The final season of the NCAA Division I transition has finally arrived at the University of South Dakota. And with a spot in the ultra-competitive Missouri Valley Football Conference--and the Summit League for all other sports--already secured, excitement is running rampant in Vermillion.
The Coyotes were 4-7 in 2010, the first losing season in Ed Meierkort's seven years as head coach. But with 21 seniors and 19 starters returning, Meierkort says the Coyotes are going all-in in 2011.
Q. You get defending FCS national champion Eastern Washington, and you get them at your place. How big is this game for the program?
A. This is probably the premier game of our transition. Any time you can get the national champs to come to your place, without a return date, that’s a great job. Dave Sayler and Dave Herbster put a lot of time into it, and this is going to be a real treat for the home folks here. It’ll give us a good measuring stick of where we’re at in year four.
Q. You’ve almost completed the journey. Is it a relief?
A. It's a tremendous relief. I am a lot grayer than I was when we started. It’s different. We lost, early on, the rivalries that everyone craves; conference affiliation was different. All of the sudden you’re playing teams with no affiliation to this area, traveling to anywhere in God’s creation to play a football game. And our kids have been battling. But it’s hard to convince people from the Midwest that when you play a team like Cal-Poly or Cal-Davis, they’re really good teams. They want to see you play South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, somebody they understand. Now that we’re in year four, next year we’re out of purgatory, national playoff eligible and in the Missouri Valley, that’s going to be fantastic.
Q. How had recruiting changed? Are you seeing more excitement about the future at USD?
A. The first couple of years you get beat up a little bit because your kids are only going to be able to play in one year of national playoffs. Now, after the third and fourth year, that’s really not even an issue anymore. Now that we’re in a league again, that everybody identifies, people are excited about this. You know who your recruiting battles are against. It’s going to be Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, South Dakota State. As you get a little bit further east, you’re going to run into the Illinois schools. It opens up windows to kids you’ve never had before.
Q. Considering your schedule and the players you have coming back, what are your expectations for 2011?
A. We have high expectations. We went through, what I think was, a tougher schedule a year ago. Last year, not only do we have Minnesota and Central Florida, we had five teams in the top 25. We played extremely well, but got wore down in it. A lot of people forget we were in the top 25 as late as six or seven weeks into the season. We got wore out mentally. We need to do a better job coaching these kids through that. We became a lot tougher mentally.
I will not judge our team on our game at Air Force. I’m certainly not going to judge our team on the Wisconsin game. Those are paydays, we’re going to play hard. Magic happened last year when we beat Minnesota. Lightning probably isn’t going to strike again, but you just never know. Eastern Washington is a tremendous measuring stick and then we have a Great West title to go win. That’s the only title that this school hasn’t won yet. We need to get that done. It’s important for these 21 seniors that I have, to end their careers here as champions.
Q. How much do you feel like this program owes that group of seniors?
A. The University of South Dakota owes these kids a ton. Yes, they got an education here and they’re going to come out with a great degree. These kids love going to the University of South Dakota and they’re going to be very prosperous graduates. But a lot of things, national playoff appearances, the ability to compete against rivals, those were missed. For these guys to be the pioneers, those are the ones who need to be remembered down the stretch.
Q. Will anything less than a conference championship be a failure?
A. We’re not a transition team anymore. There are no excuses. We’ve got to be ready to play and represent. And this conference championship is up for grabs. Southern Utah won the conference championship last year. They were 1-4 at one time and down 20-7 at halftime, on the road, to North Dakota. They were either going to tank it, or push the gas. They ended up winning out. That’s how quickly things can turn when you have a team that just hangs in there.
USD opens the season at Air Force on Sept. 3. It's the first of two FBS opponents on the Coyotes' schedule, with the otherbeing a Sept. 24 trip to Wisconsin. Both are big games for the University in terms of exposure. But, as stated above, Meierkort sees them as "paydays." According to the head coach, USD's marquee matchup will come on Sept. 10 when reigning FCS national champion Eastern Washington comes to the DakotaDome. And you'll be able to see it live on Midco Sports Network, which will also televise the Nov. 12 contest against Division II foe, Missouri S&T.
- Sept. 10: Eastern Washington vs. USD, 4 p.m.
- Nov. 12: Missouri S&T vs. USD, 12 p.m.
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