Stockstill has big plans to build Middle Tennessee

August 18, 2010

Rick Stockstill remembers the almost unanimous reaction from his coaching buddies to his decision to stay at Middle Tennessee and reject job offers - and big pay raises - from East Carolina and Memphis during the offseason.

''Nobody said, 'You did the right thing,''' Stockstill said with a chuckle. ''And I've got a lot of friends in this profession, a lot of great people. But most of them were saying, 'What are you thinking?'''

Stockstill is thinking he can build Middle Tennessee into a national program.

And with good reason.


He's at the state's largest university and the only program in Tennessee coming off a bowl win. Stockstill, the quarterback who arrived at Florida State in Bobby Bowden's second year, is following his old coach's blueprint. Stockstill firmly believes he can build into a national program like Louisville and Boise State.

''There was never a doubt in my mind that it couldn't be done here,'' Stockstill said.

Still, it's rare a college coach turns down an opportunity for more money from a school in a higher-profile conference.

Stockstill did receive a $200,000 pay hike from Middle Tennessee, pushing his salary to $469,155 in 2010. But he would have received nearly twice that at either ECU or Memphis.

Ruffin McNeill wound up with a five-year deal that could pay him $1 million a year at East Carolina, and Memphis was paying Tommy West about $950,000 annually before firing him.

Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit has been good friends with Stockstill since 1985 when both worked at UCF. He has never heard a bad word said about his friend and wasn't shocked at all by his decision.

''His relationships in his life are far, far more important than money. I know the family situation with his children, his relationship with the players and I know he loves his athletic director,'' Cubit said. ''There's more to life than just going into potentially bad spots just because of money.''

Count South Florida coach Skip Holtz, who listed Stockstill's name among his recommendations to replace him at East Carolina, among those surprised.

''I thought it would've been a good move personally, and I think he would've done a great job there. He's a hell of a football coach. Rick and I have been friends for a long time, and we'll continue to remain friends. I'm not angry at him, nor do I think he made a mistake. That was his decision. He felt like, for whatever reason, that was in his best interest,'' Holtz said.

The reasons are plenty. The Blue Raiders are coming off their second bowl in Stockstill's four seasons. He has 14 starters back from a 10-3 team that received votes in The Associated Press' final poll. His family is happy living in this booming town 30 miles southeast of Nashville.

And how can he preach unselfishness to players without living it himself?

''I was only going to take that job for financial reasons, and to me that wasn't enough to justify what I stand for from a character and integrity standpoint to leave,'' Stockstill said.

He turned down Memphis last November because his Blue Raiders were on a winning streak that reached seven straight with a 42-32 win at the New Orleans Bowl.

When news leaked that East Carolina wanted him to visit, Stockstill's players nearly killed his telephone with text messages and voicemails. Defensive tackle Dwight Smith was scared they had lost Stockstill, reading the reports and knowing what was being offered. Safety Jeremy Kellem worried he'd be saddled with a new coach for his senior season.

''I realized this is a business ... He loves us like sons, but he has a real family, his wife and kids, so he has to make decisions on what's best for his kids and family. If he left, I would've understood,'' Kellem said.

His decision to stay now provides the best motivation possible for a program looking to win its first outright Sun Belt Conference title.

''That makes us appreciate him more and want to work for him harder,'' Smith said.

Athletic director Chris Massaro thought he had lost Stockstill, someone he had watched for years while working at South Carolina with the coach a key rival at Clemson. He hired Stockstill in 2005, and the men have worked closely trying to build a program that jumped up from Division I-AA in 1999.

Yes, he gave Stockstill that pay raise. But he said they talked more about scheduling, recruiting and other improvements.

''He doesn't have the big ego,'' Massaro said. ''He doesn't need all the adulation. He wants security. He wants to be appreciated and those kind of things. But he is a very low-maintenance, very smart guy that knows his values and stays true to himself.''

Stockstill was part of Bowden's teams that beat Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Ohio State and Nebraska and watched as Florida State's 35,000-seat stadium grew to 85,000 with the Seminoles competing for national titles.

Stockstill already has coached his Blue Raiders to consecutive wins over Maryland. He doesn't back down from tough opponents, traveling to Kentucky, Louisville and LSU with a roster that has grown from a low of 69 scholarship players to 81 in 2009. Minnesota visits Sept. 2 to open the 2010 season before an anticipated sellout crowd.

''I believe Middle Tennessee can get there. Will we ever have an 85,000-seat stadium?'' Stockstill said. ''I hope so. But that's my dream. That's my goal.''