In the spring of 2012, Citadel football coach Kevin Higgins had an offer to become offensive coordinator at a Big Ten school.
KEVIN HIGGINS ERA
Kevin Higgins' record at Citadel:
Year Overall SoCon
2005 4-7 2-5
2006 5-6 4-3
2007 7-4 4-3
2008 4-8 2-6
2009 4-7 2-6
2010 3-8 1-7
2011 4-7 2-6
2012 7-4 5-3
2013 5-7 4-4
Total 43-58 26-43
"We had a team meeting, and he broke down and cried," Bulldogs quarterback Ben Dupree recalled. "He said he wanted to be with us."
Two seasons later, the Bulldogs had another emotional meeting Monday afternoon. This time, Higgins told his players he was leaving after nine years at the military school, to be an assistant coach at Wake Forest.
New Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, who worked for Higgins at Lehigh University, has hired Higgins as his assistant head coach and wide receiver coach with the Demon Deacons of the ACC. It will be the first time Higgins has coached at the FBS level.
"That decision was really hard," said Higgins, who leaves The Citadel with a 43-58 record, including two winning seasons of 7-4 in 2007 and 2012. "We've had so many good kids here, and you sat in their living rooms and told them about your vision for what they were going to do. And then you have to leave. This was my second time having to do that, and it's not easy."
Citadel players expressed shock via Twitter on Monday morning as the news broke.
"He said it hurt to leave us," said slotback Tyler Renew, a rising sophomore who was among about half the team that was able to attend a Monday meeting with Higgins. "But the guys understand, he's a good coach who's been offered jobs before. It's a shock he's leaving, but not a shock that someone would offer him a good job."
The difference between the opportunity at Wake Forest and the one two years ago was a matter of timing, Higgins said.
"The one thing I wanted was to make sure that when I left, the program was in a solid position for the next person," he said. "I think the foundation has been built, and I'm excited for the next guy to step into one of the top (FCS) jobs in the country. I really believe that."
Higgins had a record of 34-4 in his final three seasons at Lehigh from 1998-2000 before leaving to work for the Detroit Lions in the NFL. But he was never able to match that success at The Citadel. He went 7-4 in his third season in 2007 with a spread attack that featured quarterback Duran Lawson and tailback Tory Cooper, but won only four games each of the next two years.
After the 2009 season, Higgins made the decision to return to the triple-option offense similar to the one the Bulldogs ran during their 1990s heyday under former coach Charlie Taaffe.
That era peaked with a 7-4 mark in 2012, and the Bulldogs had hopes for competing for a SoCon title in 2013. But The Citadel began the season with a 32-29 upset loss to Charleston Southern, and lost five games by a total of 22 points on the way to a 5-7 season.
"No, I have no regrets," said Higgins, who won his last two games against SoCon power Appalachian State, but went 0-9 against Wofford and lost twice to Charleston Southern. "We would have liked to win more games. The goal coming in was to win a championship. We didn't do that, but I'll be rooting for the next guy to get one, because I know what it will mean to the alums here."
Higgins did much to rebuild the football program at The Citadel, overseeing improvements to facilities and infrastructure that will serve the program well for years to come. He was the third Citadel coach in three years and fourth in six years when he was hired in 2005.
"There was so much instability at the place, and we were able to bring some stability back and get a foundation in place that had not been there," he said. "There were so many needs from a facilities standpoint, and we were able to restructure The Citadel Football Association and bring some more money in."
Citadel athletic director Larry Leckonby last week offered Higgins an extension through the 2015 season, but that was not enough to sway him from taking the Wake Forest job.
"It was a little bit of a surprise," Leckonby said of Higgins' decision. "We talked last week about his future here, about a contract extension. We met (Monday morning) and I gave it one last try to see if we could keep him here. We wish him all the best and look for success out of Wake Forest in the ACC."
Leckonby said he will appoint an "advisory committee," but will handle most of the work of hiring The Citadel's 24th coach himself. Meanwhile, the players will wait to learn the identity of their new coach.
"We'll try to stay positive and not let it get us down," Renew said. "We've just got to focus on getting ready for the next season."