In his seventh season as the head football coach at MacMurray College, Chris Douglas has turned a hot mess of a program into cool order, as the football team looks to build off its 8-2 season in 2016 and take the UMAC title this season.
Introducing Chris Douglas
In everyone’s life, there becomes a point where one looks in the mirror and asks him or herself “Why did I do that?” The question may arise from a decision that is being second guessed. Maybe something sounded really good when you first decided to do it, but after you had some time to think about it you realized that it simply wasn’t a good idea. In other cases, you may have taken on a huge challenge believing that you were the right man or woman for the job, only to find that you had bitten off way more than you could chew.
It’s a story that all of us could tell, especially MacMurray College Head Football Coach Chris Douglas. In 2011, two months before his players were to report for fall camp, the Coach decided to become the head coach for the Highlanders. A decision that, for many months afterward, he wondered if it was based more on hubris than sound judgment, but now Coach Douglas finds himself the leader of a team that is reaching new heights and leaving no doubt that he truly made a positive life-transforming decision for himself and for MacMurray College as a whole.
Where Football Is More Than Just a Sport
Since he has been about 10 years old, football has been a huge part of the life of Chris Douglas. The coach started playing the sport in the fourth grade, and has been involved in the game ever since, a span that crosses three and a half decades. It was the kind of passion that developed as a player, but also made him realize that when his playing days were over that he simply didn’t want to walk away from the game.
“It’s just a passion I had as a player and I just couldn’t find myself giving it up after college. Really didn’t have a direction on what I wanted to do career-wise right off the bat. I just knew I wanted to help people, to impact people and that turned into being a student assistant my first year. I made a few bucks the next year as an assistant coach and then finally grew into a full-time position and this has progressively grown into a career after all that time.”
After graduating from Southwestern College (Winfield, KS), the Coach remained at the school as an assistant and helped to make the lead the team to three straight Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference championships. For a short time, Coach Douglas moved onto Abilene Christian University, and then to Jamestown College, but he would return to become the head coach at his alma mater a few years later. At the age of 31, he was the third youngest head coach in the country.
After five seasons at Southwestern College, Coach Douglas stepped down and moved on to Stigler High School (OK), where he turned around the school’s football program. After an 0-4 start his first season, the team one on to go 5-1 and make it into the Oklahoma class 2A playoffs. The next season they would go 7-3 and host their first playoff game in 25 years.
He was having a great deal of success coaching at the high school level, and that led to him returning to the college ranks, taking the offensive coordinator position at Highland community College (KS). The move proved to be not as enjoyable as he had hoped, and so Coach Douglas was praying for a new opportunity, but little did he know how those prayers would be answered.
Did He Really Just Agree to That?
In June 2011, the opportunity arose for Chris Douglas to become the head football coach again. Jake Box had resigned to take a position at Presentation, and so MacMurray College offered Coach Douglas the position. At the time, the Coach doted over the “golden” opportunity he was given.
“I did a lot of research before I came to the MacMurray campus to interview with the faculty and staff,” Coach Douglas explained at the time. “I discovered plenty of opportunities in my research for MacMurray to have success academically and athletically, but what my research couldn’t tell me, what I discovered on my visit, was the quality of the faculty and staff at MacMurray and how important the success of its students is. I’m excited to work athletic director Dane Pavlovich, the coaching staff and players at MacMurray and to help return Mac to levels of success it enjoyed in the recent past.”
Coaching at MacMurray gave the Coach the opportunity to get out of a bad situation, and go to a school where he thought he could make a real difference. To go to a place that seemed quite familiar to him in many ways.
“MacMurray is very similar to the school that I attended, the school I went to college at, and I saw a lot of similarities. There were some opportunities here with its location where we could potentially get some players here that could help us grow our program. Fortunately that’s worked out for us.”
While excited about the opportunity to be a head coach again, turning around this program was going to be a challenging one. The Highlanders hadn’t had a winning season since 2004, and had been 1-38 over the four seasons prior to the Coach’s arrival. The program was in disarray, it’s numbers were low, and it would be easy to see how his enthusiasm for the new job would fade quickly.
“We were a hot mess. We were a raging dumpster fire. We had four seasons with one win previous to me getting here. We only had 27 guys coming off of a team that was 0-10 the previous season, and I took the job June 1 of 2011 and there was only 17 new recruits that the previous staff had brought in. So, if we would’ve done nothing we would’ve only had maybe low 40s to start the season. We were able to do some last-minute recruiting and we got the numbers up into the high 50s to start. It was just about survival that first year.”
The biggest challenge was trying to field a roster that would even allow the Highlanders enough bodies to field a team each week. The Coach jokingly explains that he was literally happy to take everybody – anybody – he could find.
“I explain to people now that when I would shake a recruits hand, I would turn his wrist over and I would check his pulse and I would say, ‘Ya, you can play for us.’ We didn’t care how big you were, we didn’t care what your grades were, if you were a mouth breather, if you breathed oxygen you could play for us.”
The Challenging Years
It’s not easy to turn a hot mess into cool order, but Chris Douglas knew that if he was going to have any success with this program than the first thing that he had to do was work on recruiting. His first season at the school, 80 percent of his team was made up of freshmen, and the second year that number would be 80 percent freshmen and sophomores.
The Highlanders went 2-8 in those first two years under their new head coach, which was quite a remarkable feat considering that they hadn’t won two games in the previous four seasons combined. However, in 2013, the program took a step back, finishing 0-10, what many viewed as a disappointing year, but the MacMurray Coach saw many positives and knew that the program was headed in the right direction.
