In dysfunction there is joy.
In longevity there is consistency.
And in tiny Martin, Tennessee, population approximately 9,000, there is one of college football's longest-tenured coaches, Jason Simpson, and one of Football Championship Subdivision's hottest teams – the University of Tennessee at Martin.
The Skyhawks have all of those elements and several additional traits that see them advancing to face No. 8 national seed Montana State this week in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.
“I've kidded with this team all year, because I'm on the sideline with them and listen to them,” said Simpson, back in the playoffs for the first time since his first year at UTM in 2006. “There's a certain way things are supposed to look and sound with a good team, a certain way practice is supposed to look and sound. This team has its own unique way. I told them, 'Listen, you're a family, and I can see that, but you're a dysfunctional family.
“They may fuss with each other like brothers, but they won't let anybody else take a cheap shot at their teammates. They have each others' backs. And they still get after each other and hold each other accountable.”
Simpson's 100th career win, a captivating, 32-31 triumph at No. 10 Missouri State in which the Skyhawks forced six turnovers and won with their backup quarterback, speaks as much to the program's process as it does the 60 minutes that unfolded in Springfield, Missouri.
Martin has 17 seniors, six of them six-year guys in Simpson's program, and two additional players – injured starting quarterback Keon Howard, a Tulane transfer, and defensive back Shawn Shamburger, a Tennessee transfer – also are in their sixth years of collegiate football.
This is a fairly old team; a unit that has evolved into a blend of core players, such as backup-quarterback-turned-hero Dresser Winn and supremely talented former Alabama five-star signee Eyabi Anoma – the team's leader with 9.5 tackles for losses, six of them quarterback sacks.
Yet, to the collective effort, eight different Skyhawks defenders have five or more TFLs.
Martin wins games in close fashion – five by single digits – but time and again, the gritty group finds a way to win. Typically with an us-against-the-world mindset – be it real or perceived.
“That's how we live around here,” said Simpson, who noted the Skyhawks did not get to host despite what he said was an identical bid to Missouri State's and despite their Ohio Valley Conference championship. “That's just my personality, and we've kind of created that to where we know, people recruit against us. They say, 'Coach Simpson has been there, and he's done a pretty good job, but why would you want to go out the middle of West Tennessee?' And to be honest with you, that's kind of the secret of our success.
“We've got kids from Miami, St. Louis, Atlanta, Memphis and small towns in between. But all of our coaches live about a mile from campus. We're able to spend more time with you. Walmart is Martin's version of a mall.”
What Simpson has next is a weekend certain to stick with his family for many years. In addition to the Skyhawks' game at Montana State, his son, five-star quarterback and Alabama commitment Ty Simpson, is playing for Tennessee's Class 5A State Championship. That team also includes the sons of Simpson's two bosses – Martin Chancellor Dr. Keith Carver and athletics director Kurt McGuffin – in sophomore Britton Carver and senior Bryce McGuffin.
“It is pretty cool, and I'm very proud for him and his team, but it is bittersweet,” Simpson said. “I've been able to see every game for four years except when we played at Florida a couple years ago.
“If they win, he'll be fine. But if they lose, that's when, as a dad, I'll be really sad I'm not there for him.”
AROUND THE PLAYOFFS
The chalk mostly held serve in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, aside from Martin's “upset” and Southern Illinois' emphatic 22-10 win at South Dakota.
The Salukis got four turnovers from their defense, and a 10-catch, 148-yard, one-touchdown game from star wideout Avante Cox.
After three years rebuilding at his alma mater, Nick Hill has led SIU to consecutive playoff appearances and 21 wins in its past three seasons.
Up next? A trip to powerhouse No. 2 seed North Dakota State.
Elsewhere, Incarnate Word needed overtime to slide past Stephen F. Austin, 35-28, after SFA had tied the game with 14 fourth-quarter points.
Quarterback Cameron Ward was sensational for the Cardinals, as he threw for 328 yards and four scores against zero touchdowns.
Now UIW faces reigning FCS champion and overall No. 1 seed Sam Houston State.
Kennesaw State put an end to Davidson's magical run, 48-22, to set up a showdown with No. 7 national seed and Southern Conference champion ETSU this weekend.
On the opposite side of the bracket, South Dakota State ran roughshod over UC-Davis, 56-24, and Southeastern Louisiana lit up Florida A&M, 38-14. Those teams will travel to face No. 4 seed Sacramento State and No. 3 seed James Madison, respectively.
Eastern Washington, with record-setting, do-everything quarterback Eric Barriere, set up a rematch with perennial Big Sky and national contender Montana. The Eagles were largely in control throughout in a 19-9 win against Northern Iowa.
Barriere accounted for 301 yards of total offense and two touchdowns in the win, giving him 45 touchdowns and almost 5,000 yards' offense on the season.
EWU won the regular-season matchup with Montana, 34-28, when it used a 24-point four quarter to erase a 21-10 deficit.
Montana has gone 6-1 since that loss.
Holy Cross outlasted Sacred Heart, 13-10, to earn a trip to No. 5 Villanova this week.
The Villanova-Holy Cross and Montana-Eastern Washington contests will kick off Friday at 7 p.m. ET and 9 p.m. ET, respectively, while all other playoff games this weekend are scheduled for Saturday.