It's not often that you hear the phrase "national brand" when talking to the head coach of a mid-major basketball program. But based on Stephen F. Austin's recent run of success, new head coach Kyle Keller is optimistic that he can turn the Lumberjacks into a brand similar to Gonzaga and Wichita State.
In fact, that's a program-wide goal.
The Lumberjacks' impressive run began with Keller’s coaching processors Danny Kaspar (2000-13) and Brad Underwood (2013-16). Underwood won three straight Southland Conference titles during his tenure and recently took over at Oklahoma State.
"A lot of people say 'you took over the hardest job in America,'" Keller said. "Nobody is going to go 89-13 again over three years. But as a coach, why would you take a job where you’re not expected to win?"
He added: "I’d much rather have my challenges than a lot of other coaches'."
Keller laid out his blueprint for national success, saying, "the key is to get games on television and continue to build the brand of Stephen F. Austin basketball."
He added that another key is having a strong non-conference schedule, and he says that SFA is "gonna go heavy" when it comes to scheduling opponents, even if that means a few out-of-conference losses.
"We may not have the same record as with Underwood, and that’s ok," he said. "We’ll still have the opportunity to win our league and play in the NCAA tournament."
The process of becoming a national brand has also given Keller and the Lumberjacks a recruiting advantage.
"When I was making phone calls, kids knew who we were," Keller said of his first recruiting efforts at his new job. "Recruiting was pretty easy."
Keller took the Stephen F. Austin job after working as an assistant for two decades at elite programs. He coached at Kansas and Texas A&M, and is a permanent fixture in the history of Oklahoma State. While an assistant for the Cowboys, he was supposed to be on that plane that famously crashed and claimed the lives of two players, six members of the coaching staff, broadcasters and the two pilots. Shortly before the flight, however, he was asked to switch seats so he could get home earlier to prepare game film. He ended up on a different flight.
Since that day, Keller believes that being a coach has become somewhat of a ministry for him.
"I know why I’m here and I know my purpose in life and I know why God has me here," he said. "It’s not only to help these young men win and become better basketball players. It’s to help them in life become better sons, prepare them to become better husbands and fathers and to help them become successful people in society."
Keller understands that losing five seniors to graduation (including the two winningest players in program history in Thomas Walkup and Trey Pinkney) will be a challenge. Walkup went un-drafted, but has signed a summer league contract with Golden State, while Pinkney will become a graduate assistant coach with SFA.
Keller spoke glowingly about Walkup and says he doesn't expect a leader like him to be replaced so easily. Keller does, however, expect returners like junior guard Ty Charles and sophomore forward TJ Holyfield to take on a bigger leadership role.
The Lumberjacks were the No. 1 team in the NCAA in defensive turnovers per possession and Keller feels that incoming freshman Aaron Augustin will be a key to continuing that success.
"You can’t lead the country in forced turnovers if you don’t have a guy that can cut off the head of the snake," he said. "Aaron is that guy."
SFA’s appeal to recruits is now growing beyond the United States with the arrival of 6-8 forward Samuli Nieminen, who Keller discovered while on a recruiting trip to Finland for Texas A&M.
With the level of talent that the Lumberjacks have added, they should be once again considered the team to beat in the Southland. It will be hard to replicate the team's recent success, but Keller just might have the personnel in place to make a run at it.