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McNeese State head football coach Matt Viator. (Associated Press)

McNeese State head football coach Matt Viator. (Associated Press)

Viator weathers storm, gets Cowboys back to where they belong

Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2013 10:06 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

The buzzards may not have been circling, but they were starting to make flight plans.

At least we know the Internet was a buzz as the blogging world put a target on Matt Viator’s back.

It’s hard to say just how hot the seat under the McNeese State football coach was after last year, but we do know it was heating up.

Three straight years without making the playoffs and a decade since the school’s last playoff win had fans restless to angry, depending on their level of worry.

This despite Viator never having a losing record and being the third winningest coach in McNeese history.

“I didn’t hear any of that and I certainly didn’t worry about it,” Viator said.

But many wondered if the Cowboys would ever get back into the elite status of the nation’s Football Championship Subdivision.

Instead of getting caught about in all the wind surrounding him, Viator went to work on fixing the problems.

“After last season we looked at things we have been doing that worked and things that we have been doing that don’t,” Viator said. “We as a coaching staff then made some changes that we needed to make.”

He elected to treat the troubles like the captain of a ship that was taking on some water but far from sinking.

“You look back at last year and you see we were 7-4 but lost two games in the closing seconds,” he said. “Win either one of those and we are probably in the playoffs. Win both and we have a home game in the first round and maybe even a bye.

“We didn’t feel like we were that far off.”

It was a message he sent to his players, who bought into the words.

“McNeese didn’t go anywhere,” said senior Chris Loveless during the season. “We have always been a good team.”

That was Viator’s message after last year. He didn’t want to buy a new car just because he felt it needed an oil change.

“I told the kids I have to do a littler better job, the other coaches have to do a little better job and you players have to do a little better job,” he said. “If we do that everything will work itself out.

“This year we finished the deal.”

By doing that, Viator is once again the toast of Cowboyland.

His team is 10-2 and enjoying a bye this weekend as the FCS playoffs begin. They earned the No. 6 seed and thus will host a second-round game next Saturday.

“This is where McNeese should be, back in the playoffs,” Viator said. “I’m happy for the kids, the fans, everybody involved in the program. This school has a great football tradition, I am happy to be a part of it.”

He always stops short of talking about what the turnaround means to him personally. He deflects attention even if his record is a direct reflection on his abilities.

But don’t ever look past the fact that this is a very tough competitor who wants to win as bad as anybody even if he shows little emotion on the sidelines.

And this year shows he is willing to learn from past mistakes.

Unlike recent years, Viator limited the number of freshmen he redshirted this fall, keeping more active and ready to both practice and play if needed. They have been used, too.

That has helped keep practices more lively and players heathier.

“It was something we had to do,” Viator said. “We have to be willing to make the changes needed to keep going.”

This was all part of his way of keeping the Cowboys atop a league that was changing and improving with each season. No longer could McNeese sit still and wait for everybody to come to them. The days of dominating the Southland Conference by reputation alone were long gone.

“There is no question the league has gotten better and better,” Viator said. “It has forced us to get better.”

He seems to like the competition, too.

After pounding on Lamar for the three years since the Cardinals brought back football, McNeese had to fight to the very end last week to win in Beaumont, Texas, coming from behind 42-38.

The win kept alive the hopes of a bye and home game. However, at the end Viator didn’t seem stressed but rather enjoyed the moment.

“That was exciting,” he said. “This was fun game to play.”

As for all those who were starting to come after him, he always remembered special words from his father.

“Thick skin, short memory,” he said. “Don’t worry about what others say and forget what happened and move on.”

He claims that is all part of the job of being the head football coach at McNeese, where winning has been a tradition.

“You want to be at a place with high expectations,” Viator said. “I have high expectations, our players have high expectations. That is a good thing. You don’t want to be at a place that doesn’t care if you win or lose.

“That is why you come to McNeese.”

It does mean you have to weather a few storms along the way, or maybe just a flock of buzzards getting ready for action.

For now, the skies above Viator’s head are clear of any foul-minded birds.

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