“In 2013 and we hoped to make a little progress, but we were 80 percent freshman and sophomores, and so we were basically playing at a JV age team against everybody’s varsity every day, and we went 0-10. That’s really when it hit me that this was going to take some time, but I also felt that we had hit the worst of it but, of course, when you’re 0-10 you feel like that should be about the bottom. We saw some of the positive things, the discipline of our players, their ability to stay on task and go to class was slowly improving, and we knew over the span of time that those things would catch up to us and we would slowly start to see the results happen on the field.”
The results did start to manifest themselves the following season. In 2014, the Highlanders went 3-7, and the following year they were 6-4, their first winning season in 13 years. Last season, MacMurray College went 8-2, and finished second in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC). It was clear that the vision that Coach Douglas had when he came to the school was coming to fruition.
“We feel like we are just continuing to build the program, even more so we feel like we have the type of players in our program that have really bought in and are committed to the process of us being a successful program. Everybody’s committed to being successful, everybody wants to win, but are you willing to do the little things that are going to get you there? I feel like we have a group that has really bought into that.”
Getting the Highlanders to Buy In
There is honestly no more effective tool in trying to get a man to do anything than by appealing to his ego. Men are driven by the need to feel respected and to feel like they are an integral part in the success of anything that they are involved in. Being an astute observer of the male psyche, Chris Douglas began the recruiting process by encouraging recruits to be a part of building something special.
“After the first couple of years of just trying to get some numbers up, we started to use the analogy that we’re looking for guys who want to build the wagon, not guys who want to jump on the wagon. We would use teams in our area as an example who were having success at the time. Now do you want to go to a place where you’re going to jump on the wagon or do you want to go to a place where you’re going to build the wagon. We need guys who can screw some lug nuts in, who can put the tire in place, who are willing to pull the wagon instead of just willing to jump on board. That was the approach we took that we need builders not keepers.”
The transformation wasn’t just about finding the right players but about building an outstanding coaching staff as well. One of the biggest challenges of coaching at MacMurray is the fact that Coach Douglas only has one full-time assistant. All of the other members of his staff are there on an internship, meaning that he not only needs to teach players the Highlanders way, but to do so with the coaching staff as well. To accomplish this, the MacMurray Coach has developed an intricate plan to ensure the greatest level of success.
“Because of the design of our coaching staff we can’t really have continuity, so we have to force the continuity by how we require our assistant coaches to come in and accept our ideas and accept and understand our system. We emphasize the teaching of the coaches so that they can teach the players what our expectations are. I have a very detailed, laid out plan. We have a coaching manual that addresses virtually everything you can imagine in relation to how to coach your position, the design of the practice schedule, what the emphasis is, even the warm-ups. We are very detail oriented and that is because we understand we are going to have a lot of turnover with our coaches, so we have to create the continuity ourselves through the coaching.”
Growth Is a Two-Way Street
There is no doubt that turning around a hot mess requires a very strong leader with the right plan to be able to succeed, but it also takes a great deal of patience to see that plan reach fruition. This is one of the primary areas where Chris Douglas has changed as a coach, a change that occurred both inside the program and in his personal life.
“I think every young coach is a little piss and vinegar. You’re going to whip the world by how you coach and over time I have taken the long view. I’ve really settled myself down a little bit, and I think having kids helps with that, because when I started coaching I didn’t have children, I wasn’t married; now having a wife and three kids makes you a little more patient as well. I have definitely change on the patience side, looking at the long view with the teaching and the development side of things, looking at players as long-term investments instead of short-term gain is where I think a lot of my change has occurred. It’s just understanding that I need to maintain my poise in certain situations and not let my lack of patience run amok.”
The change has also occurred in the way that he relates to his players. When Coach Douglas was a player himself, his relationship with his own coaches was something that was minimal if not nonexistent. However, he cherishes the opportunity to get to know his own players and recognizes that this is a key reason why the Highlanders find themselves as a potential conference champion this season.
“I didn’t have a relationship with my head coach until my senior year. I didn’t know them as people and I think we all as coaches have recognized that, if you want the best out of your players, then you have to develop a relationship with them. You have to make a connection with them and that is a huge point of emphasis in our program. We meet with our players regularly, one-on-one, every 10 days to two weeks. If you want your best players bought into your process then you have to develop a plan, you have to sell that plan but, more importantly, you have to develop the relationship so they will buy into the plan. Expectations without relationships yield no fruit whatsoever. We have to make that connection so that they have bought in.”
Wanting Success Beyond the Gridiron
Entering Saturday’s contest against Crown College, the MacMurray College Highlanders find themselves at 2-0. Chris Douglas has done an amazing job at taking one of the most challenging jobs in all of college football and turning it into a true success story. If football had a rags to riches story, this is the one. The turnaround has even led to personal accolades for the Coach, who was named the UMAC Coach of the Year in 2015.
The Highlanders Coach has even pushed for greater success for his players off the field, instituting Operation 3.0 in 2014. This program was designed to push the team academically so that each player had at least a 3.0 GPA during the spring semester, and has seen great success since it was instituted.
Coach Douglas also wants his players to feel like they are much more than a quarterback, lineman, or special teams player. They are part of his family, and there is no better way to institute that than by making them a part of his family.
“We try to integrate a lot of our family time with our players. For instance, we have a position group over at my house each Thursday night for snacks, cookies and things like that. We’ll watch a college football game Thursday night and my wife is there, she is helping cook and everything. Our kids are there, hanging out, watching TV with us. We try to keep the family involved.”
The MacMurray College football program has gone from a hot mess to one of the up and coming programs in all of Division-III football. Chris Douglass has restored order and has developed the Highlanders into a true competitor for the UMAC title. However, more importantly, the Coach is impacting the lives of young men so that they not only are better students, but have a much greater chance of success as fathers, husbands, neighbors, and co-workers. Now, MacMurray College is no longer a raging dumpster fire but is, instead, a beacon of light guiding men to maturity and success.
By Robert Pannier