Sports / The Prairie Fire / November 12, 2009

Changing of the guard

After 14 years of invading the Knosher Bowl every other week, the Andy Gibbons era of Knox College football has faded into the sunset.

In a closed-door team meeting on Monday, just 48 hours after an outmatched Knox club held its own admirably for 30 minutes against rival Monmouth in a 42-0 loss, the veteran head coach, long the iconic face of Prairie Fire pigskin, told his players that he was stepping down from his position to move into the role of defensive coordinator. Knox athletic director and current assistant football coach Chad Eisele would move into Gibbons’ old role immediately.

“I obviously evaluated this season, but I also looked at the last couple seasons,” Gibbons, who ends with a 48-89 career record, said on his decision to step down now. “There are a few family things too; the season took a big toll on me personally and kind of affected things at home. I just thought that now was the right time based on the fact that I’ve been the head coach for 14 years, and I think it’s time with the freshmen that we have and with all the other things going on with me, I thought it was the right time to have a new voice at the top.”

Eisele, a 1993 Knox graduate, assumes the role with a proven track record, amassing a 31-20 record in five years at the helm at Lake Forest College. His 2002 Foresters won the Midwest Conference title.

Gibbons’ decision is one that he says has been in the works for some time.

“I probably really started thinking about it around the Lawrence game; you always think about stuff, but we probably really started the conversation around the Lawrence game.”

“The first thing was that I wanted to know how he felt about it; football was the last thing we talked about after family and personal life,” Eisele said. “As we talked about it, I could see that was going to be the best thing. Andy and I have known each other for 18 years and are very, very good friends, and I wanted to make sure he was okay. Then we started talking football, and that’s how it moved into us swapping roles.”

The move comes following a 1-9 campaign in which the Prairie Fire waited until week nine to get its first victory – a 12-7 defensive battle over Lake Forest. The previous two seasons saw Knox finish with 3-7 records and still trying to find its first winning season since 2002.

The much-maligned defense could use Gibbons’ defensive background and focus; the 2009 Prairie Fire finished ninth in scoring defense (33.6 ppg) and tenth in total defense (410.4 ypg) in the Midwest Conference. Along with his defensive duties, Gibbons will continue playing a major role in the recruiting process.

“Right now, I have to sell and recruit like crazy on the phones. On the field, it’s making the defense a championship defense,” Gibbons said. “Statistically, we weren’t a very good defense this year, but as the year went on, we got better. My passion is defense, and my background is defense, and I’m looking forward to focusing on getting better on that side of the ball.”

To retain a sense of normalcy, assistant coach Gibbons will try to stick to what brought head coach Gibbons success.

“One of my strengths, I think, is how I treat my players and helping them to grow off the field, and I’m still going to do all that,” Gibbons said. “I’ll still be here for them, and I think that will always be one of my roles. And then obviously supporting Chad in any way I can. I have 14 years as a head coach; I’ve seen it all and done it all. And I’ll still be helping other coaches on our staff.”

Gibbons’ players have nothing but praise for the former head coach.

“The easiest way to explain why I came to play football at Knox is Coach Gibbons,” said graduating senior co-captain Maurice McDavid. “Because Coach Gibbons will be here, still be a big part of the program, it’s very good for the team.”

The Transition

In terms of college recruiting, a sea change like this can have ramifications in the recruiting process, but Knox’s recruits seem steadfast in their interest.

“The response from the recruits has been all positive so far,” Eisele said. “This is a good situation for us. I’ve recruited football for many years, and Coach Gibbons is a phenomenal recruiter so it allows us to get the best players possible.”

Weston Chenoweth, a fullback recruit, is a prime example of the steadfastness of the recruits’ attitudes.

“When I first heard it, I was scared,” said Chenoweth, a senior co-captain and valedictorian at Canton High School in Canton, Ill. “Knox was the only place I was really looking at the moment. I was excited to hear that offer from Knox, and to hear two days later that [Gibbons] stepped down was a scary moment.”

A phone call from newly appointed head coach Eisele put Chenoweth at ease.

