KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From an MIAA hierarchy standpoint, the preseason polls suggest Missouri Southern will be an improved football team in its first season under head coach Jeff Sims.
The Lions, coming off a 1-10 season and an 11th-place finish in the conference, have been picked to finish 10th in the upcoming campaign by both the coaches and media polls, which were released Wednesday morning during the 2019 MIAA Football Media Day at Kauffman Foundation Center.
Southern’s improved billing from a season ago comes with an asterisk since last-ranked Lincoln — a 3-8 team in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in 2018 — replaced Lindenwood (4-7 in 2018) in the MIAA’s 12-team field. But still, MSSU’s preseason ratings mark the program’s best of the past five years.
“It’s probably exactly where I figured we’d be picked,” said Sims, former head coach at Garden City Community College who took the helm at Southern in early December. “The reality is that, in preseason polls, they typically go off of what had happened the year before. We haven’t given them any reason to pick us higher at this point in time, and the preseason polls are kind of a reflection of what teams have done in the past.”
Hence the reason last year’s MIAA co-champions, Fort Hays State and Northwest Missouri State, were tabbed as the conference’s top-two teams by both polls — FHSU being picked first by the coaches with six first-place votes and NWMSU being favored by the media with 32 first-place votes. The two teams have accounted for the last four MIAA titles.
MSSU, meanwhile, comes in as a program seeking revitalization after registering just four wins in the last four seasons combined. And last season, the Lions ranked last in the MIAA in points scored (7.4 per game) and second-to-last in points allowed (46.4).
“Fort Hays and Northwest have done a good job and deserve the credit for being preseason favorites,” Sims said. “Coach (Chris) Brown at Fort Hays has done a tremendous job there of building a program, and I was able to see that while I was at Garden City. And to see what Northwest Missouri State has done with its program — my first coaching job ever was at Maryville High School, so I was able to see that.”
Pittsburg State was picked third by the coaches and the media. Central Oklahoma was picked fourth in the coaches’ poll and fifth in the media poll, while Central Missouri was picked fifth by the coaches and fourth by the media.
The polls mirrored each other with the final six picks, with Emporia State tabbed sixth, Missouri Western seventh, Washburn eighth, Nebraska-Kearney ninth, Southern 10th, Northeastern State 11th and Lincoln 12th.
The bottom three teams have new head coaches with Sims, J.J. Eckert at Northeastern State and Malik Hoskins at Lincoln.
“It’s an honor to be the head football coach at Missouri Southern, and it’s an even greater honor to be in the MIAA,” Sims said. “I started my college career at the University of Central Missouri … and I’ve had several players that have played for me in junior college and gone on to have great careers in the MIAA.
“I take every year seriously because I know how special this year is to (the players). This is one of the best conferences in the country. I’m not just saying one of the best conferences in Division II, but one of the best conferences in the country. It’s run well, it’s exciting football. It’s hard to find a team in the league that doesn’t take this seriously and invest and do it at a high level.”
CHANGE IN DIRECTION
Southern defensive lineman Levi Marlay and running back Shemar Coleman accompanied Sims at the media day and commented on the noticeable changes the program has undergone since Sims took the helm.
The most obvious change the players identified? Team and individual standards.
“The atmosphere has completely changed around (the team),” Marlay said. “The locker room is completely different because we have more players stepping up in a leadership role to police other players.
“He holds us to a standard that we work hard,” Coleman said. “We’re expected to give full effort and finish each workout.”
Sims echoed his players’ sentiments.
“I think expectation levels have changed,” he said. “That doesn’t just come from Coach Sims. It comes from the board of governors, it comes from the president and it comes from my athletic director. Missouri Southern has made a decision for what’s going to be important. I think it’s an opportunity to show what a great university we have. They’ve made a commitment to it, and so they’ve made a commitment to me and my coaching staff and we’ve made a commitment to our players."
LAST CHANCE U REACTION
A popular topic media members asked Sims on Wednesday was his portrayal in the hit Netflix docuseries Last Chance U, which followed junior college football program Independence Community College throughout its 2017 and 2018 campaigns.
Sims, who made several cameos in the series as the head coach at Garden City, a team depicted as a bitter rival of Independence, spoke on the mixture of praises and criticisms he’s received in the wake of the show’s airing.
“The reality is that show has a million viewers,” Sims said. “It’s the No. 1 show on Netflix, and I get 15 emails a day saying I’m the most awesome coach in the world and 15 emails saying I’m the worst coach in the world. The reality is my players and the people I’m around on a daily basis are the people who I should be judged by.
“The first thing I’d tell people is that Last Chance U is a television show — it’s edited for entertainment. The first year that we were on Last Chance U, they created a rivalry between us and Independence Community College. There wasn’t a rivalry between us.”
Sims added that other misconceptions pushed by the series included a physical fight that took place between he and then-Independence coach Jason Brown, who formerly coached under Sims at GCCC.
“Jason likes to say that we had a fight whenever he left (Garden City),” he said. “That’s not true, and I stated that on Last Chance U about 10 times, but that doesn’t get cut into the show.
“What I want people to understand is that I work for the school that I work for. I worked for Garden City, and the opportunity to be on Last Chance U afforded us the opportunity to a $50,000 Adidas contract. To some, that might not seem like a big deal. But that means that my guys have shoes, my guys have travel suits and we have scholarship money.”
MIAA preseason football
The MIAA coaches and media preseason football polls, with first-place votes in parentheses and total points. Coaches did not vote for their team.
1. Fort Hays State (6) 114
2. Northwest Missouri (5) 112
3. Pittsburg State (1) 97
4. Central Oklahoma 90
5. Central Missouri 80
6. Emporia State 73
7. Missouri Western 57
8. Washburn 54
9. Nebraska-Kearney 46
10. Missouri Southern 34
11. Northeastern State 23
12. Lincoln 12
1. Northwest Missouri (32) 471
2. Fort Hays State (7) 433
3. Pittsburg State 378
4. Central Missouri 336
5. Central Oklahoma 313
6. Emporia State 264
7. Missouri Western 245
8. Washburn 234
9. Nebraska-Kearney 194
10. Missouri Southern (1) 120
11. Northeastern State 79
12. Lincoln 52