A Year After Hiring, Higgins Nears Real Starting Line
One year ago Thursday, Justin Higgins stood behind a podium in the lobby of the Gambal Athletic Center and talked about a team that had no coaches. Or players. Or uniforms. Or a conference to play in. Or even games on the schedule. All the newly named football coach at Keystone College could offer that day were promises. Promises that gridiron success could be achieved at the small school in LaPlume, that it could be done with quality people, character people, calling the shots and running the plays. But, he also promised that success would come only through dues paid, and a long process traversed. Today, Higgins still won’t technically have a player on his roster until sometime in August. His team won’t play a full, varsity schedule until the fall of 2020, and the Giants might not play a home game the way they envision playing so many on fall Saturdays in the future until at least then. But even if it doesn’t look that way to the untrained eye, he maintains that the success of the Keystone football program one year after his hiring can be found in the details, by anyone willing to look for them. “It’s hard, because we have done so much in one year,” Higgins said late last week. “We still have no team and no lines on the field, so onlookers might not be able to reference that.” Hard to believe it has been a year. Even more difficult to believe that, in less than half a year, Keystone’s football team will begin playing games. As March winds down at Keystone, Higgins knows plenty has been done and plenty will need to be done to meet all of the fledgling program’s first-year goals. Although there are a few details to iron out that prevent it from being publicly released just yet, Keystone has put together its fall 2019 game schedule. The Giants will play eight games. Three against varsity teams. Three against junior varsity teams, and two others against a junior college and a prep school. Higgins and his five-person assistant coaching staff are in the midst of wrapping up a first recruiting class that stands near 60 players strong, a list that includes local standouts like Lakeland lineman Jonathan Naniewicz, Honesdale quarterback/defensive back Ethan Dunn and Scranton fullback and linebacker Brandon Crusen. By the time you’re reading these words, Higgins figures, the staff will be ready to start planning for the 2020 recruiting class. But he knows the way the first class comes together will determine plenty for the future of a Keystone program that knows how important a first impression can be. “I think our success will be built on how we retain and develop this first class,” he said. The schedule and the construction of the roster go hand-in-hand for Higgins, who understands he’s taking a bit of a different approach than some other coaches and programs just starting out have pursued. Doing his research on other programs built from the ground up, he discovered a fairly common thread: Most coaches chose to bring in as many prospective players as they could for the first season. The thought process there is fairly basic: There is strength in numbers, and a large number of players are going to see some of the challenges a new program faces, or simply take notice of how much more time and effort and dedication is needed to play college ball, and cut their personal losses before they really get started. There are always players who leave, Higgins knows. But his plan is not to outlast those losses. It’s to prevent them. Keystone garnered enough interest on the recruiting trail for Higgins to surmise he could have landed somewhere between 80 and 100 interested prospects, if he chose to do it that way. But the goal is to get 65 players for the fall, and he estimates 90 percent of them will be incoming freshmen. Fewer players for the staff to develop into college football players. More one-on-one attention for the players who are in the program to get. The less likely, Higgins hopes, the Giants will see a large number of players leaving. “ I look for guys who have high character first,” he said. “We’re going to be going through some interesting situations as a new program that some teams and players don’t have to in other programs. That character piece lends itself to what you’re going to do. Plus, we’re introducing a whole new culture to Keystone. You want great representation of that. “We also want to make sure they’re a great fit for Keystone. We want them to know who we are, what we’re about, what our expectations are. Those are really the elements we look at first. We obviously want talented football players, but if a talented football player doesn’t have those two things — high character and Keystone being a great fit for them — they probably aren’t going to be there four years anyway.” There’s still plenty to do before September and Saturday afternoon football becomes reality, and to Higgins that’s a bit of a Catch 22. There’s so much excitement about actually coaching a game after more than a year away from the sidelines, it’s easy to forget there’s still a long way to go to get this done right. But, there are some things besides the players and the uniforms and the lines on the field the outsiders can’t see that are driving Keystone College toward the starting line. They’re ordering equipment for the team, weights to fill the weight room complex that is just about completed. Soon, ground will be broken on a locker room that is expected to be completed before players arrive to start practices in August. A stadium expansion prospect still planned on campus for the 2020 season. All around him, Higgins sees things going on. Buildings. Expansion. Hope. Excitement. Progress built from just a dream, and what’s important is, he can see it. “I came into this fully knowing this was going to be a process, that we were going to have to build in stages,” he said. “We have a saying in our program: One day, one brick. It’s just the idea of, every day, we’re looking to do something positive for the program. “Every day, we’re just trying to stay on top of things and make sure we have everything we need to function heading into the fall. And, we’ll keep adding. Not everything is going to be in place year one.” A year has felt like an eyeblink for Higgins, but at times, it has felt like an eternity, too. And it’s only a start. DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.