Earlier this week, Western Carolina head football coach Bill Bleil was named the 2001 Southern Conference Coach of the Year.
This honor comes after Bleil led the young Catamount squad to a fourth place finish that came as a surprise to everyone outside of the WCU locker room.
Bleil led the Cats to a 7-4 season and a 5-3 record in the Southern Conference, arguably the toughest in Division I-AA. His season included the first road wins against Chattanooga and East Tennessee State since 1992. He also notched a win over Wofford for the first time since they entered the league in 1997.
The seven-win season was only the tenth in school history and the second in 17 years. Bleil had his second winning season in five years and did it with a team that will return 16 starters next year.
All of this success comes in the midst of criticism and low expectations, but that didn’t bother the 1981 Northwestern graduate a bit.
Last season the squad finished 4-7 and many fans, or those who like to frequent the bandwagon, were quick to point the finger at Bleil. In one of the best moves they have made in recent history, the WCU athletic department gave Bleil a contract extension despite the disappointing year.
The season began with the media picking Western to finish seventh in the conference for the second straight season. In the face of critics and nay-sayers, the Catamounts put together a historic season that also leaves hope for the future.
With the Western football program on the verge of establishing a strong tradition reminiscent of the mid 1980s (when the Cats made their only appearance in the national title game) fans here in Cullowhee have one man to thank.
Bleil is just the right person to take the helm of a great program. One could not pick a better mold for a football coach. He has a great offensive system that has all but reinvented the look of the Catamount attack.
Even more than that, however, is the way he and his players get along. He does have a tough, year-round practice schedule, but this season we have a better understanding of why that is. His players believe in him because they know that he can lead them to victory.
I have never once witnessed a sideline scuffle, shouting match in the locker room or questioning of the coach’s decisions.
His great rapport with his players creates the tight atmosphere one can see in the locker room every Saturday on game day.
In the post-game interview after the Citadel game, the team’s season finale, Bleil gave credit to his senior class, the last remaining players from his 1998 6-5 season.
“This is as good a senior class as you could want to be around,” he said. “All week long we didn’t want to let them down. We had to go out there and win this game for them.”
Well, when you observe how Bleil has spent the last four years turning these young men into great players and even greater people, I’d say that it was them that had to go out there and win this game for you, coach.