Higgins has changed heart of Bulldogs

In his third year, head coach Kevin Higgins has brought excitement and a new attitude to Citadel football.

Three years ago Kevin Higgins held his first football practice at The Citadel and was completely underwhelmed by what he saw.

Gray uniforms. Gray attitudes.

"I couldn't believe it," Higgins said of the first week of practice back in 2005. "It was like we were coaching robots. There was no emotion. No excitement. The game of football is meant to be played with excitement."

The lack of emotion among the Bulldogs players stunned Higgins, who thought he knew what he was getting into when he took the job at the military school.

"I went over to the president's office and had a sit-down with (then-president) Gen. John Grinalds and asked him point blank if he could help me with this," Higgins said earlier this week. "I'd never been around players in my life who didn't show emotion."

That's when Grinalds shared some insight with Higgins about the psyche of The Citadel football player.

"He said that you have to understand what they are being taught in the barracks," Higgins recalled. "They are being taught, in preparation for war, that you don't want to show emotion. That you have to make sure you keep your poise all the time. What you're doing on the football field is really opposite of what's being taught."

Play with passion

With that knowledge, Higgins set about changing the way he and his staff approached the game of football as it pertained to his players' daily lifestyle.

It didn't happen overnight, of course.

Nothing does at The Citadel.

But slowly and surely Higgins has brought a different attitude to the Bulldogs football program, one that is beginning to show a difference on the football field.

In his first season The Citadel was 4-7.

The next the Bulldogs were 5-6.

This year they are 5-2, tied for first place in the Southern Conference and looking like a team that finally found its inner Bulldog.

"We've tried to get our players to separate their time in academics and the Corps with their time in football," Higgins said. "We want them to understand that you can't be good unless you're playing with passion."

Higgins said he grew to understand that the life of a cadet at The Citadel is challenging and that it would take a sea of change to improve their plight on the football field.

"They're up at 6:30 every morning, wearing gray uniforms all day, going to lunch and formations then coming out on the practice field where we're asking them to do things differently," Higgins said. "So I think how we teach our players is important."

Higgins said cadets are used to being yelled and screamed at each and every day. Our assessment was that our methods had to be different.

To that end, Higgins applied the experience he gained while serving four years as an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions in the NFL. And it has worked.

A tighter ship

"Coach Higgins definitely runs a lot tighter ship," was the way Mike Adams, The Citadel's fifth-year kicker, explained things.

He should know. Like some of his fellow Bulldogs, he's seen three head coaches in his college career.

"It was hard to adjust, it really was," Adams said. "There was a lot of moaning and griping. A ton of it. I'm not going to sugar-coat it at all, because guys were saying, hey, this isn't how it was before."

That would be under Ellis Johnson, a former Citadel player who Adams said tried to protect the players from life in the barracks. He was followed by John Zernhelt, whom Adams said was a great offensive line coach, but was not comfortable as a head coach.

But when Higgins hit campus, things changed.

"We were stuck thinking about how things used to be," Adams said. "Now we're finally reaping the benefits and realizing this is what championships teams do. Helping us realize that has really helped the team grow."

Change the culture

Unlike other colleges, Citadel athletes aren't pampered and always have to answer to their peers back in the barracks.

Now, according to players and coaches, their toughest critics, members of the Corps of Cadets, are taking note of their winning and getting behind the football team. The excitement is contagious.

"One of the things we had to do was change the hearts and change the culture of the guys here," Higgins said. "Making those changes starts with giving those players a vision."

That vision not only includes winning games, but having a winning season and winning a Southern Conference championship, something The Citadel hasn't done since 1992.

"As we've been able to accomplish some of our goals, we've seen there is more life in our players, more emotion and more excitement," Higgins said. "They have to take it into their hearts. And I believe they have."

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598.