Gazzolo: McNeese program needs change, just how much is the question

At halftime last night, we got a quick look at the past.

While being honored for their achievements, some of the players of the 1997 McNeese State football team stood proudly before the crowd at Cowboy Stadium during a halftime ceremony that remembered their glory days.

It is this group of players who came one point away from winning the national championship, falling to Youngstown State 10-9 in the title game.

This was the perfect moment to remember a time when the Cowboys were close if not at the top of the I-AA football world.

But as you looked at the players and remembered the history, you also could not help but have your mind wander into the future and just where this McNeese State program is headed.

It has been three years and counting since the Cowboys last made the playoffs, a decade since they’ve won a postseason game.

However, that too is in the past. It is the future that matters most now.

Saturday night, the Cowboys said good-bye to another playoff-less campaign with an easy 35-0 victory over Lamar. It was a feel-good beating of a local rival that will leave a nice taste in the mouth of both fans and players alike.

But, it is one that just whets the whistle. For this was a season that had all the promise of a five-course meal, especially after an inspiring 3-0 start.

When this season began, we said these Cowboys and the program had a lot of questions and we hoped to find the answers. Eleven games later the answers are really hard to come by, and a good portion of the questions remain.

McNeese did improve to 7-4 with the thumping of Lamar, which is one game better then each of the previous two seasons. They did win the first three games, including two against FBS foes, and yet the season seems empty, as if so much more was expected.

That is because this was a year of close calls.

A pair of blown fourth-quarter leads led to two one-point defeats. If either one of those outcomes had been reversed this might have been a playoff team. If both, clearly the postseason would have been theirs.

Instead of stuffing themselves with turkey this Thanksgiving, the Cowboys would have been prepping for the playoffs.

But how we judge a successful season is the key. Nineteen of McNeese’s 22 seniors will graduate this year. That’s improvement in ways that can never be measured by the number of touchdowns, first downs or sacks this group produced. But, is it enough for the fans who seem to care more about records then achievements?

“Seven and four is better than 6-5, but it’s not the playoffs,” said head coach Matt Viator. “This is a great group of kids.”

A lot of programs are littered with good kids, McNeese’s past is a tradition of winning, one Viator has been a major part of both as a player and coach. And he sounds like a man ready to fix the problem.

“We have to recruit, rebuild,” he said, sounding like somebody who has a plan.

So what exactly does this all mean?

For some, the glass would appear half full. They could say the Cowboys not only finished with a better record but were oh-so-close to perhaps a special season, one that could turn the program back into one of the nation’s elite.

Others will say it is half empty, that the team was only slightly better and that when given a chance at returning to glory, they simply let victory slip away. To them, no playoffs means no playoffs.

Both would be accurate, yet it seems the fans want even more.

A few of the so-called faithful have taken to the Internet and proclaimed it is time for big changes. They, of course, offer up no answers to what those changes would be, hiding behind their computer screens.

Yes, you could fire the entire coaching staff, but then you are starting all over. And just who is out there for what McNeese is willing to pay, and are they any better than what is in place?

Without the answer to those questions, you can’t really believe gutting the program is the right thing to do, especially if those who believe the glass is half full are correct.

If so, smashing the glass into little pieces may make you feel better for a moment, but in the end it really only leaves a bigger mess to clean up.

Clearly, the Cowboys have fallen into the middle of the pack in the Southland Conference. Even Viator would agree 19-14 over the last three seasons isn’t good enough.

“We have to get better,” he said.

That leaves us with tweaking the program, and that never seems to satisfy anybody. Yet in this case it just might be the right thing to do.

Short of a big-money alum walking into the office of Athletic Director Tommy McClelland and dropping down a giant check and shouting “fix it now,” it will be a lot of little things that will prove to pay big dividends for McNeese’s future.

So it is up to Viator to do the dirty work. He and his staff must take a long, hard look at how and who they are recruiting, and just how they are coaching them once they get into the program. It is time for all to look even longer in the mirror.

A full system overhaul cannot be recommended until a complete system analysis is concluded.

Can Viator fix this? By all accounts he is a smart guy, nice and willing to do the work. That, of course, doesn’t mean he can.

Does Viator deserve at least one more year to try and turn this around? Most likely, however that’s not up to me.

One thing is for sure: if the same questions are still being asked in a year or two, that is one answer that could be different.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at