McFeely: Nicholls State's remarkable turnaround a Louisiana affair
Head coach Tim Rebowe turned Colonels from one of worst teams in country to FCS playoffs regular with homegrown talent
There are 11 colleges and universities that field NCAA Division I football teams in Louisiana. These include everything from national FBS powerhouse Louisiana State to four lower-level FBS programs in the Sun Belt, Conference USA and American Athletic leagues to six schools that compete in FCS.
Fully funded FBS schools can offer 85 scholarships. That means there are 425 scholarships available at FBS schools in Louisiana. Fully funded FCS schools can offer 63 scholarships, which can be split into partials. That means, if the FCS schools are fully funded, there are 378 scholarship equivalents available at FCS schools in Louisiana.
Louisiana, with a population of about 4.66 million people (one million less than Minnesota), has 803 Division I football scholarships available to dole out to the state's college football programs.
Tim Rebowe, the fifth-year head coach at Nicholls State, did not let this math dissuade him from proclaiming he was going to rebuild the sad-sack Colonels' program with Louisiana athletes when he took the job in late 2014. Rebowe was a former high school coach in the state and had spent many years as an assistant at Nicholls, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette before taking his first college head coaching job in Thibodaux.
(Listen to Mike McFeely break down the NDSU-Nicholls game with Colonels' beat writer Mike Gegenheimer:)
The focus on in-state talent seemed an odd limitation, given the state of Nicholls' program. The Colonels were 0-12 in 2014, ranked 246th of 252 Division I football teams in the computer-generated Sagarin ratings.
"I was here for that last game when they played Southeastern Louisiana at Thibodaux to end the year and, man, it was just one of the saddest games you've ever seen," said Mike Gegenheimer, who covers the Nicholls football team for several local newspapers. "It was a team that was completely defeated."
Southeastern Louisiana won that game 62-3, indicative of the decayed state of Nicholls. From 2013 to 2015, the Colonels lost 23 straight games and 25 of 26. That was what Rebowe took over.
Louisiana, though, is a high school football cradle. And Thibodaux is just an hour or so west of New Orleans and its suburbs, a population base that produces dozens of Division I athletes each year. Rebowe's first recruiting class consisted of 26 kids, all from Louisiana. He hasn't stopped. The coach's first three recruiting classes totaled 64 players, 58 from Louisiana. Ninety-four percent of Nicholls' current roster is from Louisiana, and most of the players are from within 100 miles of Thibodaux.
The team that takes the field Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Fargodome to play No. 1-ranked North Dakota State in the FCS playoffs is a homegrown collection of players, including 24 seniors, who turned Nicholls from one of the worst programs in the country into a two-time Southland Conference champion and three-time playoff qualifier that's won a postseason game each of the last two years.
Rebowe, the gray-haired bearded coach with a wonderful south Louisiana accent, did it his way.
"It's good players. You get yourself some good players," Rebowe said after his team beat North Dakota 24-6 in the first round of the playoffs last week. "They believe in what you're doing, they believe in each other and then they kind of take it over and run with it."
Many of the this senior class were 2016 recruits who played that fall as true freshmen. That includes standout quarterback Chase Fourcade, whose first collegiate start was against Georgia of the Southeastern Conference, ranked No. 9 at the time. The Bulldogs struggled to beat Nicholls 26-24. Fourcade's first pass was intercepted.
While he's not the most talented player for the Colonels — that honor would probably go to junior receiver Dai'Jean Dixon — Fourcade is the leader. At 6-feet and 200 pounds he's not the biggest quarterback NDSU has faced, but Fourcade is mobile and has a strong arm. He's also not afraid to lower a shoulder and take on a defender, as he showed against UND. He's the nephew of former NFL quarterback John Fourcade.
"I think the crazy thing is that as freshmen, us seniors, we knew we could leave a mark on Nicholls State football," Fourcade said after the UND game. "That's what we're doing. We just love playing."
This group of seniors has 31 victories in four years, the most wins for a class in Nicholls history. It also has two playoff victories after the program previously had only one.
The Colonels beat San Diego in a first-round game in Thibodaux last year, earning a trip to third-seeded Eastern Washington for the second round. Nicholls led 14-3 just before halftime when the Eagles blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown. Eastern Washington led just 20-14 after three quarters, but scored three straight touchdowns for a 42-14 lead in an eventual 42-21 victory. The Eagles advanced to the FCS title game, losing to the Bison.
Saturday, Nicholls will need some of the mojo it had in the first half against Eastern Washington. And the Colonels will need it for four quarters on their first trip to the Fargodome since 2005. It'll be a different environment and NDSU is favored by 28 points, according to one betting website.
"It's a special group. It's a special team that has something going on right now," Rebowe said. "They can feel it and we've got to continue it."
It'll be Nicholls' first crack at a No. 1-ranked team in Rebowe's tenure, with a chance for the Louisiana-raised seniors to end the Bison's record-tying 33-game winning streak and their reign atop the FCS.
"You want to be the best, you got to beat the best," senior defensive lineman Sully Laiche said. "As of right now, they say they are. So let's get it."