“The phone call made me feel comfortable that I still had a spot in the offense where they could use me. I’m still excited about it, and Coach Eisele’s phone call really helped my early fears.”

Current players admit to experiencing a similar shock at first, but are also optimistic that the move has the best interests of the program at heart.

“Being a freshman, I thought it was going to be an end of the year speech in summary, but as he got further in, it became obvious what was going to happen,” Nathan Williams, a freshman safety recruited by Gibbons just one year ago, said. “I think it’s safe to say that none of the players really knew it was coming, and by the looks on some of the coaches’ faces, I’m not sure they did either.

“But I am excited to start a new era. I think it’s going to bring a fresh start to the program and accelerate everything as a whole.”

As far as Eisele’s new, more labor-intensive role within the athletic department, while there may be administrative help coming to help the new coach fill his double role, others with roles that could be directly affected by the move do not see a big change in their own roles.

“I don’t know. I feel like I do extra as it is, and I’m not the only one,” said head volleyball coach Kim Schrader, who also serves as the assistant to the athletic director. “But I tend not to look at it in terms of my day-to-day responsibilities. To me, if this makes the football program better, it makes us all better as a department.”

“We all wear multiple hats around here; most of us have two roles,” Eisele said. “The administration knows that I’m still here [as athletic director] and that I care about all 21 sports, not just football, and that’s going to continue. And they know my ultimate goal is to make Knox College athletics the best athletic department it can be.”

Eisele knows there are many challenges to his new role beyond just the normal pressures.

“There’s a lot of time involved and that’s something that, personally, I have to put in more hours. In the fall, I’m not an assistant anymore. I’m the head coach, so I have to continue meeting with coaches and players to make sure that things are going the way they need to go. I’m going to get help administratively, so that will help ease my roles as athletic director, as well. I’m still going to make it to all the volleyball matches and basketball games and so on that I can get to.”

The Best for Both Sides

In every public statement since Monday’s changing, both Eisele and Gibbons have stressed that this was Gibbons’ decision; that the decision for him to step down was made of his own volition, and that neither the administration nor Eisele pushed Gibbons out the door. And since Gibbons made that decision, it has been smooth sailing for all involved.

“Chad showed that he was interested [in the job], and when we went to the administration and when the whole thing worked out, it just seemed like the whole thing was meant to be this way,” Gibbons said.

“It’s been 14 years, 14 years, that I’ve been the voice at the top, and I’m looking forward to stepping back into the background and working like crazy to make Knox football better.”

And both Gibbons and Eisele stress that their friendship and mutual trust have played a big role in how well things have gone, considering the circumstances.

“With Andy and my relationship, there’s no huge ego,” Eisele said. “I trust him; he trusts me. Our only goal and objective is to make Knox College football successful. Our kids want to win, and we want to do whatever we can to make that happen. With their hard work and our hard work, we will win.”

Considering how rare it is in college football today that a head coach on the way out stays around, this situation, in which malice has been shown towards none, has been an incredibly different state of affairs for a program at a school which, before this week, had hired new head coaches for 12 athletic teams in the past three years.

“It’s different, but I think I’m different,” Gibbons said. “I don’t have a huge ego, and I love Knox football; I want to stay a part of Knox football, and I knew with Chad and our relationship that this could work, and I felt that I could step to the background and be the best assistant that he could possibly have, with my experience. It doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit when this thing gets turned around. It just matters that it happens.”

For now, though, Gibbons is thankful for his Knox experience so far and is ready for a new chapter.

“I have a great memory; I remember so many different plays and so many different people. I’ve just been very lucky. And I know the record isn’t awesome, but I’ve just been very lucky with the quality of players and the character and the coaches I’ve had the opportunity to work with the last 14 years.

“I’m really at peace with this. To me, the most important thing is getting Knox football going, and I really believe that I can help that best now by stepping into the background and helping Coach Eisele, who is a proven winner, make a lot of new, good moments.”

Eisele, on the other hand, is honored to get a chance of this magnitude at his alma mater.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s more than a dream come true. It really didn’t hit me until Monday after we told the team, and I’m excited about it. I have a great passion for Knox College and for the game of football, and I look forward to being a part of both for many years to come.”

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