By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations; featured photo by Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services
NATCHITOCHES – Five. Six. Forty-seven. Two hundred eighty-three.
There were a lot of numbers floating around the Stroud Room inside the Donald G. Kelly Athletic Complex as Blaine McCorkle spoke Wednesday afternoon. The largest one stood out for a couple of reasons – one being McCorkle always aims to clear out his number of unread text messages daily.
“I got a lot of responses (Tuesday), some from you who are in this room,” McCorkle said. “My phone number started spreading around quickly. Thanks, (Director of Athletics) Kevin (Bostian). Last night, before I went to bed, I was trying to sift through as many text messages as I could. Before I turned it off, I was at 283 messages. If I haven’t gotten to you, bear with me, it’s coming. The response I got (Tuesday) from the Natchitoches community meant a lot and told me how special this place is and how much you want something to be different.”
McCorkle’s reference to his unread and unreturned messages drew its share of laughs, but the other numbers he spoke of are the ones he plans to make tenets of his time as Northwestern State’s 16th head football coach.
Upon meeting with Northwestern State’s current players Tuesday, McCorkle laid out the expectations of his culture to his new charges.
“When we originally built our program, we had our four pillars of success – character, trust, unity and accountability – and we added a fifth one to it, which was toughness,” McCorkle said. “The five stars of our five-star culture: character, trust, unity, accountability and toughness. We’re going to teach these kids to be tough. The thing you have to understand about toughness is it’s not always what the world thinks toughness is. Sometimes people think toughness is a big, bad bully walking around. No, no, no.
“Sometimes toughness in the guy in a white-collar shirt who gets up every morning, puts his feet on the floor and goes to work, sits behind a desk and makes good decisions to take care of his wife and his kids and his family. That’s tough. That’s real grown-man toughness. That’s the type of toughness we’re going to focus on, because those things carry over in the classroom and the community. If we’re hammering on those things, they’ll carry over right there on the field.”
That toughness and culture helped McCorkle lift a Belhaven team that had not won more than three games in a season since 2013 to a combined 24-7 record in his final three seasons as the Blazers’ head coach.
Belhaven finished the 2023 season 9-1 and captured the program’s first outright conference title and made its initial appearance in the NCAA Division III playoffs. McCorkle said his final duty at Belhaven was ordering conference championship rings for a team that featured 21 seniors – all of whom already had earned their undergraduate degrees.
That on- and off-field success not only lent credence to McCorkle’s culture but also highlighted his overall strengths as a coach.
“Our players – and most players – are not going to the league although a lot think they are,” Belhaven President Dr. Roger Parrott said. “How do you help them shape their life after football when their whole life has been football? That’s the mark I saw in Blaine that I wanted in our coach. Yes, he’s going to put some players in the league at (NSU’s) level. Good for him, and good for you. Blaine cares about them at the personal level of who they are, and that’s what I saw in him. I didn’t have any question he knew how to win football games, but I knew he had the stuff to build into his players and to build a staff around him that shared in his values.”
Those values were honed at an early age as the son of a college football coach.
“I’m 47 years old, and I tell people I’ve been in college football for 47 years,” McCorkle said. “It’s who I am. I’m a football coach.”
He is a football coach with a list of six bullet-point goals – not all that are always defined in the statistical realm.
“These will not change from today until the day I leave here in about 20 years when I retire like (former NSU head) coach (Sam Goodwin) here,” McCorkle said. “The first one is every man who enters our program leaves it better than when he came. It’s easy to have all these football-specific goals like we want to be 42 percent on third down or this in the red zone. Program goals are much bigger than that.
“The second is we want to lead the Southland Conference in GPA and APR on a yearly basis. We all watch the SEC on Saturdays, and we see the patches that underneath them you see the banner that says ‘Graduate.’ If those guys at that level – that’s the best to do it in college football – if they’re graduating players, maybe there’s something to that. That’s a message we need to follow. If guys are invested in their school and doing well, it’s harder for them to leave. The third one is we want to be in position yearly to win a conference championship. Fourth, we want to be a sustained program of national prominence. Any time something comes up – playoffs, postseason, rankings – Northwestern State needs to be in that conversation. I started that sentence with the word sustain, not flash in the pan. The fifth is to win and advance in the postseason. The last goal in that group is to win a national championship. If you do all the things before that, that puts you in position to play for and win a national championship. I’m not scared to say that here at Northwestern State, and I’m currently the coach that owns an 0-6 football team. That’s on me. I own that, and I’m going to do everything I can to fix that. You have my word.”
McCorkle’s speech Wednesday was the culmination of a 26-year coaching journey that began following his four-year playing career at LSU when the former long snapper served as a student assistant with the Tigers. The winding road that took him to six different FCS schools – Tennessee-Martin, Liberty, Chattanooga, Tennessee Tech, Richmond and Delaware – led him to finding what he called his comfort zone.
That feeling was reinforced during his tour of the Northwestern State campus on Tuesday.
“Personally, this has been a 26-year-long dream to come back to the state of Louisiana, which I love dearly, and to be a Division I head coach,” McCorkle said. “A lot of what attracted me to Northwestern State is FCS is my comfort zone. This is where I feel I fit the best, where I have the most time invested. I love this level of football. I think it still has purity to it while playing at an extremely high level. We still live in the portal world. We live in a world of NIL. That’s real. A lot of players at this level are playing for the right reasons – with a good chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
“I’m excited to be back at this level. Walking around the campus, I just felt comfortable.”