BOZEMAN — In talking to Jerome Souers, it’s clear Northern Arizona’s longtime football coach would love to remain on the job to continue building on the success the Lumberjacks have established this year.
But this is college football, where certainty is fleeting — even after two decades.
And so, in his 20th season, Souers is on the last leg of his term at NAU, a decision that was announced in September by athletic director Lisa Campos.
Souers isn’t going out without making a final stand. Right now he has the Lumberjacks (6-3, 5-1 Big Sky) making a run at both a conference title and a berth in the FCS postseason, provided they take care of business in the season’s final two weeks.
It’s a tribute to NAU staying on point during a time of great uncertainty for both players and coaches within the program. Souers, in perhaps his best coaching effort, has managed to keep it all together.
“Honestly, it’s been really hard,” Souers said Thursday in a telephone interview with 406mtsports.com. “It’s a testament to my assistant coaches and to the players to keep their focus and to strive for the goals that we set for our team in January.
“With the exception of one game, we’re right on track. I’m proud of the fact that everybody was able to see this as adversity that they couldn’t control.
“They’re focused and not thinking about, ‘Gee, what’s next?’ or showing that they have all kinds of anxiety about what’s around the corner, even though that’s the reality of what’s going to happen. I’m really proud of the group. It’s a great group of people and that makes it easier for me.”
The Lumberjacks are preparing to host Montana State (4-5, 4-2) in a pivotal Big Sky game Saturday at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Arizona. NAU, which is tied with one-loss Weber State and Southern Utah at the top of the standings, needs to hold serve at home to keep pace in the sprint for the conference crown.
Strange timing notwithstanding, the announcement of Souers’ dismissal came after the second week of the season, a 38-20 non-league loss to Western Illinois. Souers seemed stoic while he addressed the media at that press conference.
Instead of recoiling, NAU circled the wagons and won six consecutive games to vault to the top of the league.
“We weren’t going to sacrifice the things that we worked so hard for in the offseason,” Souers said. “These guys have invested a lot. You don’t give up on those things when you have that much invested.”
The Lumberjacks’ winning streak was snapped last week with a 17-15 loss at Montana, a bizarre game that saw star quarterback Case Cookus be disqualified for a targeting penalty in the first quarter.
Still, they control their own destiny, which is where every team would like to be in November.
Souers, who spent 12 seasons as a defensive coach at Montana before taking the job at NAU in 1998, has made four playoff appearances in the previous 19 years. His 118 total wins and 82 conference victories are tops in Big Sky history.
Regardless of his situation — and regardless of what happens over the course of the remaining weeks — Souers, 59, has tried to take the high road.
“Usually when you do well you keep your job,” Souers said. “But at the same time you sit here and say, ‘Maybe it’s time for a change.’ Twenty years is a long time. Maybe this will be a good thing. I’m really trying to stay open to that possibility.
“It’s always been my job in this position to look ahead and identify adversity when it was going to come and be ready for it, and to keep the team and the coaches and everybody focused in the moment. My job is to keep the tracks clear ahead. Invariably it’s my nature to look ahead.
“There are several things that I’m trying to find positives about in all this, and one of those is that a change after 20 years is probably a really good idea for everybody. But I’m concerned for my coaches. They’re good people. They’ve worked hard. They’ve done well this year, and usually when you do that you get to keep working. And so that part of it, for all of us, is tough to manage.”
Souers and the Lumberjacks hope they have a lot more football ahead of them. After the Montana State contest, NAU travels to play Southern Utah, a game that could have major conference title implications.
When his tenure in Flagstaff does come to an end — whenever that is — Souers said he wants to find a new challenge in coaching.
“There are mixed emotions, and it’s hard to articulate what it feels like. Things are going in a different direction (at NAU) and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” he said.
“I’d like to continue coaching. I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but I don’t feel done. I feel like I could walk into something different. I think that would almost be exciting. It would be fun and different and worth pursuing. But I don’t feel done yet, if that’s what you’re supposed to feel.”