Ed Lamb is grabbing the UNC Bears by the tail
GREELEY, Colo. – Starting in the cellar is something first-year University of Northern Colorado head coach Ed Lamb has become accustomed to in his head coaching career.
“I’ve never been at a place where a bad season is 7 wins,” Lamb said at the Big Sky Conference’s football kickoff weekend in late July. “I’ve been at the places where you win 7 games, and they want to throw a parade for you.”
That was the case when he got his first lead gig at Southern Utah University in 2008 and it’s the same ordeal at UNC, where his inaugural season has just recently gotten underway.
But it can hardly be called an ordeal when you’re built for it. Known as a program fixer, the Bears are hoping Lamb can do for them what he did for the Thunderbirds.
When Lamb first arrived in Cedar City, Utah, football was an afterthought. The program had never been to the FCS playoffs and had just one conference title – back in 1993 as members of the American West Conference, finishing 3-7-1 overall but 3-1 in league play.
When he left at the end of the 2015 season, the Thunderbirds could say they were twice conference champs – once in the Great West and once in the Big Sky – and twice been to the FCS playoffs.
And now taking over at Northern Colorado, some of those misfortunes are awfully similar. The Bears haven’t won a conference title since 2002, the same year as their last playoff appearance, and they haven’t won one since being in the Big Sky.
Hence, why Lamb was hired.
But he’s got one additional obstacle to hurdle in this operation that wasn’t a problem at SUU. He’s taking over for a regime that was exposed for scandalous behavior before being fired abruptly following the 2022 season.
Ed McCaffrey, the former head coach, was hired in 2019 without any college coaching experience. The experiment didn’t pan out as there were reports of alleged favoritism, nepotism and lack of proper preparation.
It led to distrust, nearly 40 players transferring in the 2021-22 offseason and a negative connotation with UNC football.
It’s no easy job to regain control of a dejected locker room, but administration thinks Lamb has another revamp job in the tank. Lamb concurs and expects it to take shape rather quickly.
“You will not hear me saying, ‘this is a rebuild, we’re a couple of years away,’” Lamb said. “I abhor that kind of language and I think any coach that is talking like that has an athletic director that made a mistake with their hire. I believe in our boys and their ability to compete right away.”
Recipe to revitalization
The same formula used to turn around the Thunderbirds is the same one that’ll be facilitated in Greeley – Lamb knows no other way. It’s trust oriented, which will be particularly important at UNC.
“I’m kind of a one trick pony for how to run a program and I think I know my own limitations fairly well and so, for me, I definitely didn’t come in and say, “How was the previous staff doing this? Let me figure out what was going on and then let me be the opposite” or something like that,” Lamb said. “I believe at the core, the major determinant of success in football is how hard you try, and so I come in stating that from day one and I try to model that in every way.”
“I want my staff to model that … I model that with the way I interact with my players and the way that I interact with our coaches, and I expect my coaches to pick up on those cues and examples and do the same. So that’s how we’re building the trust, the way that we interact.”
He's not looking to right the wrongs of the previous staff. The goal is to show the players what dedicated, caring coaches look like and in that way, have them naturally gravitate towards their teachings.
So far, so good.
“The feedback from the players at this point is very positive,” Lamb said. “I think it’s something that they were very hungry for. We treat them like men, but we also hold them highly accountable and at the same time, we hold ourselves highly accountable.”
And with him, he’s brought a staff that’s helped him do that throughout most stops of his coaching journey.
His offensive, defensive and run-game coordinators, offensive line coach, receivers coach and cornerbacks coach were with him at his most recent stop at Brigham Young University. His special teams coordinator, tight end coach and defensive line coach were part of the turnaround with him at SUU.
Their familiarity with his system and message will go a long way in their execution of it, ultimately leading to a culture that everyone involved can be proud of.
“The common denominator for us is that everyone on our staff I’ve either coached or worked with them at a previous stop … So, I think it really is about people,” Lamb said. “The major factor to success is how hard we try so I wanted to make sure we had the right people to get our boys trying hard and there may be some games where the opponent just has more creative blitzes, better trick plays or is more exciting to watch, but you can expect us to be tough and really try hard and that’s going to be a reflection of our whole staff.”
Lamb’s familiarity with the Big Sky Conference won’t hurt, either. A lot has changed since he was last in it, including Idaho returning and North Dakota leaving, but the standard has never shifted.
To call his job a true success, he knows the bar to reach.
“The two anchor programs, Montana and Montana State, are always in the mix,” Lamb said. “They are the standard bearer from a facilities resource standpoint and whether or not one of them happens to be better over a half decade or something like that, I’ve been around long enough to see those are the standards and something everyone else aspires to be. Can you rise to that level and compete for a championship and sustain it? That’s the challenge.”
Pieces to work with
The Bears do have promising pieces on both sides of the ball to get them there.
Despite the program going through a period of major upheaval, there are cornerstones in Central Michigan transfer quarterback Jacob Sirmon and linebacker David Hoage.
Sirmon started his playing career with the Washington Huskies before leaving to become the Chippewas starting quarterback at the beginning of the 2022 season. Though a change was made after four games, the 6-foot-5 gunslinger posted a 61% completion rate with six touchdowns to four interceptions, some of those stats coming in games versus major programs like Oklahoma State and Penn State.
Lamb recognizes his QBs potential and his plan for Sirmon goes far beyond his college days.
“I’ve said it before, I expect him to be a pro quarterback,” Lamb said. “And if he’s not, I think our coaches, myself - we need to be held accountable because he has the ability to become that and that’s our job, to help him fulfill it.”
“He’s mentally, very sharp, a great leader and he can make all the throws.”
Flipping to defense, that unit will be bolstered by the return of Hoage who was on the Big Sky’s preseason ballot for Defensive Player of the Year. An injury kept him sidelined all of 2022, and even kept him limited during spring ball early this year.
But with a conference-leading 22 tackles for loss and program record 10.5 sacks in 2021, there’s reason to be optimistic of his future prospects. Not to mention he bulked up his 6’3 frame tremendously during his time off the field.
“David is an elite pass rusher. That’s what he’s proved in the past,” Lamb said. “We know he can rush the passer. Our goal and job are to make him the most complete player he can be, and I think he’s shown signs he’s willing to do that, willing to work. He’s gained lots of mass and size which we’ve asked him to do, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
Lamb just hopes that UNC fans eventually fill the stadium to take in these talents before it’s too late. But he knows that honor will have to be earned. It’s all part of the process.
“Very similar to Southern Utah when we took over there, the goal is to change the way the community sees a program and to make it an experience that people want to come to because it feels good to win,” Lamb said. “So, it’s not something that we’re concerned with, how many people in the stands is not something we talk about, but there’s full expectation that we’ll earn that support and earn those eyeballs sitting in the stadium at some point.”