Furman Football 2013: Linking Past To Present (Part I of III)

Furman running back Dwight Sterling was a standout running back during his four-year Paladin career (1986-89), rushing for 1,983 yards in his four-year Paladin career. Few will forget Sterling’s TD in the ’88 national title against Georgia Southern, which saw Sterling lunge over the goal line with a broken ankle to get the Paladin TD.

GREENVILLE, S.C.–The motto around the Southern Conference football scene of late has been: There’s no time like the present.

That, at least, is the mindset for Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. Both have opted to make the move to the FBS level and Sun Belt Conference, trying to take advantage of what both schools perceive as a window of opportunity to better their respective programs amid all the transition of conference realignment.

With Appalachian State and Georgia Southern’s transition to the highest classification of college football, the chance those programs are taking with a move to the Sun Belt Conference in 2014 becomes an opportunity for the seven remaining members of the Southern Conference.

For a program like Furman, it’s a rare opening to bring the past into the present.

Since the last of the Paladins’ 12 Southern Conference titles in 2004 and the last of 15 playoff appearances two years later, Furman has seen its window closed as tightly as one might in a Boone winter. Appalachian State or Georgia Southern have capture each of the past eight league crowns.

Wofford is the only program not named Georgia Southern to have a share of a league title in those eight seasons.

The chance was there when Marshall left after the 1996 title-winning season, and it would be Georgia Southern that would jump through that window of opportunity, asserting itself as the program by which to be measured after the Thundering Herd moved on.

Georgia Southern — which never beat Marshall (0-4) in its league membership after joining in 1993 despite winning the league title in its inaugural season — went on to win six outright or shared Southern Conference titles and two national titles immediately after the Thundering Herd left in ’97. Furman shared titles with the Eagles in ’99 and ’01.

Then, out of nowhere, the 2003 season would turn out to be an anomaly and remains the only campaign in the 16 since Marshall left for the FBS that neither Appalachian State or Georgia Southern won the SoCon. Wofford finished unbeaten and was the only FCS postseason qualifier from the league that season after finishing a perfect 8-0 in league play. That remains the only season of those 16 that only one team has qualified from the SoCon for the FCS postseason.

So what does all this mean for Furman? With the departure of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, Furman’s football program is better equipped to take steps back towards the dominance it enjoyed throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Referred to in the Furman football media guide as the “Decade of Dominance,” the 1980s saw the Paladin football program reel off an run like few seen in Southern Conference football.

In 1990, Furman traveled to Reno, Nev. and engage in an epic Division I-AA playoff game against Chris Ault’s Nevada Wolf Pack and that vaunted Pistol Offense. After taking a 28-13 third quarter lead, the Paladins eventually dropped a heartbreaking, triple-overtime decision, 42-35. The Paladin defense yielded 611 yards to the Pistol, which was the most yards a Furman defense had surrendered since the ’85 national title loss to Georgia Southern

It was Art Baker just prior to Furman’s first of 12 SoCon titles, who established the foundation and laid the groundwork for Dick Sheridan to capture the first crown in   1978, launching the Paladins’ winning tradition on the gridiron.

The ’80s were simply remarkable for Furman football, as the Paladins reeled off a 95-26-2 record during the decade, and of course captured a national title in 1988. The Paladins’ championship came with a 17-12 win over Georgia Southern. Furman made two other title appearances in 1985 and 2001. To date, Furman has enjoyed success in the Southern Conference with an all-time league mark of 246-192-11.

Furman won games by lining up and blocking man-on-man, with power-I and option football. With the advent of the spread offense, many who have covered the Southern Conference in the past have called Furman’s style of football as out-of-date. One reporter, who will remain anonymous, even went as far as to say Furman had a “1950s style offense with slow players.”

However, with the trend of the spread, Furman’s offense, which now mixes power-I and the spread option to set up the pass, is one that is successful with experienced players in the system, which was evidenced by the 2011 team in Fowler’s first season and Jimmy Kiser in the offensive coordinator role for the first time, as the Paladins had one of their best offensive seasons since that 2005 team, which broke many of the team, single-season offensive marks in program history.

It was the old recipe for success, too, as Furman had one of the nation’s top tight ends, a dual-threat quarterback that made headlines and a 1,000-yard rusher and bull of a running back. The past two seasons have given the Furman faithful glimpses of the past–of that Decade of Dominance.

Some must have seen the comparisons with past dual-threat quarterbacks such as Justin Hill, Frankie DeBusk or Bobby Lamb when Chris Forcier took snaps. What about memories of Paul Siffri or Greg Key when Colin Anderson was hauling in yet another pass over the middle in traffic.  And there had to be thoughts of Dwight Sterling, Carl Tremble and Louis Ivory, with Jerodis Williams’ powerful running style, which helped the Paladins establish back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the first time since 2002 and 2003, as well as the first 1,000-yard rusher in eight years.

While the current staff didn’t recruit many of those veterans, they converted them into an offense, which was effective. The Paladins have begun to re-establish physicality in the trenches, as evidenced by the back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers’ campaigns. The defense has seen more struggles in Fowler’s first two seasons, but the Paladins have been a much more physical unit the past two seasons on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary and the future looks bright.

These articles will be a comparison from the past to the present in an effort to link the tradition of the program to what remains from that Decade of Dominance, which are two of the founding fathers of the Furman football tradition, Bruce Fowler and Tim Sorrells.  Fowler and Sorrells both know, there’s no time like the present for this program seize the opportunity it has before it to become the old-new dominant force in the ever-changing landscape of Southern Conference football.

Stay tuned, I am looking forward to doing this research and hope to show that though there are trends that come and go in college football, with most programs abandoning their identity and tradition at the first signs of struggle. At Furman, staying with what has worked and the lineage and mentors that has brought the program success, even in some lean years, will see a fruitful harvest in the immediate future.

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