The bus was pulling out. After the game.
Win or lose, Lindsey Wilson College coach Chris Oliver had predetermined his squad would board its charters and start the 650-mile ride home after Monday night's NAIA National Championship inside Grambling's Eddie G. Robinson Memorial Stadium.
There was one fairly significant variable: Would the bus leave hastily, in the aftermath of defeat, or would it be an even later late-night departure on the heels of celebration?
The answer was supplied well before the game's final horn. Racing ahead 17-7 by halftime and 31-13 through three quarters, the Blue Raiders capped their perfect 11-0 season and their historic run to greatness in emphatic fashion Monday night courtesy a 45-13 win against Northwestern (Iowa).
Add visionary to Lindsey Wilson head coach Chris Oliver's attributes.
“I had planned ahead,” said Oliver, the 2020 AFCA NAIA National Coach of the Year and the only skipper the program has known since it relaunched in 2010. “I said, 'Win, lose or draw, I didn't wanna go back to the hotel.' I was planning on winning, so let's just get our postgame meal and celebrate in the stadium.”
THE JOURNEY TO A TITLE
Technically, the journey home was a little more than a 10-hour ride north through Arkansas, east across Tennessee and, finally, into the school's home in Columbia, Kentucky, where a police escort guided the victors to campus where some family and fans had gathered to celebrate the return.
Yet this path hardly was borne of one game, one season or even one group of players. The roster for the title squad was comprised of players from eight states – as far south as Florida, as well as Midwest representation from Indiana and Ohio – though its nucleus is Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama players.
There are fairly large-market representatives – Birmingham, Alabama; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky – among others.
And there are those from exotic spots such as Normandy – Tennessee. Princeton, Kentucky. Harvest, Alabama.
“We're an institution that serves all sorts of kids, from a background standpoint, from an educational standpoint,” Oliver told FootballScoop. “We have the full gamut of kids on our roster, inner city to absolutely rural. Some who are off the charts academically and we also serve at-risk students. Part of our mission as a college when we go out and recruit, when you talk about football and just that melting pot that is a lot of rosters, if you came and spent any time in our program, this is probably as much of a melting pot as anybody out there. We're mixing Black, white, all different backgrounds. We are that absolutely to a 'T.'
“We're managing a lot of different personalities. I'm really proud of the kids to see them grow together and find that common bond. To see those kids, and I watched some of the ESPN replay on the bus ride home, dancing on the sidelines late in the game, being loose, having fun. To me, that's just kind of the definition of what a lot of places want in college football.”
Oliver envisioned that scenario at Lindsey Wilson, a private school with an undergraduate enrollment hovering around 2,000 students.
So he seized the opportunity to jump-start the Blue Raiders program in 2010; by 2014, they had claimed their first Mid-South Conference crown.
By 2019, they nearly had their first title-game appearance; instead, Marian University stunned its hosts in a game LWC led almost wire-to-wire.
“We won our first conference championship in 2014, and Season 1 was 2010,” Oliver said. “And I think just being realistic, as I look back on it, we weren't probably at a national championship-caliber competitor standpoint for a few more years. It was probably 2017, we got beat in the quarterfinals in a game at home that we could have won, against a really good Southern Oregon team.
“We came back in 2018, missed the playoffs by one spot and had a game cancelled due to a hurricane, and then we played a game on five days' notice vs Presbyterian. But we came back in 2019, had a really good squad, undefeated, made a semifinal run. We knew if things went our way in 2018-19, that going into this year we had a chance.”
The Blue Raiders waited extraordinarily long for this season to unfold. They reported to campus last August, their fall season in limbo as Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear imposed harsh lockdowns statewide that, in many instances, remained far more restrictive than those of the states that house LWC's Mid-South Conference brethren.
Still, the spring season unfolded – across three full months, winter turning into spring – almost without a hitch. No games were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; a handful, however, were reshuffled due to winter storms.
Oliver never focused on the past year or the last time his team had been on a football field in a game, that 34-24 loss to Marian in which the Blue Raiders led at both halftime and the end of the third quarter.
“That's never been a big part of how I've motivated our team,” Oliver said. “Just not how I'm wired as a coach. To me those guys know that result and understand, and if you're a true competitor, you don't need to be reminded of that aspect every day. I say that, don't get me wrong, when you leave the field in the semis, and you have had the lead with 3 minutes left, that is a motivation for everybody.
“Everybody talks about the process; I know it sounds so cliché. But I really do believe we have found a way somehow to find a way to get in that daily fight. For Chip Kelly, it used to be 'Win The Day.' A number of years ago in our program, it became 'Let's Go 1-0 Today.' I think a lot of our guys, if you asked them, and maybe it would be a little tongue-in-cheek, they'd say we went 1-0 11 times this season.”