitimate questions.
There is a sliver of hope in a hopeless season in true freshman quarterback Kam Sixkiller — if that isn’t the name of the perfect McNeese quarterback then I don’t know what it is. The Norman, Oklahoma native showed promise in two games and could be the guy Goff has desperately been searching for.
Goff is also struggling with keeping his players, many of whom he recruited himself.
In addition to the revolving door of quarterbacks, he saw starting cornerback Twillie Lovette, starting wide receiver Jalon Johnson, and starting kick returner Cam Thomas walk off the job site for differing reasons early in the season.
In the days since the season ended, more Cowboys have announced on social media that they were entering the NCAA Transfer Portal, including redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jon McCall (who led the team in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns) and starting punter Callum Eddings.
So he will be retooling the roster yet again. To be fair, many coaches across the college football landscape are being forced to do the same thing, but for a coach trying to build stability losing players is a setback.
Goff is a smart coach and he knows offense. He played quarterback for both Mumme and the late Mike Leach at Valdosta State, and then coached under Mumme at Southeastern Louisiana and later at New Mexico State.
He led his alma mater Valdosta State to 22 wins in two years, winning back-to-back Gulf South Conference titles, and made the program’s sixth NCAA National Championship appearance.
Goff also has turned things around before, as he did at Tiffin University. He has proven that he can not only build a winner from the ground up but that he can do the maintenance of keeping a program a winner. Yet, it hasn’t happened in Lake Charles.
At first glance, Goff’s tenure may look as bad as when NSU hired LSU assistant coach Bradley Dale Peveto in 2009. He was supposed to elevate the program from barely hovering above the .500 mark to the promised land. Instead, it cratered.
That first season the Demons went 0-11 and have never recovered — as the team hasn’t had a winning season since then. Goff’s tenure so far doesn’t feel like that but it is getting close.
But McNeese also finds itself below Houston Christian University which was one of the worst programs in the SLC, routinely winning one or two games a year. This season HCU, which plays in a stadium connected to an actual CVS, went 5-5.
Yes, McNeese is currently worse than a program that began football in 2013. Not optimal.
McNeese Director of Athletics Heath Schroyer has decided to give Goff another year to start building a winner, but he isn’t too pleased with his renovation project being widely behind schedule and one that may prevent the university from reaching its ultimate goal.
Schroyer has been able to have a ton of money poured into the program.
The $31 million press box construction project began this summer, a project that will also feature a 1,700 square-foot sky club and 25 suites, and a new million-dollar locker room was also unveiled this summer. Schroyer also bestowed his lead contractor of the football program the richest contract in Cowboy history.
Schroyer masterfully led Cowboy athletics out of not one but two devastating hurricanes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and has helped repair relationships with former star players and powerful boosters — the ones with deep pockets that helped rebuild the Legacy Center.
Schroyer also shrewdly positioned McNeese as the most powerful institution in the Southland Conference, as several championship events are now hosted in Lake Charles. He did all of that while also openly stating his intentions to move McNeese up to the FBS level.
With having one of the nation’s Top 40 softball programs, a baseball team that routinely gets to NCAA Regionals, and then making a splash with former LSU head coach Will Wade to guide the men’s basketball team, McNeese has all the elements in place to make the jump.
All except for one, a decent football program.
Any dream of having the football program help McNeese athletics into a more exclusive development, like Conference USA, now seems to be a long shot.
The programs that have made the jump from FCS to FBS, all have proper funding and facilities but also have success on the gridiron making the FCS playoffs and playing for national titles.
James Madison (two runner-ups and one title in six years), Sam Houston State (2020 national champs), and Jacksonville State (national runner-up in 2015) have already transitioned.
Kennesaw State — which joins the conference in 2024 — made the second round of playoffs four times from 2017 to 2021, and Delaware, which will be joining the conference in 2025, advanced to the FCS semifinals in 2020.
McNeese hasn’t made the FCS playoffs since 2015 and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002 when the team last played for the national title.
The reality is that McNeese is not closer to building a championship team today under Goff than it was the day Matt Viator left for ULM in 2015. It feels farther away than maybe it has ever been.
Goff no doubt deserves another year to rebuild the McNeese football program but whether or not he can do it remains to be seen.
Raymond Partsch III is the co-host of “RP3, D-Loh & Meche” which is broadcast weekdays (11-1) on ESPN 103.7 Lafayette and 104.1 Lake Charles — Southwest Louisiana’s Sports Station.