Saint Xavier University football coach Mike Feminis was able to talk to Barry Lynn Fouts from the Victory Sports Network earlier this week. Below is the interview that the pair conducted. Feminis talks about being ranked the No. 1 team in the NAIA, shares some of his past experiences as a small college football player, some of the secrets to his coaching success and some of his favorite players that he has coached or coached against over his 13+ years as a head coach.
Coach Mike Feminis of #1 ranked St Xavier was nice enough to spend some time with me on the phone this week after his Cougars solidified their hold on the top spot with a 52-10 win. Currently with a 29-game regular season winning streak, Coach Feminis has taken St Xavier to 3 of the past 5 NAIA semi-finals. He is 108-40 in his 13th year at the helm and has been named NAIA Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2009 by more than one publication. I think you'll see in the interview a coach who is ready to take his place beside the great names of small college football.
Congratulations on being ranked #1 in the country; what does this ranking mean to your players and to the program?
It's exciting; we've been close before and it's been our goal to play for the title. It also happens to be the first time any St Xavier team has been ranked #1.
Most of the audience that will read this article know you as a winning coach of one of the best programs in the NAIA the past 10 years. But you were the NAIA's Defensive Player of the Year in 1989. How has the NAIA game changed since you played?
I was surrounded by very good talent. There were two divisions in NAIA football back then. NAIA Division I was equal to NCAA D-II and I-AA. That year we played NAIA schools Central State Ohio, Carson-Newman, D-II Portland State and 1-AA Illinois State and the latter was the fourth best team of the group. I still believe that the top of the NAIA can play with D-II today.
You played at St Francis of Illinois who gave your team its biggest test of the year to date. How do you assess the Saints chances this fall after their game with Wm Penn last weekend?
They are legitimate! Mike (head coach Mike Uremovich) has done an excellent job. He's expanded their recruiting; they've got the perfect QB for their system, a good running back and a solid O-line. It was neat playing this year as it was the 25th anniversary of the first St Francis IL team. I was a freshman on that squad, coached by Gordie Gillespie, an incredible coach.
You have a very experience staff, some who have been with you since you started at St Xavier. How important to the program have they been?
Absolutely vital; they may be the biggest reason besides the players we've had. Continuity of staff at a small college is tough to develop because some want to move up. We've got 6 former head coaches at either the high school or college level and they seem happy right here. Plus administration support is also a key.
Have you tried to model your program after anyone in particular, or have you picked things up from multiple sources?
No doubt it's Coach Gillespie. He is a genius at motivation. He has the most wins of any coach in college baseball history and was named NAIA Coach of the Century (in 1998 by Collegiate Baseball Magazine). He also started the St Francis football program from scratch in 1986 and led us to the playoffs the second season. He had the ability to take good players and make us believe we were D-I material. He had us play at a level or 2 higher than we should. (Coach Gillespie retired from St Francis IL earlier this fall after 58 years as a college head coach with more college baseball wins than anyone else; over 1,800.
Until Lindenwood in 2009, you had the distinction of beating Carroll at Helena most recently in the post season. What did that 2006 game do for your program?
It allowed us to talk about going to the next level of expectations. In 2002 we lost in the first round to St Francis IND, in 2005 we lost on a last minute field goal to Sioux Falls, again in the first round. In 2006 though we beat Georgetown in Kentucky, and then against Carroll we lose our starter at QB (Billy Yeo) just before half. But our back-up QB goes something like 17 of 22 to lead us to a 14-7 win. It was our next step up at the time.
You've been undefeated in the regular season now for 29 in a row, half of those on the road. What do you do to keep the team focused on road trips?
I tell the guys it's a business trip, we have to prepare and get into out routine just like at home. We place a curfew at the hotel and do our walk-through as normal on a Friday before we board the bus. We found out the last two years in the semifinals, playing at Sioux Falls and Helena that we want to talk about hosting a semi-final; we talked about it a lot. The guys recognize the opportunity they have before them this fall.
When you took the St X job, they had won just 8 games in the first 6 years of their program. What did you see about the school that you thought you could produce a winner?
I knew growing up and playing here just how good the football was in Chicago. We go after the very best players that do not receive D-I offers. We, like Carroll and St Francis, seem to get 10 to 12 very good players that have the potential to be playing in higher classifications.
What player have you had at St X did you feel made the most of their potential?
Mike Maher, a wide receiver who finished second in player of the year voting last year. Northern Illinois offered him. He was 5'8", 175 but he was the hardest worker we've ever had here. On the practice field he was a perfectionist; we had to pull him out of practices to give others some reps. He was banged up before the Carroll game last year but I could not keep him off the field.
And if a different player, who improved the most over the time he was in your program?
Mike Lally a linebacker who spent time the first two years on special teams. Before his junior season he made a decision to get quicker. He lost about 15 pounds and went from a 4.9 40-time to 4.6 when the scouts came by to see him. He was a relentless worker and going from special teams to 2-time All American he might have been the best we've had here. I also want to mention (former QB) Anthony Kropp who I recruited thinking he could challenge for starter by his junior or senior season. He just ends up starting all 4 years and sets all our records.
Most of the NAIA football programs are in smaller towns and cities than Chicago. What are the good aspects as well as a couple downers of playing in a major metro with professional teams as well as D-I schools?
On the pro-side, I'm coaching near my hometown so all my family can come see the games. On the football, the area has more than enough good football players, we really never have to go far to recruit. The players from out-of-state mostly contacted us. On the con-side, I'd love for our guys to have a bigger presence in town, like the atmosphere at Carroll. 5,000 fans, great facilities, but the competition here with the pro sports is tough to crack. Our guys deserve to play in front of big crowds.
You talk to coaches around your league and around the country in different classifications - What are the top one or two topics when you all get together?
Mostly budget related, raising funds for lights, turf. We talk about how to improve our programs and get more coaches on staff. We have two other full-time coaches and the other 7 are part-time, here for the love of the game.
What player that you've gone up against over the years impressed you the most?
I don't know if I can limit it to one. On defense Carroll's LB (Owen) Koeppen was a man among boys in that 2006 game. He knocked our starter out (QB Billy Yeo) late in the first half and just dominated. On offense, the Sioux Falls QB in 2009, (Lorenzo Brown), was just perfect for what they wanted to do. By the way, that USF team was the best NAIA team I've seen in my 13 years.
Any final thoughts you want the VSN audience to know about St X?
Yes, we've got a great group of guys, with great GPA scores. These guys don't expect to play on Sundays so they come to St Xavier for the right reasons, a good education.
B Lynn Fouts